Jóhann Jóhannsson – A User’s ManualChapter 15 – Jóhann Jóhannsson & BJ Nilsen – I Am Here (2014) – English

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Jóhann Jóhannsson has released well over 20 albums over the course of his career. Who knows how much material that could be released posthumously is still gathering dust at this point in time. Kristoffer Cornils and Thaddeus Herrmann regularly review the composer's work—chronologically, album by album. In the 15th episode they discuss "I Am Here" from 2014, the soundtrack Jóhannsson and BJ Nilsen recorded for the movie of the same title, directed by the Danish filmmaker Anders Morgenthaler.

Deutsche Version? Hier klicken/tippen.

A successful businesswoman is missing only one thing to make her almost perfect life truly perfect: a child of her own. But after numerous miscarriages with serious and ultimately life-threatening complications, the dream seems to have come to an end. Maria (Kim Basinger), however, does not want to let go of this dream and travels to the German-Czech border, where sex workers in forced prostitution allegedly sell their children. She is interested. This is the beginning of a thriller that for the most critics is a complete fail. No surprise: for the trafficking of women forced into prostitution plays almost no role in Morgenthaler's film. Instead, the plot revolves almost exclusively around Maria and her desire to have a child, and even this narrative thread remains fuzzy. Abduction, clichés and violence carry the melodramatic film, which in the end neither depicts the characters in a meaningful way, nor the various themes that were envisaged. "I Am Here" is a quote from Maria's unborn child, who of course speaks to her mother.

Thaddi: Finally back on our Jóhannsson mission! With an album that I had really completely forgotten about. I own the vinyl, I just have no idea in which crate it is. I can easily locate all my other Jóhannsson vinyl at all times. Interesting. But as indifferent as the film may be – of course I haven't seen it – I find the music by Jóhann Jóhannsson and BJ Nilsen extremely good, to put it succinctly on record, even if it is of course determined by the almost usual light/dark paradigm of his soundtrack work. Last but not least, this album is also important because after many years Jóhannsson is returning to the Touch label, or to be more precise to Ash International, Touch' sublabel. I'm just trying to imagine this phone call, Jóhannsson getting in touch with Mike Harding, who runs Touch, and offering him this soundtrack for release. "Classic" soundtrack labels were obviously not interested, or the budget simply wasn't there. Maybe the flop was already in the air. So, let's just focus on the music, The bright motifs and themes are just wonderful. Hildur Guðnadóttir plays the cello, the vocals come from Elfa Margrét Ingvadóttir and Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson. This is perfect craftsmanship, which touches me and carries me away despite a certain callousness. I am well versed in melancholy and yet I am floored.

And then there is the dark side. That's where I see BJ Nilsen coming in. He has released numerous great albums on Touch and more recently on Mego as well. His field recordings rattle and press, determine the rhythm and the decelerated pace of this album. They are gripping, offer counterpoints, which are of course no counterpoints at all for Jóhannsson, who is very familiar with sonic grumblings of all sorts as well. When this album was released in December 2014, it was not long before his soundtrack for "Sicario" followed – the milestone of Jóhannsson's dark side. Here, however, the dark side has not yet won. Luke and Darth have not yet sparred. It's a constant game with the extremes: pretty sweet – pretty dark. But the big frequency-induced effects are less in the foreground. It all works best on tracks like "Transparent", in which "both worlds" come together, make out with each other briefly and then are radically torn apart again in the mix. I still don't know why this record was released on Ash International, but for now I'm glad that the music got pressed and released at all. It's also exciting that the golem Universal Music hasn't re-released this album – at least not yet.

Kristoffer: I'm just not going to go into the far too obvious punchline that you can't find a record with the title "I Am Here" and a Google Maps marker on the cover.

Thaddi: Ah well... Welcome to the world of an Apple customer. Please go on!

Kristoffer: Will do! So, first we need to have a more detailed look at the personnel again. Apart from the musicians you have already mentioned, Daniella Strasfogel plays violin and viola, at least according to my copy of this record. Which by the way came out before 2016, yet already apostrophises the EU with a "RIP" in the credits. What the hell was going on there? Either way, it's a little hard for me to talk about the music. As is so often the case with Jóhannsson's soundtrack work, it always seems to hover just above my perception threshold, below which everything then disappears. Which could now be my poetic rephrasing of "goes in one ear and out the other". But it's not quite that simple. I would rather say that we are dealing with a classic soundtrack – with vignettes instead of fully elaborated pieces. That's not a bad thing; Jóhannsson was able to create great things with mere hints. It's just that I don't see or hear as much in it as you do, I think. This is especially true for BJ Nilsen's contribution. Sure, there are field recordings, but that's nothing unusual per se for Jóhannsson albums, this underpinning with additional sound material, with atmosphere – isn't it?

