Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sublime songs

Jóhann Jóhannsson is thinking like an architect again. The Denmark-based multi-instrumentalist, producer, and composer pauses over the phone and contemplates the acoustics of the Great American Music Hall as if he were auditioning a new member of his touring ensemble. "I am very interested in the way music occupies a space," he says. "Space is as important to my music as another instrument." He adds that he wrote certain albums with specific venues in mind, and the rooms he performs in are very influential in his songwriting.

While Jóhannsson's music often gets placed under an umbrella of postclassical, electronica, and experimental genres, he's a difficult artist to classify. The breadth of his interests and improvisations with sound explode like the colors of a Jackson Pollock painting. While there is a method to his approach, he leaves room for natural and spontaneous expressions throughout his compositions. You could argue that a similar ideology has followed the Icelandic musician from his days playing trombone in elementary school through his years making "noise" in garages with punk rock groups as a teenager.

Jóhannsson is quick to note that his path has been anything but a straight shot. "I came back to classical music when I started working in the theaters of Iceland," he explains. "My first album, Englabörn, was a product of that." He laughs and adds, "I have made random stops here and there along all of these different avenues."

Composing for the arts.
Composing for the arts.

Location Info


Great American Music Hall

859 O'Farrell
San Francisco, CA 94109

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin


Jóhann Jóhannsson performs Friday, May 14, at the Great American Music Hall. 9 p.m., $21; 885-0750 or www.gamh.com.

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Jóhannsson's work has drawn from a variety of media over the past eight years. He has scored dozens of plays, documentaries, feature films, dance recitals, and art installations, besides releasing seven solo albums. His most recent collection of songs, And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees, began in a collaborative fashion, as an accompaniment to the London-based illustrator Marc Craste's animated film, Varmints. He says he takes inspiration from visual artists because songwriting is such a solitary act. "Music, for me, is always in relation to something else," he says. "There is always a narrative and an extra dimension."

In this regard, Jóhannsson uses concert halls or cathedrals to build a portrait of sound. Arrangements swell and sway in both careful and volatile measures. And while And in the Endless Pause was inspired by a graphic novel, the album needs no visual reference points to convey the subtle warmth in its ambient electronic music.

During the course of our interview, Jóhannsson mentions he will be working with the American director Bill Morrison for a new project, The Miners' Hymns. He also delves into his research on the Industrial Revolution, and discusses the possibilities of working with untrained musicians. The conversation, like his work, twists and turns through different ideas, yet is held together by a singular thread regarding music's potential to speak to different audiences. It's anyone's guess as to where Jóhannsson's path will take him in the future, as he continues to reinterpret the everyday spaces that surround him.

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