IBM 1401, A USER'S MANUAL
Iceland! Just thinking of the place elicits mental images aplenty. Volcanic activity, steaming natural hot springs, wide-open rocky expanses, massive glaciers, awe-inspiring scenery, and beautiful people with a penchant for believing in fairies and elves certainly come to mind.
I had a chance to pay Iceland a visit during the Christmas of 2007, and I can confirm that all these mental images are correct. But here on this sub-Arctic island, there is a greater window into what makes the island nation tick; and that is the music that Iceland generates.
To take an atmospheric and eccentric musical voyage to the lava fields, geysers, waterfalls, and glaciers of this beautiful and majestic world takes just a listen to a singular Icelandic composition.
Showcasing a pristine minimalist approach that sounds as if it was made deep beneath the surface of the Earth – perhaps below the Eyjafjallajökull volcano itself – is Reykjavík-based composer and musician Jóhann Jóhannsson’s love letter to an outdated piece of computing machinery.
Jóhann Jóhannsson – IBM 1401, A User’s Manual. (2006, 4AD)
Iceland had a love affair with a machine; namely the IBM 1401, the first affordable, mass-produced digital business computer available on the island – imported for the first time in 1964. Its heyday lasted for seven years, until it was put out to pasture in 1971.
The chief maintenance officer of the machine, one Jóhann Gunnarsson, figured out an intriguing and novel way to make musical sounds with the IBM 1401: placing a radio receiver next to it and programming the memory of the processing unit such that the electromagnetic waves emitted from the computer could be captured by the receiver.
Iceland mourned the machine’s passing in 1971. They even held a funeral for it, playing the melancholic sine-wave sounds one last time as they threw the proverbial soil on top of the discontinued device. The ghostly notes were captured on tape, alongside the noises it made during operation.
Fast-forward 35 years. Gunnarsson’s son, Jóhann Jóhannsson, listened to the tapes of the IBM 1401’s musical notes and decided to write a five-part symphonic piece that would encompass and utilize these sounds – and, in doing so, complement them with the feel and spirit of Iceland itself.
Imagine a flurry of pristine snowflakes washing over you, with the crackle of ice crunching underfoot. A barren snow-flocked landscape, all black volcanic rock covered with ice and snow. Volcanoes lurk on the horizon, shaped like Stepford tits, plumes of steam pouring like smoke from unseen fissures in the crust of the Earth. Timeless.
Jóhannsson brings these images to mind as he gently plays a Hammond B3 organ and elicits forth a dynamic spectrum of sound that seems almost as if it were recorded underwater. He is ably accompanied by a highly skilled and emotive string quartet, the soaring notes they provide to his soundscape creating a lush backdrop of singular grace and beauty.
Add to this the IBM 1401’s peculiar drones and rattles and the occasional disembodied British voice intoning over the ominous and earthy music, instructing the listener on the basics of computer operation and maintenance, and what one has is a window into another place, another time – and the feeling is that of being transported to a mythical hinterland where humanity, nature, and technology meet.
Whether the notes were pulled from the 1401 Central Processing Unit, the 1403 Printer, the 1402 Card-Read Punch, or the 729 II Magnetic Tape Unit, the composition as a whole still feels as if it had come from fissures in the Earth. A pebble tumbles down the incline of a mountainous glacier and plunks into an icy pool of water – the ripples that emanate outwards in concentric rings splash imperceptibly on a distant shore, whilst the strings occupying the wake soar like luminescent birds.
Reminiscent of a magical cloudless evening staring at the Moon, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s starkly gorgeous IBM 1401, A User’s Manual – in my opinion – encapsulates perfectly the feel and the essence of standing on the outskirts of Reykjavík in the dead of winter, where the sky meets the land and civilization comes into contact with the soul of the Earth Herself.
But don't take my word for it! Check out this delightfully enigmatic short film for Jóhannsson's "IBM 1401, A User's Manual - Part 1".