Before I received The Miners' Hymns, the new album by the Icelandic musician, composer and producer Jˇhann Jˇhannsson, I had never heard of him. While looking for information I found out that he was born in 1969 and co-founder of Kitchen Motors in ReykjavÝk, an art organization, think tank and record label specialized in initiating collaborations, promoting concerts, exhibitions, performances, chamber operas, producing films, books and radio shows based on the ideals of experimentation, collaboration and the search for new art forms. In 1999 Jˇhannsson founded the Apparat Organ Quartet and played on various European festivals. He also produced and wrote music for artists as diverse as Marc Almond, Barry Adamson, Pan Sonic, The Hafler Trio, Magga Stina and many others. He has written music for theatre, documentaries and soundtracks for several films. Jˇhann Jˇhannsson is also a member of the Icelandic electronic supergroup Evil Madness.
His latest album The Miners' Hymns is his eighth release after Englab÷rn (2002), Virulegu Forsetar (2004), DÝs (2004), IBM 1401, A User's Manual (2006), Englab÷rn (2007), FordlÔndia (2008) and In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees (2009). The Miners' Hymns was originally presented as a two-night live performance at Durham Cathedral in July 2010. The album is also the result of a collaboration with the highly regarded American experimental film maker Bill Morrison. Later on he used the music in a soundtrack for a movie with the same name that will be released on DVD as well.
The project The Miners' Hymns was initially commissioned for Durham County Council's Brass 'Durham International Festival'. It incorporated the Durham Miners' Gala into a programme celebrating the culture of mining and the strong regional tradition of brass bands. This was created by BFI, BBC and from other archive footage and produced by the British arts organization. The film celebrates social, cultural, and political aspects of the extinct industry and the strong regional tradition of colliery brass bands. Focusing on the Durham coalfield in the North East of the UK, the film is structured around a series of activities including the terrible hardship of pit work, the role of trade unions in organizing and fighting for worker's rights, and the pitched battles with police during the 1984-strike as Thatcher's government sounded the knell for the industry. The film also serves as a kind of requiem for a disappearing industry, but also a celebration of the culture, life and struggle of coal miners. The titles of the individual sections of the soundtrack are slogans taken from the trade union banners that are an iconic part of the Miners' Gala.
Jˇhannsson went back to Durham Cathedral to record the score for The Miners' Hymns. He spent two days recording in the cathedral with conductor Guni Franzson, a sixteen- piece brass band, an organist and some percussionists. You might say that these two days have been spent very well since the music on the six tracks sound very impressive, most certainly if you like music tending towards classical music. Don't expect any bombastic or aggressive passages on this album. All tracks are very mellow with hardly and change of pace. In spite of that the music certainly has some dynamic moments, that is, if you love orchestral music. I think people who fancy progressive acts as The Enid or Karda Estra will find some interesting moments on this release. However, the instrumental music also has some similarities with the minimal music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. The musical style on The Miners' Hymns lends itself perfectly for a film score as well, especially when the movie contains a sad story. I noticed this when I watched a documentary on TV called 'The top-10 of most evil people of the 20th century' and another one about the Holocaust. I switched off the sound of my TV and the music fitted perfectly to the sad images on TV. This proves that Jˇhannsson not only composed music suitable for the score of The Miners' Hymns, but also for other movies and documentaries.
I'm very much aware that many readers of Background Magazine are not into this kind of music. Yet the music delivered on this release can be regarded as a great work of art composed by a musician who can be compared to the great classical composers of the past. Therefore this album is highly recommended to people who fancy classical music or the music of progressive rock bands like Karda Estra and The Enid.
*** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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