- 15 years ago, I got a promo CD from an unknown Icelandic composer called Jóhann Jóhannsson. The cover was an immersive blue, and the music within was an uncanny mix of trembling strings from the Eþos String Quartet and stiff electronic elements, such as the use of AppleTalk to recite a Catullus poem on "Odi Et Amo." As the robotic voice incanted the lines against the evocative score, it elicited a profound sense of sadness and loss. Jóhannsson used this cold voice to strike a balance between the ancient and the futuristic, finding a fault line between humanity and technology that he would continue to mine on later works, from IBM 1401, A User's Manual to Fordlandia. From there, Jóhannsson made the leap to Hollywood film composer, in a few short years garnering awards and accolades for scores for Sicario, The Theory of Everything and Arrival.
With future successes and greater works imminent, Jóhannsson's shocking and sudden passing at the age of 48 makes it all the more bittersweet to have Englabörn reissued as an expanded package. Originally conceived as a set of cues for a play by Hávar Sigurjónsson, Englabörn became a standalone composition. It has all the hallmarks of the film scores that followed: the knack for finding a heart-stirring theme and developing variations, the suggestion of emotional complexity in a handful of notes, being traditional in his sound while also suggesting new possibilities. The opening notes of "Odi Et Amo" still bear a great sadness, a feeling that transfers to the plinking chimes and electronics of "Bað." "Ég Sleppi Þér Aldrei" still feels like a chasmic grief that's at once vertiginous and aching. The mix of tocking percussion, chiming glockenspiel and strings on "Sálfræðingur" is somehow propulsive and pensive at once.
The remixes show Jóhannsson's influence on his contemporaries. Fellow Icelander and one-time Touch labelmate Hildur Guðnadóttir uses her cello and electronics to find the latent growl in "Sálfræðingur Deyr." As A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O'Halloran take the brief "Ég Heyrði Allt Án Þess Að Hlusta" and scale it into something majestic. Theatre Of Voices deliver two notable reworks. They turn "Ég Heyrði Allt Án Þess Að Hlusta" into a chorale, and their version of "Odi Et Amo" gives Englabörn & Variations a heartbreaking finale. Having had "Solari" reimagined by Jóhannsson for his recent Async - Remodels LP, Ryuichi Sakamoto returns the favor on the exquisite "Jói & Karen." Himself a master at creating hybrids of classical composition and electronic ambience, Sakamoto quickly gets to the emotional kernel of the piece while also taking it into deep space. Englabörn & Variations won't be the last reissue of the composer's work, but Jóhannsson clearly had more to give. (In fact, he had been working on this package with Deutsche Grammophon shortly before his death.) What remains is a profound body of work that will continue to resonate.
01. Odi Et Amo
03. Jói & Karen
04. Þetta Gerist Á Bestu Bæjum
06. "Ég Sleppi Þér Aldrei"
07. Sálfræðingur Deyr
09. "Ég Heyrði Allt Án Þess Að Hlusta"
10. Karen Býr Til Engil
11. Englabörn - Tilbrigði
12. "Ég Átti Gráa Æsku"
14. "Ef Ég Hefði Aldrei... "
15. … Eins Og Venjulegt Fólk
16. Odi Et Amo - Bis
17. "Ég Heyrði Allt Án Þess Að Hlusta" (A Winged Victory For The Sullen Rework)
18. Odi Et Amo (Jóhannsson/Donadello Rework)
19. Englabörn (Víkingur Ólafsson Piano Version)
20. Jói & Karen (Ryuichi Sakamoto Rework)
21. Holy Thursdsay ("Ég Heyrði Allt Án Þess Að Hlusta") (Theatre Of Voices Version)
22. Englabörn (Viktor Orri Árnason Rework)
23. Odi Et Amo - Bis (Alex Somers Rework)
24. Sálfræðingur Deyr (Hildur Guðnadóttir Rework)
25. Odi Et Amo - Bis (Jóhannsson/Donadello Rework)
26. … Eins Og Venjulegt Fólk (Paul Corley Rework)
27. Odi Et Amo (Theatre Of Voices Version)