Jóhann Jóhannsson – Fordlandia
November 10, 2008, 4:52 am
Filed under: Releases | Tags: , , ,

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A track-by-track commentary on Fordlândia

The album has a theme, although it’s more loose and open to interpretation than on my last album, IBM 1401, a User’s Manual.

One of the two main threads running through it is this idea of failed utopia, as represented by the “Fordlândia” title – the story of the rubber plantation Henry Ford established in the Amazon in the 1920’s, and his dreams of creating an idealized American town in the middle of the jungle complete with white picket fences, hamburgers and alcohol prohibition. The project – started because of the high price Ford had to pay for the rubber necessary for his cars’ tyres – failed, of course, as the indigenous workers soon rioted against the alien conditions. It reminded me of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, this doomed attempt at taming the heart of darkness. The remains of the town are still there today. The image of the Amazon forest slowly and surely reclaiming the ruins of Fordlândia is the one that gave spark to this album. For the structure and themes of the album I was influenced by the films of Alejandro Jodorowski, Herzog and Kenneth Anger. I was interested in a kind of poetic juxtaposition and an alchemical fusion of themes and ideas, which I feel is similar to the way Anger uses montage as an alchemical technique – as a way of casting a spell. During the making of the album, I also had in mind the Andre Breton quote about convulsive beauty, which he saw in the image of “an abandoned locomotive overgrown by luxurious vegetation”. There is a strong connection to the “IBM 1401” album in terms of both thematic and musical ideas and I see the two albums as belonging to a series of works.

Track 1: Fordlândia
I recorded the track with a 50 piece string orchestra in Prague, after recording it first with my regular band in Iceland, in a faster version similar to how we play the song live. It worked in concert, but failed to come alive when recorded so I decided to drastically change it and re-arrange the piece for a large orchestra. I recorded some pipe organ and the low frequency guitars towards the end in a cavernous church in Drammen, Norway. The ending is a 5 minute long continous ritardando, quite possibly the longest one ever on record, should anyone care…

Track 2. Melodia (i)
I recorded some music a few years ago with the clarinetist Guðni Franzson, not knowing what it could eventually turn into. I gave him a melody and some variations, but it didn’t really develop into a track. Years later I wrote a piece using the same melody, which I’ve played live for 2-3 years now. This evolved into the orchestrated version of Melodia heard on track 10. I remembered Guðni’s variations and decided to use them scattered throughout the album as a kind of lead-in to this main statement of the melody.

Track 3. The Rocket Builder (Io Pan!)
So, doomed, failed utopias form one thematic strand and another one is rocketry. I read the biography of John Whiteside Parsons and was fascinated by this Aleister Crowley disciple and occultist who was also one of the fathers of space travel. In the 1930´s he invented the first truly successful rocket fuel, although he was basically a self-taught maverick, usually at odds with the government institutions in which he worked. He researched rocket fuel for the government during the day and conducted pagan rituals at night, as head of the California chapter of the Ordo Templi Orientis. The image of Parsons chanting Crowley´s “Ode to Pan” during rocket test flights is the inspiration for this track. Parsons died in an explosion in his garage under mysterious circumstances. A friend of mine said “this is an album about people who blew themselves up”, and he has a point. This is played by my Icelandic string quartet, with Matthias Hemstock on percussion, and me playing piano, pipe organ and fuzz bass.

Track 5. Fordlândia – Aerial view
This I recorded with the ensemble I play with live, in a church in Reykjavik. It´s a one take, with no edits, only some tiny string overdubs. The low frequency sounds are Matthias’ bowed cymbals played back slowed down.

Track 6. Melodia (iii)
I recorded an old piano in a rehearsal room in the National Theatre in Reykjavik. I added some multitracked distorted guitars, played ear-splittingly loud, but mixed very low in the track. Partly inspired by seeing Sunn O))) play in a church in Austria.

Track 7. Chimaerica
The pipe organ was played by the very fine organist Guðmundur Sigurðsson and recorded in Langholtskirkja, Reykjavik. I recorded some strings for this piece, but it didn’t quite work in this context, so I decided to process them quite severly. You can still hear an echo of the strings through the digital haze. A chimera is a mythical hybrid animal and also a DNA molecule with elements derived from two or more organisms. Chimaerica is, then, the land of the chimeras.

Track 8. Melodia (iv)
Guðni Franzson’s beautifully plaintive clarinets again here, along with some low pipe organ pedal drones recorded in Norway and string orchestra trills and harmonics recorded in Prague.

Track 9. The Great God Pan is Dead
The sung text comes from a 19th century poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A lament for the death of Pan, the death of the forest god, the death of paganism – supplanted by monotheism bringing with it eventually capitalism and Fordian mass production. The storm recordings are by BJ Nilsen. The choir was recorded in Prague and the organ and strings in Norway.

Track 10. Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device based on Heim’s Quantum Theory)
The next to last track on the album is named after an actual research paper, “Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device based on Heim’s Quantum Theory”, which seriously proposes a method of faster-than-light space travel. Burkhard Heim was a German physicist who dedicated much of his life to developing a method of space travel. He worked as an explosives expert during WWII and he was seriously handicapped in an explosion, leaving him without hands and mostly deaf and blind. He became a recluse and, depsite his serious disability, worked tirelessly for the rest of his life searching for a unified theory of everything, which he thought possible by linking general relativity with quantum theory. His philosophy and ideas have a strong mystical character. His work, despite its considerable eccentricity, is slowly gaining acceptance in the physics community. The string orchestra was recorded in Prague and the percussion in Reykjavik and Tokyo. The percussion track is performed live by Matthias Hemstock with some editing and overdubs.

Track 11. How We Left Fordlândia
So, again, one of the threads running throughout the album is the idea of nature slowly reclaiming territory previously lost to human industry, as in the image of the jungle slowly growing back over the ruins of Fordlândia. Another is this collision of mysticism and rocket science in the work of Parsons and Heim. There is also the image of the God Pan running throughout, the “first god”, the god of forests and the embodiment of paganism. For me the album is like a film with two separare story lines that at first don’t seem to have lot to do with each other, except in a poetic sense.

www.myspace.com/johannjohannsson

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