Reviews of Icelandic music inevitably say the lush instrumental grandeur evokes the island's environment: twenty-four-hour sunsets, months of perpetual darkness and intense volcanic activity. Critics continuously represent, often patronizingly, Icelandic musicians' subconscious attempts to portray and channel the wonder caused by the alien beauty of their homeland.
Johann Johannsson's IBM 1401: A User's Manual suggests a less primal type of mankind's limited capacity to understand the incomprehensible: the implications of technology. Playing historian, Johannsson examines a moment in the past to wrestle with broader themes as they shape the present. The title character is the hulking IBM 1401, the first computer in Iceland, for which Johannsson's father was an engineer when it arrived in 1964. He soon realized that the 1401's whirring memory released electromagnetic waves that when programmed in a certain way would hum out programmable melodies in an eerily humanoid sine-wave tone.
Johannsson sees this not only as the birth of Icelandic electronic music, but also as a disturbing and provocative interaction between man and machine, art and technology, human progress and technological growth. By looking at the uncertainty, respect and admiration we had for computers in their naissance, Johannsson implicitly questions where that's gotten us today.
But is the music any good? For better or worse, it's impossible to separate the two. The album is one extended composition, separated into five tracks and performed using thirty-five-year-old samples from the computer (both its mechanical noises and the mechanized melodies its programmers composed), a large string orchestra, Hammond keyboards, percussion and random electronic sounds. Each track, named after a different component of the titular computer aside from the closer, "The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black," comprises a variation on the central concept.
"Part II: IBM 1403 Printer" features the audio instruction guide for operating the unit, a disembodied monotone IBM engineer offering maintenance and repair advice with the flat condescending affect of an omniscient visionary bored by his own wisdom. It's unsettling and vacant, with a deep outer-space solitude until the plaintive, comforting repeated string lines begin to swell. Other tracks, such as "Part I: IBM 1401 Operating Unit" and "Part III: IBM 1402 Card Read-Punch," center on more-conventional string lines, which ground the eerie space tones of the machine that trickle around the background.
IBM 1401: A User's Manual is uncommonly beautiful and haunting, merging the conceptual philosophy of sound art with the emotional complexity of minimalist classical music. While Johannsson's compositions don't quite rise high enough to stand alone aside from the heady concept, the piece is admirably touching and thought-provoking. Considering the banal cultural we face in today's digital age, a little contemplation about our relationship with culture and technology might do us all some good.