Jóhann Jóhannsson - Ibm 1401 - a Users Manual
Do computers have the ability to inspire melody. My earliest computer memory is of the Spectrum, where endlessly loading the same game meant you did tend to get used to the sound it made. Judging by the noise it was making I could tell you roughly how much longer it was going to be before I would be playing Jet Pac, or a sudden chirruping often heralded the arrival of a loading screen. However, the music in my head at these moments does not compare to what Jóhann Jóhannsson hears when he ruminates on the IBM 1401, a computer that was introduced to Iceland back in 1964. His father was chief maintenance engineer for this device, a machine that obviously meant so much to its operators that they conducted a form of funeral service to it when it was decommissioned in 1971.
Jóhannsson discovered in his fathers attic old reel to reel recording of the IBM 1401 mainframe, and has used these and recordings of the manual to construct these five pieces of music, utilizing a sixty piece orchestra. The result is a wonderful, rich collection of sounds and songs, ranging from the technically avant-garde to beautiful sweeping strings and melody. It is an album that manages to match the clinical coldness of the computer technician with a human, organic touch. At times the music pushes into sugary melody, sometimes overly dramatic (a criticism aimed by some at early Sigur Ros), but always the sound is evocative and stirring.
The opening piece IBM 1401 Processing Unit starts slowly, unwinding from the hum of hardware as the orchestra swells around you, repetitive but never dull, easing into the more experimental second piece. IBM 1403 Printer is music set to a rather colourless reading from the manual, where various technical terms like "fill up the drive housing" and "adjusting hub nut" sound almost romantic and alluring against the emotive sound-scape.
The quality remains for the rest of the album, culminating in Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black. It is a nostalgic composition, but full of life and colour. Like the whole of the album, artistically it is a huge achievement, brimful of passion and light. It does border on pretension, and will not be for everyone, but if you wish to sample something a little different then this release comes highly recommended.