Live review: Jóhann Jóhannsson at The Barbican, 9.12.



When making music using very little, you can do an awful lot. The best music grows, no matter how small or how simple it starts out – in fact, the very top drawer will keep you in wonder for much longer, while it still remains within its own world. If the landscape you create has power, grace and warmth, you will not go far wrong. Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhansson has all of this in spades.

Premiering new work from a selection of projects, the distinguished musician and film composer is a man to watch – recent Oscar nominations for his scores for both Sicario and The Theory of Everything have brought his weighty, diverse use of the orchestra to a far wider audience. At the Barbican, performing a mixture of music including new album Orphée  and tracks from recent films Arrival and Good Things Await, Jóhannsson brought a monstrous spectacle of colossal proportions to life.

Oddly enough, the opening act, a solo lute performance by Dutch minimalist composer Jozef van Wissem, failed to conjure any sort of the hypnotism and depth of material that Jóhannsson is so lauded for. The maddeningly repetitive fingerstyle patterns that comprised van Wissem’s playing felt like being trapped within a small box with no room to manoeuvre, each track imperceptibly similar to the last, and all the while riddled with mistakes.

The scale of the main event didn’t so much dwarf van Wissem’s efforts as it viewed them from atop a skyscraper; Jóhannsson, playing his part from the safety of the keys, surveyed his construction much like a stoic admiral, quietly and calmly overseeing the steady orchestral progression, which often used slowly ascending scales to raise expectation and generate tension.

Indeed, every component involved in the performance contributed toward a fully-grown organism of minimalist, ambient sound. Jóhannsson’s use of electronics brought the real low notes; the tumultuous drone of the organ helped the show plumb new depths of pitch, reverberating uncontrollably in the now shaken Barbican Hall.

The strings, simplistic and diatonic, were all the same warm, strong and undeniably a driving force of the ensemble – once again, the real marvel was the heft of Jóhannsson’s creation. The Britten Sinfonia Voices, spread out and separate along the back, gave an eerily quiet support, providing a shimmering mixture of dispersed polyphony and haunting togetherness. Even when singing alone, their presence was never overstated or fleet of foot.

Onstage, aside from a fabulously flickering light show, the star of the night was the tape machine – each time the spool needed to be changed, Jóhannsson made it a ritual, holding it aloft in painstaking slow motion. Guttural revving guitars and recordings of Cold War radio transmissions added the gift of pure noise, while the music itself revolved around short, steady ostinati that grew with each utterance. By the conclusion, it was like watching a particularly impressive gymnast – you couldn’t imagine anything bigger and bolder, until a moment later, when Jóhannsson would signal in something even more disarming.

What drew people to their feet at the closing chord in loud number and voice, was not merely a show, or a rite, or a slowly growing piece of simple music that compelled at each moment. No. In fact it was all of this: such a landscape of simple music to gorge on this crowd surely had never been treated to before.  

Article image: Jónatan Grétarsson / Facebook