As he crafted the "IBM 1401, A User's Manuel" over the last six years, Johann Johannson learned that creativity can be bred from the most unexpected places. At the core of the album are the primitiveAs he crafted the "IBM 1401, A User's Manuel" over the last six years, Johann Johannson learned that creativity can be bred from the most unexpected places. At the core of the album are the primitive tones "accidentally" generated by the machine behind the title, and by the man behind the machine: Johannsson's father.
Johann Johannsson grew up in Iceland and his dad, Johann Gunnarsson, was the chief maintenance engineer for the IBM 1401, the first mass-produced, consumer computer to hit the island's shores. As a tinkerer and musician, Gunnarsson and other engineers toyed with the computer's programming and memory in order to generate electromagnetic waves that could then be heard as values, or tones, when the machine sits close to a radio receiver. As the computers were phased out, Gunnarsson recorded the machine's last "performance" and stored the tapes in his family's attic. In 2000, he told his son about what he did and Johannsson began entertaining the idea of creating an album around those tapes.
With help from a 60-piece orchestra, various electronics and an audio "user's manual" from the same era, Johannsson finally finished the set this year and released it Oct. 10 via 4AD. The album recently debuted at No. 19 on Billboard's Top Classical Crossover Albums chart.
"When I first heard it, I thought it just had so much emotion, and such a strong story," Johannsson tells Billboard.com. "It was in the way that these engineers [had so] much attachment for this old machine. It resonates with me. It touches on the things I have interest in -- the relationship between man and machines."
The 35-year-old composer is no stranger to this complicated relationship between man and his toys: based in Reykjavik, he has released two other solo endeavors that heavily rely on electronic manipulations and enhancements. In another project, the Apparat Organ Quartet, he and his partners create compositions based on malfunctioning and broken keyboards, synthesizers and, of course, organs.
"The character of these IBM recordings is really strong. They were really grainy and lo-fi, with a lot of noise and distortion. I like to keep the imperfections," he says. "They were so mechanical and very cold. I wanted to make that feeling bigger. That's why I wanted a bigger orchestra."
The emotions Johansson drew from the recordings were augmented with these "big" sonic arrangements, first evoking sadness and melancholy based on a looped five-note stanza from the IBM and then growing more reflective and mysterious as the five-track album lunges on.
Johannsson is hard at work filming visuals for the piece, to be presented as he takes the album on tour in Europe in the coming months. His strong affinity for visuals has also bled over to writing scores for theater, film and dance pieces. In addition, he founded the small label Kitchen Motors, though he's thrilled 4AD picked up "IBM 1401."
"I think that this album was able to sell better because it was released on a bigger label than the other ones [which were both released on British imprint Touch]. It's great to have more resources for something like this to reach a wider public," he says.
And, obviously, it was important for Dad to hear it? "He is so very proud," the artist says. "He is very happy with all this. It's a very personal record."