Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s début Englabörn was originally recorded and released in 2001 as the soundtrack to a theatre play by Hávar Sigurjónsson. Written for a string quartet, keyboard, percussion and electronics, Englabörn is a quiet and soul stirring piece of work which launched the composer’s international career and keeps resonating to this day.

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Englabörn & Variations (2018)
Jóhann Jóhannsson – Englabörn & Variations (2018)

The soundtrack was subsequently revised and restructured to be released as a standalone album in 2002 first on UK’s Touch label and then in 2007 after Jóhann Jóhannsson signed with the 4AD label. When remastering Englabörn for a new release on the Deutsche Grammophon label, the composer invited musician friends and composers he admired to re-interpret and rework all his original compositions. Englabörn and Variations was released on 23 March 2018 last, barely a month and a half after the composer’s untimely death.

Englabörn Remastered

What I really like about it is the harsh contrast of the computer voice and the strings, the alchemy of total opposites

From the outset, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music has always been characterized by a strong narrative element. Englabörn was originally written to support the fictional development of a stage play. The composer followed up his début with sweeping fables like IBM 1401, a User’s Manual or Fordlandia only to progress naturally towards film soundtracks for independent cinema. His music was heard in The Theory of Everything, Sicario or Arrival in recent years.

Haunting and minimalist, the music on Englabörn is entirely based on three descending notes first sung in “Odi et Amo”, a two line epigram in Latin by Roman poet Catullus (84 BC – 54 BC).

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do this.
I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and I am tortured.

Orchestrated as variations for the Eþos string quartet, glockenspiel, solo violin, piano or small ensemble with sparse electronics, the same motif recurs throughout a series of 16 short vignettes. The conflicting evocation of romantic agony in the poem is first expressed through the juxtaposition of a computerized counter-tenor voice with acoustic strings, and then expanded upon with slight variations on fluctuating melancholic and elegiac states.

Englabörn Variations

I have always been fascinated by the texture and artifacts produced by stretching analogue media to its limits […] a small transgression, but one which reveals otherwise unreachable beauty entirely produced by the media itself.

Long-time admirers and fellow travellers like A Winged Victory for the Sullen (“Ég heyrði allt án Þess að hlusta”) or Ryuichi Sakamoto (“Jói & Karen”) suggest majestic reworks, while Icelandic musicians Víkingur Ólafsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir revisit “Englabörn” and “Sálfræðingur Deyr” on solo piano and cello respectively.

Central to Variations are two reworks of “Odi et Amo” by Jóhann Jóhannsson and Berlin-based sound engineer Francesco Donadello who also supervised the entire remastering sessions. Both hint at a where the composer was heading in terms of sound research and analogue tape manipulation in recent months.

The process I used here involved recording myself playing the piece “Odi et Amo” on pipe organ, phrase by phrase at different, gradually decreasing tape speeds, but each time in different ascending transpositions. That produces an effect, when the tape is played back at normal speed, of the music gradually slowing down without changing pitch.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s collaboration with American cellist Clarice Jensen on the first track of her début solo recording For This From That Will Be Filled released in April 2018 last is concerned with the exact same tape manipulation process.

Concluding the Variations section is a poignant reprise of “Odi et Amo” by vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices conducted by Paul Hillier. For the first time, the 2001 eerie and digitized theme is finally restored to its (primordial) human state.