In the Mines With Jóhann Jóhansson: An Interview
Jóhann Jóhansson, one of today’s most brilliant contemporary classical artists, has returned with yet another masterpiece. This time around, it’s The Miner’s Hymns, a collection of songs to accompany a film that Bill Morrison was making about the mining industry. You can read details about the whole project on Jóhann’s homepage here. But before you do that, check out what he has to say about the album here.
ELM:Did you have any knowledge of or interest in mining before taking on this project? What interested you about mining history while preparing for this record?
JJ:The theme definitely appealed to me. I’ve been interested in the history of the industrial revolution for a while and some of my albums have touched upon related themes relating to technology and industry, for example IBM 1401, a User´s Manual and Fordlandia. Fordlandia also deals with worker’s revolt, so the labour union aspect of the project appealed to me. Otherwise, I didn’t know much about mining before this project, Iceland is a geologically young country and has no coal. I was aware of the unrest in the early 80′s surrounding the miners’ strike.
ELM: I noticed on the press sheet that this was originally presented at Durham Chapel. I remember you recording in a church for Fordlandia as well. Do you have a special affinity for performing in churches?
JJ: The film was first screened with a live performance of the music in Durham Cathedral last July and I recorded the piece there as well a few months later. The Cathedral was always an important part of the project, not least because of its importance in the Miners’ Gala, which is a massive trade union gathering held every year in Durham.
The last part of the film is a procession of brass bands into the Cathedral, with banners flying. It was quite amazing to perform the piece in there, with the decades old images of the church flickering on the screen.
I love the sound of churches, they have an acoustic which appeals to me, so I like to record and perform in them.
ELM: You also mentioned dealing with decay and memory. How would you say that manifests in your music, particularly in this album?
JJ: I´m interested in the idea of decay, in ruins and failed utopias. I love W.G. Sebald’s books, like The Rings of Saturn which deal with personal and collective memory as well as destruction and dislocation – his work is all about the tangents on which unreliable memory takes you. The Miners’ Hymns is a kind of a requiem for a dying industry, as well as a celebration of a culture and a way of life which is, for better or for worse, lost. The film is a kind of collection of fragments of memory, experienced in a quite dreamlike way, rather than as an objective documentary – although the material Bill uses has very utilitarian documentary origins.
ELM: There’s a lot of dissonance in “An Injury to One is The Concern of All.” What does that represent for you?
JJ: This section was written as the descent into the mines. I had this descending theme, which weaves its way throughout the piece. There’s also a lot of organ and low-tuned guitar drones in this piece, which don´t really sound much like guitars. I recorded the electronics and the guitars in the Cathedral as well, I loved the idea of these massive low-pitched distorted chords echoing around these 1000 year old walls.
ELM: What is “There Is No Safe Side But the Side of Truth” about to you?
JJ: This was written for the section of the film which deals with images from the miners’ strikes. I didn’t write it specifically for that scene, it was written as a potential piece for the project, and Bill decided to edit the strike footage to it. Some of the themes were written with specific sections and visual material in mind, others not.
ELM: Is this the first time you’ve collaborated so intimately with a visual artist? Did that collaboration affect your process?
JJ: I´ve written quite a lot of film scores, but this was different in the sense that Bill was reacting to my music as much as I was reacting to his images. So it was a closer collaboration than many of my film scores – not least because there is no other sound in the film than music. My other experience of this kind of collaboration has been working with Magnus Helgason, who has made films which I use as a backdrop to my concerts.
ELM: Do you feel that you touch on political issues by taking on this project? To follow-up with my own interpretation, I feel like you use the past to comment on the present. Where I live (the state of Wisconsin), our governor passed a bill to dismantle labor unions, and there were hundreds of thousands of people protesting. “The Cause of Labour Is the Hope of the World” really spoke to me for that reason. Were you trying to establish a connection between the past and present, or did it just work out that way?
