Jóhann Jóhannsson presents ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ with The Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Jóhann Jóhannsson and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra will present the Iceland premiere of ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ during Airwaves in a special version arranged for the orchestra. The work was collaboratively created in 2010 by Jóhann and American filmmaker Bill Morrison as a kind of “requiem for a lost industry,” specifically that of coal mining in Northern England.
Work on ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ began in the UK, with Jóhann Jóhannsson and Bill Morrison making trips to Durham for research. Looking into film archives and historical records of mining communities, they discovered a culture of brass band music. “The music I connected to the most were the hymns—this 19th century religious music that these brass bands performed a lot,” Jóhann explains. “The title of the piece comes from a hymn composed to commemorate a mining accident in the town of Gresford in the 1930s where hundreds of miners died—the hymn is well known in the region and is commonly called ‘The Miners’ Hymn.’ I think I ended up filtering my own sound and sensibilities through these British influences and coming up with something of my own.”
Unlike the traditional film-scoring process, where the entire film is shot and then music placed on top, Bill showed Jóhann some sample footage to which Jóhann wrote music, and the final version of the film was edited around the already completed score. Jóhann says that it was the human elements of the project that interested him most, as he wanted to make a sensitive tribute to local culture and history. Thus he decided on, as he puts it, “a kind of requiem for a lost industry.”
“It was a challenge for both of us, especially as foreigners, to work with a foreign culture where the wounds are still quite raw,” Jóhann says. “Coal mining was an important industry in the region for 200 years, and over a few years in the 1980s it was more or less shut down with significant consequences for the community. Many of those communities have still not recovered from the loss. In the North of England, there was a brass band in every village, manned by coal miners. The brass bands were the soundtrack to the coal miners’ lives, from cradle to grave. Even after the industry went extinct, the brass bands remained and are now manned by the sons and daughters of coal miners.”
In the four years since its inception, “The Miners’ Hymns” has been performed around the world, but never before in Iceland. The piece was originally written for brass band, pipe organ, and electronics, harkening back to the traditions of the coal miners and their families playing in village brass bands. For the Iceland Symphony version during Airwaves, the brass players in the orchestra remain a feature of the work, while the organ part has been re-envisioned for the strings and woodwinds. The players will be rehearsing the piece in the weeks leading up to the premiere, timing their playing to the film.
“Hymns” contains all of the signature elements we have come to recognize in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s works: long buildups, gorgeous sustained chords, repeating melodic motives, and percussion, often electronically generated. Textures can move in waves from ambient to the intensity of a runaway train. These compositional qualities have led to the British press to call ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ a kind of “Icelandic Minimalism.” Jóhann doesn’t shy away from “the ‘m-word,’” but finds it a bit tiring; he prefers to leave the labels to the critics and let his work speak for itself.
Minimalist or not, the musical style of the piece is sure to evoke memories that move many a listener, whether or not the audiences have lived in areas connected to the coal industry. “I hope that the audience will allow themselves to be immersed in the film and the music and that it gives people space to reflect and contemplate and hopefully be transported,” Jóhann says. “We’ve been touring with it in Europe and the US and I’ve been surprised and pleased by how well people respond to the piece… I think the piece has universal themes of work, history, struggle and commemoration that apply everywhere.”
‘The Miners’ Hymns’
November 7 at 20:00
Harpa’s Eldborg Hall
Tickets can be purchased here
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Posted November 4, 2014