Review and photos—Johann Johannsson at the Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver, May 11 2010
– review by Alex Bowell/photos by Jason Statler
Last time I looked in at the Biltmore, I was greeted by the fetid odour of record-nerd sweat stench. I witnessed as tattooed punks hung from the rafters; and I ducked and dodged as not-so-empty cans, missiles of piss, lager, or both, flew past me and dropped their contents on unsuspecting audience members. Pretty typical gig really.
So what the hell, Biltmore? Tables? Candles? Mood lighting? A civilized audience that drank wine? Wine! Wine at a gig, well who’d have thought it?
It’s rare that neo-classical composers, such as Iceland’s Johann Johannsson, put on shows. Their works/soundtracks lack that three-minute-ness that most listeners desire, that quick musical fix that grabs you, gives you a high, then is gone. Their work requires concentration, so that you notice their subtle nuances: the way the violin parts flirt with each other, the way that power is built gradually, delicately, and the way the electronic components potter about doing their own thing, see what the classical instruments are up to and respect, rather than overpower them. It is a genre which mixes classical influences with modern computerised sounds and innovative recording techniques. When done badly, it is instantly forgettable, but when carried out by someone of great talent, it can be sublime.
Here I’m talking in particular about the music of Johann Johannsson, who is my personal favourite in this fluid, ever-shifting genre. Johannsson’s works are, for the most part, built around concepts. These might include the failed Brazilian rubber plant Fordlandia established by Henry Ford, or an old IBM computer such as the one used by Johannson’s dad when computers were as big as houses. Concepts of technological change, human endeavour, nostalgia and much more – thrilling works that have given me much pleasure, and which I share with everyone I can.
For Johannsson’s Vancouver show, a string quartet took up the centre of the stage. The team leader himself was withdrawn, positioned to the side, where he gently manipulated sounds via his laptop, and occasionally playing piano parts.
The show itself was remarkably enjoyable. An incredibly polished performance, sonically speaking perfect, and accompanied with beautifully photographed scenes to supplement the images created by the music itself. I won’t go on, I just wanted to say that it was an event, in a way that all those sweaty shouty guitar gigs struggle to be.