While Twitter-grieving last Saturday evening after learning of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s shocking and untimely death, one comment I made in praise of his music was “It’s so emotionally powerful without being melodramatic”, because melodrama is bad.
Jóhann’s masterpieces, which to list in full would require you only to print out his discography, dug deeply into raw human feeling but were always infused with an elevating dignity, and that combination meant transcendence.
So it strikes me as ironic that my response to his death is so melodramatic. I’m actually grieving. I feel it in my stomach and in the back of my throat two days later, and when John Kelly opened a heartfelt and cathartic and appropriately communal Mystery Train tribute with ‘The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World’, well, as ever, I was glad that my fellow passengers on the Luas pay attention mostly to themselves.
It occurred to me soon after hearing the news of his death that Jóhann’s music was uniquely qualified to soundtrack the mourning of Jóhann, not just because it is natural to wallow a little in the work when an artist is gone, but because almost no other music has the capacity to hold within it such vast sadness as his death evoked, and then I thought: “Vast sadness?”
My mind keeps describing the experience with words like “grief”, “devastated” and “stunned”, but I didn’t know him, and I’m not that easily devastated. I’m aware that we all die and bad things happen every day.
But you feel what you feel.
One thing upsetting about Jóhann’s death is just how well he was doing. Damn it! Obscure avant-garde boffin one minute, albums depicting industrial decay through the medium of obsolete IBM instruction manuals – I mean really – then five minutes later he’s Oscar-nominated, smuggling elegy and elegance into the mass mainstream like some post-classical Elliott Smith. Except unlike Elliott, Jóhann really seemed to fit in that world. He did well and he remained feted. (I don’t understand the Blade Runner difficulties and I don’t know if they signified that anything was changing for him).
I haven’t given Jóhann’s soundtrack work as much time as I have given the 4AD albums, Miners’ Hymns, Dis, Englaborn and Orphée, but they were pristine pieces of work and along with Clint Mansell he was one of very few composers whose presence on a film would make you sit and watch it. And he was just starting. You imagined him playing the RHK in forty years for one more last show ever like Ennio Morricone.
Or you imagined him moving away, and emerging as the next Gorecki. He learned a lot from Gorecki and the sacred minimalists – see Fordlandia – and he was capable of music every bit as simultaneously exalting and humbling as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Somehow, and most likely inaccurately and unfairly, I pictured the soundtrack work as an aside. I kind of saw him winning all the awards and leaving it all behind, back to hide out in Berlin to gestate the next sacred minimalist masterpiece. I mean why wouldn’t you? What’s so great about cocktails in Hollywood with Amy Adams?
My friend Alan Reilly, who introduced me to Jóhann in the form of IBM 1401 in 2007, told me tonight that out of all the recent deaths of musicians the death of Jóhann has affected him most “and it is all because of the music”. Not because of anything personal, he said, or nostalgia, or where we were when we heard this or that song: “I only relate to his music”.
John Kelly said that he was glad that Jóhann’s music was around 11 or 12 years ago when he was starting to work his way into the daunting expanse of classical music because it was a way in, and because he secretly liked Jóhann’s stuff more than many of the established oeuvres. He said everything Jóhann recorded was great. John sounded so appreciative and so fond of Jóhann and so bloody sad as he eulogised him.
I quote Alan and John because they took the words out of my mouth.
I owe Jóhann so much. I had listened to a lot of music by 2007 but I knew very little about the language of classical or even purely instrumental music. I needed words! I needed literal-ness. That changed with the wide spaces and wordless ache of IBM 1401. It changed with the immense heart-lifting melancholic splendour of his ‘Passacaglia’.
Mumblin’ Deaf Ro said on Saturday that there was a real sweet spot in Jóhann’s music between melancholy and hopefulness. I thought he was right, and I also thought that in Jóhann’s music the hopefulness often is the melancholy. Sometimes to hope is to set yourself up for sadness, and hopeful music may reflect that; but you still hope.
Johann made music that I could feel really deeply without having to think or understand it and it was only when I heard him – though I have to nod here to Caoimhín – that I learned how to have this kind of mysterious experience. I realised that I could – indeed had to – bring my own life to the music and have a dialogue with it, rather than ask the music to provide its own protagonist. I began to learn at 33 that the music I wanted to hear was music that was not finished until the listener finished it: it was by design a partly painted canvas, and you had to bring your own brush.
Maybe there is nothing surprising about the force of the grief that I am feeling tonight and, Twitter and Mystery Train suggest, plenty of people are feeling. It’s only surprising until you pay a little bit of attention. We are going to feel this way because Jóhann’s music is such a powerful force for good in our lives and we loved him for that. His music taught us and it nurtured us and it will keep doing those things. That means that Jóhann Jóhannsson was a powerful force for good in our lives, and he still is, and we salute him, and we miss him, because it turns out you can miss someone you never knew.