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Jóhann Jóhannsson played Le Poisson Rouge w/ ACME

words by Martin Longley

Jóhann Jóhannsson @ LPR in NYC – June 25, 2009 (Lucas Cometto)
Jóhann Jóhannsson

The Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson makes his US touring debut with a pair of sets at (le) Poisson Rouge (6/25), a club that seems to achieve a feeling of fully-seatedness no matter who’s performing. Potential audiences appear to have faith in its diverse and adventurous bookings. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) open the proceedings with a performance of “String Quartet No. 1″, by Gavin Bryars. This is an appropriate move, as there are parts of the last year’s Fordlandia album where Jóhannsson evokes certain sonic flourishes that are reminiscent of the English composer’s work. The piece establishes a suitably brooding tone for the evening, relishing the very essence of the string formation, but never emerging from this exploratory stasis. The lighting is low, and will remain this way when New Yorkers ACME take to the stage again, to form Jóhannsson’s string extension during his own set.

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Jóhannsson and his sidekick Matthias Hemstock have a pair of tables strewn with electronic detritus, but no laptops are visible. Each of the extended pieces interleave electro-acoustic textures with the real-time string soothings, inhabiting an increasingly popular zone where sampling and splicing is prized for its potential organic qualities, wanting to belong rather than striving to rupture. It’s a perfectly natural move for Jóhannsson to wander over to the traditional piano and dapple out stately phrases whilst Hemstock shakes a ridiculously microscopic and minimalist selection of single-hand percussion devices. This has the effect of making a lone maraca a highly significant tool. The only cheese-attacks come when a comparatively loud vocodered vocal suddenly disrupts the peace, though it’s not clear whether Jóhannsson has the authentic tube secreted under his table whilst he’s ducking his shiny-pated dome down below vision’s horizon.

The audience are frequently afraid to applaud. There are moments where a musical sequence will just wither into inaudibility. It feels wrong to clap here, to sully such a contemplative silence. When a piece finishes with an abrupt statement, then the clapping simply can’t be contained. The crowd are sympathetically hushed throughout. It’s a momentous sonic event when two female arrivals click-clack their heels to the bar. The closing number features a jarring assault of huge bass frequencies: it’s the odd one out, but makes an exciting way to curtail what has been the epitome of mournful inwardness. The audience would probably like an encore, but it seems inappropriate to whoop and cheer. Jóhannsson returns anyway. This is just as much a spiritual ritual as an artistic statement, which may cause some confusion amongst the uninitiated.

What did you think of the show?

Johannson finishes his North American tour June 30th in Minnesota.

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