Thaddi: That's right. I just wanted to offer some context, working towards Jóhannsson's biography we'll be writing in 2025!

Kristoffer: And for that reason alone, "I Am Here" is an interesting part of his oeuvre. For the first time ever, there is another name next to his on the cover. But not Hildur Gudnadóttir's, for example, who had been collaborating with him for decades at this point, so to speak, and who had certainly also been involved in the writing process. Why? Do we know?

"It is a renewed repetition of numerous ideas and motifs. But the devil is in the detail, isn't it? I like those ideas."

Thaddi: As far as I'm concerned, I don't. Not yet at least! Maybe it's just two Touch artists joining forces. Two buddies who are in contact more or less regularly and then decide to record an album together. The actual project might even have been secondary. In fact, the field recordings are very much in the background - or very well integrated into the compositional sound design. You are completely right about that. The album is hardly anything more than sound design. It is a renewed repetition of numerous ideas and motifs that – one might think – have long since been sufficiently defined. But the devil is in the detail, isn't it? I like the ideas. They are once again more clearly defined or sway in a slightly different direction. The fact that BJ is a part of that... sure, why not. With Jóhannsson's records I don't really care who does what and why. Despite everything, I sense a slightly different turn, even if it's not really new. That alone is good for Jóhannsson and his music. I'll stick with it. The sweet is sweet, the dark is dark, but not yet completely defined.

„Maybe I get the impression of the ephemeral precisely because this music is so decidedly enigmatic in the most literal sense.“

Kristoffer: Maybe that's how I can make sense of it: As a score, "I Am Here" can be seen as an intermediate step. Away from the already more classically compositional ones, that is, working with orchestral or chamber music instrumentation, such as "And in the Endless Pause there Came the Sound of Bees" or "Copenhagen Dreams". Those albums already take sound into the equation, because sound has always been elementary in Jóhannsson's work – but which did not yet envision both sound and composition as completely integrated with each other. Perhaps I get the impression of the ephemeral precisely because this music is so decidedly enigmatic in the most literal sense. It draws on the images of the film even more than previous commissioned works: I haven't seen the film either, of course, but that's how I imagine it. Since we always namecheck him when we talk about how not to do it: With "I Am Here" Jóhannsson is shaking the inner Hans Zimmer out of himself, and BJ Nilsen is perhaps just helping by giving him a nudge in the direction of abstraction. And then... yes, then came "Sicario" – the Oscar and BAFTA nominations. At that point Jóhannsson had found a new language. And perhaps "I Am Here" represents the attempt to develop and design a new musical grammar for that, which might be too uncomfortable – unusable – for Deutsche Grammophon. That's a compliment: It's not nice and snazzy enough to make money with. It's not. And bang, I've already made my peace with this record! Great.

Thaddi: Voilà! The way you place that album on the Jóhannsson time is very interesting. Preparing for our chat, I did not care about this aspect at all, to be honest. I did not look for references. It may be the fact that neither of us has seen the film and therefore can't really project the music onto the images. Based on what I've read about film, I was expecting a much cheesier score. In that respect, your analysis is quite right: it's comparatively abstract, but still takes catches me – in all shades.

Kristoffer: Not necessarily abstract, rather empty – without highlights, without lowlights. It neither has hooks or hooklines. It's ephemeral, a breath of sound. With the exception of one moment, though. And we have to situate it: We're sitting on my balcony right now, the relentless sun has just hidden behind a few layers of ozone – and we've listened to the finale of this score. It's a bittersweet piece of music, almost chamber music-like in the scoring, where the voices really take over. Very artificial singing, crystal clear, but just like glass about to burst. Beautiful. A little throwback to "Englabörn" really, the human becomes all too human or even superhuman, the Uncanny Valley suddenly gapes open again for miles in front of us after all the little trippy steps towards emotional calibration. That's the one piece that sticks in my head. And I've listened to the record dozens of times. Now I might put that negatively on Jóhannsson as a composer. But as a score producer, he probably does everything right, together with BJ Nilsen of course. He pulls me out, that is, into his world, which is perhaps just that of the film's images. Maybe we should just watch this damn film, however bad as it is. Or maybe "Sicario". There, Jóhannsson gets it completely right, on every conceivable level.

Thaddi: So we can agree on something once more. For me, there is just one track on "Sicario" which stuck with me. It is most certainly not one which carries you away, but we'll talk about that next time. For me, "I Am Here" was actually a new discovery. It fits, it works – as an album and not just as a foil for a film. The record will stay with me. I wouldn't have thought so – and I'm all the more pleased.

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Jóhann Jóhannsson – A User’s ManualChapter 15 – Jóhann Jóhannsson & BJ Nilsen – I Am Here (2014) – Deutsch