Johann Johannsson - "The Rocket Builder" (Fordlandia)
Most people interested in electronic music probably have their own capsule history of the genre that they carry around in their head. I suspect many versions consider the rise of electronic-music-as-such to come with the deprecation of instrumental virtuosity. From the vantage point of electronic music’s current obsessions, working in the classical idiom - as Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson does in his latest release, Fordlândia - risks seeming regressive or overambitious. (Though, judging from the widespread grumbling about the lack of progress or direction in minimal techno, it’s doubtful that we can pinpoint what those electronic music’s ambitions might be in the first place, or whether such a broad term even has purchase.) Creating something orchestral using a real orchestra can seem a dicey move, especially when the results are as seamless as Fordlândia’s.
Inspired by and named for Henry Ford’s Fitzcarraldo-esque attempt to source natural rubber for his cars directly from a plantation he installed on 10,000 square kilometers of Brazilian land - the experiment ended in revolt, needless to say - the album sounds very much like the soundtrack to an imaginary film. Were the film made, the 14-minute opening track “Fordlândia” would undoubtedly be tapped for the preview: the strings, surging with a stately, gradually morphing melody, convey the sweep of history and the scale of the operation, while cycling guitar and electronic figures gently nudge its bulk toward either melodrama or documentary. If there’s anything here for the listener to get hung up on, it’s the music’s cinematic feel - if you’re not following the plot, Jóhannsson’s tasteful arrangements can come off as strident. If, however, you can spend some quality time in Fordlândia’s lush and - by the standards of made-for-mp3 pop and indie rock production standards - very dynamic sound-world, you’re likely to find a rich set of musical reference points to contrast the album’s narrative suggestiveness. Jóhannsson seems to be drawing heavily on Arvo Pärt’s example for both melody and texture in much the same way as Stars of the Lid do - “melodia (ii)” finds the Icelander on the other end of the block from the intercontinental duo - but with different aims.
If there’s a blueprint for Fordlândia’s filmic sweep, however, it’s definitely Ekkehard Ehler’s “Plays John Cassavetes 2,” which most recently made a welcome appearance in abbreviated form on DJ/rupture’s Uproot mix. In length and tone, “Plays John Cassavetes 2” seems to map directly to “Fordlândia,” the album’s thesis statement, but beyond formal similarities, Ehler’s track and Jóhannsson’s album-length statement both reveal themselves to be concerned with film’s, or more precisely the camera’s consequences. “The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject,” Walter Benjamin wrote in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Though it might be easy to dismiss Jóhannsson’s latest release for conveying intense emotional states without giving the listener ample reason to participate, we shouldn’t let the fact that he’s working in an established formal style prevent us from examining how movies and music both have an uncanny way of presenting banality and everydayness as new zones for adventure. Fordlândia demands and deserves a suspension of routine.