When I first phoned Jóhann Jóhannsson for our interview, the Icelandic composer wasn't at his current home base in Copenhagen, but stuck in the Madrid airport -- his plane grounded by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. We rescheduled for a few days later, thinking he surely would have found a way home by then. But when I call again, he's only managed to get as far as Berlin.
"It's better to not be too stressed about it," Jóhannsson says lightly, while sipping an espresso in a Prenzlauer Berg café.
At least the eruption seems unlikely to interfere with his U.S. tour, which comes through Pittsburgh on Thu., May 6 (a concert presented by CP contributor Manny Theiner). Those who caught Jóhannsson some months ago, at The Andy Warhol Museum, know to expect a six-piece touring ensemble: a string quartet plus percussion, laptop and keyboards. The music he'll perform, though, will likely be quite different.
"I wrote a lot of material last year," says Jóhannsson. "I like to use the opportunity when I'm touring to try out material and see what works. So some of it will be brand new, never been heard before and not on records."
He's certainly prolific: Since 2002, he's put out six albums, including the acclaimed Fordlândia (2008), combining striking orchestral arrangements with ambient electronics and keys. Jóhannsson's stark, melancholy themes have a cinematic quality that makes perfect sense in light of his extensive résumé of music for film and stage.
His latest release began as a score for the 2008 animated short film "Varmints," by Marc Craste; now expanded, the music has just been released on Type Recordings under the title, And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees.
"The starting point is always the film, whether I get a script or a rough cut," Jóhannsson says. For "Varmints," he had to go on illustrations and early low-resolution footage. "That's what I was working to, so I had to imagine a lot."
There's no lack of imagination over this collection of short, linked musical scenes, starting with the opening theme: a simple piano line, reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto, soon overtaken by rich strings and grainy sounds of birds and thunder, with the final strains giving way to ominous organ.
Some sections, including "The Gift" and "The Escape," are built on drones. "Drone music interests me very much," Jóhannsson says. "I'm also a big fan of stuff like LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad and Phil Niblock -- this kind of extreme minimalism." When combined with Jóhannsson's tremulous strings, it can bring to mind early Scott Walker tunes, like "It's Raining Today."
Sections relating to the "City" -- not a happy place, judging from the "Varmints" trailer -- often sound ominous and deeply melancholy. Another, "The Flat," creates a sense of anticipation and piling-up, setting a spare piano melody over crackly, pitchless tones, like sounds that have been nearly scuffed away, then electronically manipulated. The score's moments of transcendence come in "Rainwater" -- sounding gentle, purifying, miraculous -- and its reprise in the closing theme.
This phase of Jóhannsson's career was preceded by a stint in the Apparat Organ Quartet, which he founded in 1999. He was also a primary member of the Reykjavik-based art collective, Kitchen Motors, whose lifespan is now drawing to a close. "We started in 1999, so it's 10 years of work and events that we're archiving and documenting at the moment," he says. "We decided it was time to basically wrap it up and put a full stop after the name."
Although it comes at a time when many worry about the impact of Iceland's financial collapse on music and arts organizations, Jóhannsson says Kitchen Motors' closing wasn't a result of the crisis. If anything, he says, the collapse has stimulated some aspects of the arts scene.
"There's a lot of activity going on in Iceland at the moment, and people are engaged and really into it," Jóhannsson says. "For me, when the bubble was about to explode, that's when things were not as active and not as interesting, because it was just all about corporate sponsorship and people chasing money."
While more established artists may have taken a hit, "for the grassroots, and people who are not necessarily thinking in terms of career -- who are just more thinking about the work and about doing something interesting -- I think it's a very exciting time."