IBM 1401, A User’s Manual
ike many, I came to hear of Jóhann Jóhannsson after the release of Virðulegu Forsetar, an album that seemed to epitomize the uptick in interest that contemporary classical music was enjoying at the time. In contrast to the glut of introverted piano miniatures that were flooding the market, though, Virðulegu was a monster. Its sprawling 4-part cycle, based on the repetition of a single refrain, introduced Jóhannsson as a composer with a refreshingly unique approach to his craft—one concerned with abstract ideas such as difference and repetition, space and time, and Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence. IBM 1401, A User's Manual, his third solo project, can be seen as a meditation on more topical empirical phenomena: obsolete technology, artificial life, and man-machine interaction.
The intriguing story which inspired this work involves Jóhannsson’s father, a maintenance engineer in the mid ‘60s for the now defunct IBM 1401 Data Processing System—“the first affordable, mass produced digital business computer” (as Jóhannsson helpfully informs us in the album notes). His father, a keen musician himself, devised a way to extract simple melodies from the computer, in effect, finding a way to coax an unmusical machine to “sing.” When the computer was taken out of service in 1971, rather than just being discarded, it was affectionately given a funeral ceremony of sorts, where its songs were played for a final time and recorded onto a user manual tape that came with the computer. Hearing of this tape from his father, Jóhannsson rediscovered its contents and took them as the basis for IBM.
The album is, by far, Jóhannsson’s most ambitious composition in terms of orchestration. Performed by a 60-strong string orchestra, the ultra-legato strings juxtapose expertly with the automated noises and sounds of the computer. IBM was originally written for string quartet as an accompaniment to a dance piece, which is evident from the structuring of the work. Parts 1- 4, each named after a particular piece of the computer hardware, are linked thematically via a simple four-note motif, transmuted back and forth between computer and strings. The final track, though released as a single prior to the album and not originally part of the work, acts as telling epilogue.
Part 1 sets up the man / machine contrast with the reedy, sine-wave tone of the IBM venting out a terse four-note motif. The computer gradually becomes enveloped by the brooding strings, which languidly swell and build to the strident climax—the theme played by the strings in unison—before fading away to the oblivious voice of the computer, as it started, alone.
It’s parts 3 and 4, though, that see Jóhannsson’s orchestral writing at its most sustained and visceral. The haunting motif of Part 1 is taken up and quietly expanded first by celli, then by the violins, into a seemingly endless melodic line, intensifying and rising before a threatening electronic pedal cuts the rhapsodic mood. The strings regroup, below the orbiting howls of the computer, and with one last climactic swell evaporate into the pulsing bassline static.
The final track “the sun’s gone dim and the sky’s turned black”—adapted from the Dorothy Parker vignette, Two Volume Novel: “The sun's gone dim, and / The moon's turned black / For I loved him, and / He didn't love back”—finds a cyborg-like voice lamenting Parker’s words to an affectingly plaintive tune. Jóhannsson’s premise of the ‘singing computer’ then, becomes actualized—a touchingly humanistic ode to the IBM 1401 and to the object of his father’s affection.
Reviewed by: Paul Teasdale
Reviewed on: 2006-12-06