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Poignant Remastered Version of the Late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Debut Album, Englabörn, Along with Additional Album of Reworkings, Variations, Announced Today

For immediate release

Poignant Remastered Version of the Late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Debut Album, Englabörn, Along with Additional Album of Reworkings, Variations, Announced Today

Englabörn & Variations Out March 23


23 February 2018 (Toronto, ON) - During the weeks before his untimely passing on February 9, award-winning Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was closely involved in preparations for the reissue of his debut album, Englabörn. Originally released in 2002, the record has been remastered and a second disc containing re-workings of several tracks have also been assembled. Some were reworked by Jóhannsson himself – including a piano version of the title track performed by fellow Deutsche Grammophon artist Víkingur Ólafsson – while others were created by artist such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and Hildur Guðnadóttir. Following discussions with his family, the release of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englabörn & Variations will proceed to arrive on March 23 via Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Canada, the country’s leading music company.

Jóhannsson was already a familiar face within the Reykjavik music scene when his compatriot Hávar Sigurjónsson approached him to compose for his latest play, Englabörn. Jóhannsson had played in countless guitar bands since the mid-1980s, had collaborated with other like-minded souls, was also the mastermind behind Kitchen Motors, an art collective and record label with an electronic and experimental bent. So widespread were his interests, that in the same year, he released both Englabörn and the debut of his band, Apparat Organ Quartet. The two couldn’t have been more different. While the band performed playful instrumental keyboard pop on refurbished vintage instruments alongside a drummer, Englabörn had a peaceful, graceful intermingling of style, form and content. It was sometimes agonizingly desolate, sometimes gloriously uplifting, but never nothing less than astonishing.

These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without music like Jóhannsson’s. Alongside composers like Max Richter – whose debut, Memoryhouse, had appeared only a few months earlier – Jóhannsson helped blur the lines between classical and electronic music, giving birth inadvertently to a genre now known somewhat disingenuously as ‘new’ or ‘neo-classical’. Over the years that followed, he composed some of the greatest film scores of the contemporary age. Artists such as Ólafur Arnalds and A Winged Victory For The Sullen have joined him in bringing this new, strangely indefinable sound into the mainstream. Back then, however, this delicate mesh of digital and analogue, of traditional and radical, of old and new, was considered exceptional in every sense of the word. Moreover, it displayed everything that would set Jóhannsson’s work apart, even if it took time for the world to recognize how the simplicity of its beauty matched the purity of his premise. But catch up they eventually would.

Englabörn – the album – isn’t the original score to Sigurjónsson’s play. Instead, it blossomed into a free-standing album with its sixteen sublime miniatures steeped in austere melodic elegance and profound melancholy. “The music took on a life of its own,” Jóhannsson recalled during preparations for the reissue. “It wasn’t intended to be my first album as a solo artist. Like a fine example of Taoist serendipity and ‘doing without doing’, this material simply demanded to exist as a work in its own right. And, as someone who embraces chance and letting go, and who tries to listen to what the music I compose wants to be – rather than what I want it to be – I was happy to oblige and spend the time required to make it into its own independent work.”

While at the time, it received some positive international coverage, Englabörn’s seamless blend of classical and electronic instruments remained something of a hidden gem. Slowly, however, word seeped from his homeland, far out in the North Atlantic, to the world beyond. “There weren’t many composers combining classical instruments with digital processing in this way then,” Jóhannsson said, “but people were ready.” That it’s ended up being reissued sixteen years later by Deutsche Grammophon confirms how far the world has now come.

In many ways, “Odi et Amo”, Englabörn’s opening track, represents the album’s essence and contains the seeds of much of Jóhannsson’s later work. It set to music a short poem by the Roman poet Catullus, “Catullus 85”, which encapsulates the complex nature of human relationships, most notably the grain of hate contained within love’s pearl. This conflict – “Odi et Amo” means “I hate and I love” – was also reflected in the way Jóhannsson matched two forms of music-making that had previously stood largely in opposition to one another. Even within the play itself, its contemplative stillness stood in stark contrast to the chilling onstage cruelty.

“I finalized the music,” Jóhannsson commented of the composition, “during that strange and what seemed, for a day or two at least, apocalyptic autumn of 2001. I wanted the music for the violent end scene to be a vocal rendition of a descending harmonic motif that ran like a thread throughout the play. I’d read ‘Catullus 85’ at university and it popped into my mind, as ideas do. I was experimenting with a simple application that allowed you to program the computer to ‘sing’ melodies and words using its speech synthesis capabilities. The result – which involved a lot of work to get the computer to enunciate something vaguely resembling Latin! – had an eerie and disorienting quality, and seemed beautiful, tainted, almost defiled, and uncanny at the same time. All these contrasts and seemingly incongruous juxtapositions are of great interest to me. I like to use uncomplicated ideas that have resonances or layers that reveal themselves by association with certain lyrics, concepts, or other things. The instrumentation – string quartet and computer voice – objectively reflected the contradictions explored in the poem, while the whole seemed to resonate strongly with the play’s themes.”

Revisiting Englabörn offered Jóhannsson the chance to survey fifteen years of artistic and personal development, and the Variations album, he believed, connected his current creative interests to the album that launched his career. The first to rework tracks were Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie – otherwise known as ambient music duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen – and Jóhannsson’s close friend and long-term collaborator, cellist and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. The process gathered further momentum after Jóhannsson remixed “Solari”, a track from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 2017 album, async. The Japanese composer responded in kind by reworking Englabörn’s “Joi & Karen”, and further tracks were contributed by composer Alex Somers, composer and producer Paul Corley, and violinist, orchestrator and composer Viktor Orri Árnason.

“The rest of Variations is really my own work,” Jóhannsson continued, and these new visions range from a solo piano version of the title track, performed by fellow DG artist Víkingur Ólafsson, to an arrangement of “Odi et Amo” for unaccompanied choir interpreted by Theatre of Voices and conducted by Paul Hillier. There are also two further, deceptively simple instrumental takes made by Jóhannsson in collaboration with producer and sound engineer Francesco Donadello. Each reworking, while able to exist independently of its progenitor, provides a distinct twist on the original, simultaneously underlining and enriching the majesty of the material that inspired it.

It no doubt pleased Jóhannsson to see old and new lining up alongside one another with Englabörn & Variations. There’s something especially poignant in how the album that started his solo career has ended up being the one that also caps it. Despite the fact no one envisioned it thus, it represents a suitably serene resolution to the conflict that his music so often addressed – “Odi et Amo”, “Alpha et Omega” ­– as though the circle of life was now complete. Like Catullus before him, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work managed not only to confront life’s most irreconcilable forces, but also to embody them. As he himself said not long before he left us, “Simplicity is hard,” and yet he made it seem so easy. That was never more so than on Englabörn.

By the time Jóhann Jóhannsson left us so horribly prematurely on February 9, 2018, at the age of only 48, sixteen years after Englabörn’s release, he’d already bequeathed the world some of its finest music in years. Since the early 2000s, he’d written and recorded prolifically, leaving behind eight studio albums – one a collaboration with Hildur Guðnadóttir & Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – as well as a wealth of film scores. For these he received countless prizes and nominations, among them were Oscar® and a BAFTA nominated scores for Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario and James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. The latter also won him a 2015 Golden Globe, as well as a Grammy nomination. His score for Arrival, furthermore, earned him BAFTA, Golden Globe and Grammy nominations.