JJ: I think the themes of the film are very relevant to the present. There is labour unrest everywhere, in the U.S., in Europe, and it’s emerging in China as well, the factory of the world. I was very aware of the politics of the themes of the project – the miners’ strike is a still a very sensitive subject in the UK, particularly in the North. So we had to approach it with caution and respect, being outsiders.
ELM: In previous interviews with you I’ve read, you’ve mentioned a lot of
innovative recording techniques. What techniques did you employ for
JJ: The players are recorded live in the church. I also wanted the electronics to exist in the same space as the brass and organ, so I re-recorded them through speakers inside the church.
ELM: On “Miners Hymns”, you use more brass than you have in the past. Tell me about this experience.
JJ: One of the things that appealed to me about the project was the opportunity to work with local brass players – the area has a very long tradition of brass bands, which is intimately connected with the mining communities. Every mining village had a brass band and the players were mostly miners. This was and still is a big part of the culture of the north of England – although the mines have been closed, the brass bands still exist. I played trombone in a brass band when I was in school, and my father played in a brass band as well, so I’ve always had an affinity with this and I love the sound of brass. My second album was a piece called “Virthulegu forsetar”, which is written for a brass ensemble.
ELM: Is there a reason you chose to refer to these songs as “hymns?”
JJ: Doing research for this project, I came across a piece of music called “Gresford” which is commonly nicknamed “The Miners’ Hymn”. It’s a hymn that is well known in the region and often performed by the local brass bands- it’s written by a miner in the memory of the workers who died in a coal mining disaster in the 1930′s in the town of Gresford.
It’s a beautiful piece of music and when I heard it it suddenly unlocked for me a way of approaching this project. I don’t refer to this hymn in any way in the piece, but I did borrow it’s popular nickname for our title.
ELM: The titles of the songs sound like they could be taken directly from
historical sources. Are they?
JJ: The titles are all taken from trade union banners. During the Miners’
Gala, all the brass bands march with a banner. Most of these banners depict scenes from the union’s and the workers’ struggle, and all feature these socialist slogans. I love the poetry of the language in these phrases, they’re quite melodramatic in some ways.
ELM: For those who don’t get to see the dvd or read the booklet, can you tell me more about the whole package?
JJ: We use images from the Miners’ Gala and some stills from the film as well, from the life of the miners. The cover image is a trade union banner. There’s also an essay by David Metcalfe which gives a lot of background for the piece.
ELM: Are you going to continue to present this live?
JJ: Yes, there will be some more screenings of the film with a live performance of the music, the dates are still being scheduled.
ELM: You’ve covered so much ground musically. What haven’t you done that you would like to do?
JJ: An opera! Maybe not conventional opera, but I´d love to do a narrative work on stage with music and vocals.
ELM: In your music, I often notice a strategic use of momentary silence. Is this something you consciously incorporate?
JJ: Yes, I think silence is important, almost as important as sound. I like the spaces between the sounds, they’re almost as important as the sounds themselves. The silence is where the room speaks. The room where a sound happens is as important as the sound itself, and I always take the space where the music will be performed into consideration when writing. The Miners’ Hymns was written to be performed in Durham Cathedral, so the music takes this into account, and I treat the space as an instrument in itself.
ELM: Aside from Morrison, what filmmakers inspire you?
JJ: It’s a long list, but off the top of my head: Tarkovsky, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Philippe Grandrieux, Carl Dreyer, Dario Argento, Michael Haneke, Wong Kar Wai, Robert Bresson, Chris Marker, Antonioni, Herzog.
ELM: My favorite question to ask: who are your favorite writers?
JJ: I love Georges Perec, his Life a User’s Manual is my one of my favourite book[s], as can be seen from the title of one my records. I´m a fan of Robertson Davies and Paul Auster, Thomas Mann, W.G. Sebald, Jonathan Lethem, Philip K. Dick, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Quartet, Olaf Stapledon, Hans Fallada, Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Raymond Queneau.