In 1964, Iceland obtained its first mainframe computer – an IBM 1401. Chief maintenance engineer on the machine was one Jóhann Gunnarsson, a keen musician. During idle hours he found a way of extracting tunes from the machine by manipulating the electromagnetic waves it emitted and recording them through a radio receiver. The machine was scrapped in 1971, but Gunnarsson taped some of the recordings he made and kept them.
Some 35 years later, his son, the experimental musician Jóhann Jóhannsson used those tapes as the basis for his third album, his first for 4AD. The bulk of the CD consists of four tracks, each based on sounds recorded from a different part of the unit and accompanied by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mario Klemens. The result is an album of astonishing warmth and melancholy.
The most obvious melody actually emitted from the machine is used as the motif for the first and strongest track “IBM 1401 Processing Unit”. Its four note, minor key loop gradually fades in accompanied by an orchestral swell redolent of Gavin Bryars’ classic “Jesus Blood”. For a central theme that sounds like a depressed stylophone, the piece is strangely moving. Odder still is the next track “IBM 1403 Printer”. This utilizes a found tape instruction manual. A disembodied London-accented voice impassively reels off maintenance instructions, full of alien concepts to modern computer engineers such as bakelite and valves. The voice has almost a drone-like rhythm of its own, and, wisely, Jóhannsonn never overwhelms it with his musical accompaniment. The tracks “IBM 1402 Card Read Punch” and “IBM 729 Magnetic Tape Unit” are less striking due to the fact that the generated sounds used on those tracks are less interesting. They are still fine examples of quasi-minimalist composition.
The final track, “The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black” (also issued as a single – 4AD BAD2617CD) feels a little tacked on. It’s not part of the main concept, but seems to be included in order to make the CD an acceptable 45 minute album length. Having said that, it is a fine piece of pastoral electronica with a vocoder vocal redolent of early Air.
2006 was an interesting year for 4AD after many years of trading on the company’s past reputation. With Jóhannsson and Scott Walker, the label now has two of the finest and most enquiring composer/musicians working today.