Whilst off sick with The Poorliness last week, holed up in bed with the laptop and bored out of my gourd, I read this review for Found Songs by Ólafur Arnalds on Pitchfork. This despite having never heard of him before, tempted in solely by the little synopsis given when you mouse over the reviewed covers on the front page, most likely with the words "chamber" "melancholic" "charming". Intrigued, I went looking online for a taster, eventually finding it (and buying it) on iTunes for a perfectly reasonable £5.53. Beautiful, haunting and, yes, melancholic instrumental music, piano-driven with keening strings and blurred electronica, it's beautiful stuff, like a subtler early A Silver Mt Zion making friends with Gonzales' Solo Piano. You can download all of the tracks from this page to get a taster for it (track 2 is embedded below) before doing the right thing and buying the bounder.
Any other day that would've been the end of it, but with nothing to do but blow my nose, stay hydrated and bemoan my lot in life, I went a-link-following, both on the website for the record label Erased Tapes (from which you can download an entire sampler album for nothing! nowt! zilchy!) and recommendations on the iTunes and Amazon pages for Ólafur Arnalds - you know, Listeners/Customers Also Bought, the innocuous-looking quicksand sucking you into a world of music you never knew existed but, a few 30 second samples later, suddenly becomes essential to your continued existence. So it was that I also ended up getting the 3 track Wintermusik (well worth £3.99, a fine soundtrack for these frosty days) and The Bells, both by Nils Frahm, and Jóhann Jóhannsson's intriguingly titled IBM 1401 A User's Manual (not to mention adding a whole lot more to my Saved For Later list on Emusic). The two Nils Frahm releases complemented Ólafur Arnalds, again being primarily instrumental piano music, closer to classical yet still with a contemporary edge (think Rachels and Yann Tiersen) and I'm really looking forward to listening to them whilst life drawing. But what's that last one there?
Well, according to the record label 4AD (that's a good sign) Jóhann Jóhannsson is an Icelandic composer. His stately, slow-building and hauntingly melodic music has been quietly bewitching listeners for the last few years. And on the website for the album, it describes it thus:
Inspired by a recording of an IBM mainframe computer which Jóhann’s father, Jóhann Gunnarsson, made on a reel-to-reel tape machine more than 30 years ago, the piece was originally written to be performed by a string quartet as the accompaniment to a dance piece by the choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir. For the album version, Jóhann rewrote the entire score, and it was recorded by a sixty-piece string orchestra. He also added a new final section and incorporated electronics alongside those original tape recordings of the singing computer.
Jóhannsson goes into greater detail on how it began here:
In 1964, a computer - the IBM 1401 Data Processing System - arrived in Iceland, one of the very first computers to be imported into the country. The 1401 has been called the "Model T" of the computer industry - the first affordable, mass produced digital business computer . The chief maintenance engineer for this machine was Jóhann Gunnarsson, my father. A keen musician, he learned of an obscure method of making music on this computer - a purpose for which this business machine was not at all designed. The method was simple. The computer's memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves and by programming the memory in a certain way and by placing a radio receiver next to it, melodies could be coaxed out - captured by the receiver as a delicate, melancholy sine-wave tone. When the IBM 1401 was taken out of service in 1971, it wasn't simply thrown away like an old refrigerator, but was given a little farewell ceremony, almost a funeral, when its melodies were played for one last time. This "performance" was documented on tape along with recordings of the sound of the machine in operation.
A concept album centred on an old computer? It could've turned out godawful, but stone me if it's not one of the best things I've heard in yonks. Five tracks. mostly instrumental but for samples from a training tape and an electronic voice speaking "the sun's gone dim and the sky's gone black 'cause I loved you and you didn't love back," it's an incredible piece of work that marries the sounds of an old computer with emotive classical orchestration that sidesteps cheesiness and hits you straight in the heart.
Honestly, I know this must all sound utterly pretentious but give the above a listen. Out of nowhere it's become one of my favourites, particularly Part 1 (the track in the video above). A simple little electronic melody repeats, fading in from nothingness, over and over like a beacon or an old BASIC program:
...that never ever stops, even after all else has gone. Musically it's cinematic, hints of Brian Eno, John Taverner, with the warm bliss of M83, losing yourself in a rich wave of sounds. Thematically it takes me back to Grandaddy's wonderful The Sophtware Slump and its songs of old technology, early Hewlett Packard, science conventions, forgotten prototypes. But ultimately it takes me back to Wall-E - to my ears at least, Part 1 is the sound of Wall-E if he never met Eve, left alone on Earth as circuits gradually corrode away over millennia to nothing, operating until there's nothing left to operate, faithful to programming to the very end, strings swooping in as the battery dies. It feels like an elegy for early days of computers, decades ago, universities and garages and labs exploding with possibilities, magnetic tape, punch cards, diodes, vacuum tubes, worlds to come. Buy it (£3.95 on Amazon MP3), play it, dig out your old BBC Micro and give it a hug.