Jóhann Jóhannsson
IBM 1401: A User's Manual




Jóhann Jóhannsson
 (1969-2018) was an Icelandic Avantgarde producer and arranger of original, classical music. That he is featured on the Ambient section of this website is no mistake. IBM 1401: A User's Manual is a modern masterpiece dedicated to the 60's computer of the same name. What sounds overly nerdy and quite embarrassing has in fact a deeper meaning: Jóhannsson's father Jóhann Gunnarsson worked for IBM as a maintenance engineer and made first contact with their computer of the same name in 1964. "So what?", you might say. Well, as it turns out, the group of engineers led by Gunnarsson recorded production steps and manual-related information on reel. When the computer was discontinued in 1971, his father already was a genius in programming the machine, being able to compose melodies on it, which were again recorded and found decades later by Jóhann Jóhannsson. He then deciced to produce an elegy in order to worship the work of his father and the exciting times that are transported forward to our times. And it is true after all: the excitement in the predominantly objective excurses sparkles through time and space. Jóhannsson came up with a string-laden theme played by a real orchestra.


The theme keeps coming back time and again in each track, it is altered many times and merges with both the spoken word samples and the melody his father composed on the IBM 1401, upon which the string melodies are built. While the album is almost schmaltzy in its presentation of constant melancholy, it's the sunny kind of melancholy that makes Jóhannsson look back with joy, pride and a sorrow eye. Even though this album is definitely soothing and inherits an Ambient nature, it is better and rightly shelved in the Modern Classical genre. The strings of the 60-piece (!) Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague – conducted by Mario Klemens – are lush and mix perfectly with the reduced electronic remainders. If you insist on an electronic nature of yourAmbient music, read no further, as you won't find it on this album. Fans of classical music and heavenly vibrant strings will be very pleased with the results, however. This album has captured my heart, and I will tell you below how it accomplished this.

IBM 1401 Processing Unit is the starting point of Jóhannsson's ode and starts with a very slow fade-in of the aforementioned sustained 5-note melody written by Gunnarsson on the IBM 1401. The melody is very thin and vestigial, but a computer that plays back music was nothing short of breathtaking in the 60's. The rudimentary thinness is a good counterpoint to the lush strings that fade in cautiously, introducing the contrabass first before the glaringly pristine glints of the violins take over, all the while the original melody keeps on playing in the background. It is true that the string melodies are very simple, but what they lack in complexity, Jóhannsson delivery in sheer quantity. The cherubic airiness and the mellow melancholia are underlined by sparkling bursts of mallet instruments. After about 6 minutes the song reaches its peak due to the increase in volume and tone pitch. At the end, the strings fade out again, with the computer melody remaining.


IBM 1403 Printer follows next and starts with the single, now well-known sustained vibraphone beat while whisper quiet pink noises and reel fragments can be heard. It is only after 80 seconds that another element is added, the reverberated voice of Jóhann Gunnarsson himself who explains the various peculiarities and features of the computer. After 3 and a half minutes, fragile strings are added that play in the background and start to pulsate a minute later, slowly working their way to the highpoint. The melody gets higher and more festive. The pulsating backing strings grow louder until they merge with the main melody. Terrifically flittering bells and vibraphone notes can be heard next to a lofty synth string. After 7 and a half minutes, the string ensemble pauses, while Gunnarsson is lecturing about power supplies. The mood gets slightly eerie at the end due to the addition of clichéd science fiction computer noises.

IBM 1402 Card-Read Punch is next, and the strings appear immediately. The spoken voice samples are twisted and pitched and moved to the background, while the strings are more melancholic than before. Angelic synth strings are added and the melody shifts to a more joyful and majestic style. The strings are extremely loud and corpulent, making this the centerpiece of the album, as Jóhannsson uses all players of the orchestra in order to wash the listener away in beautiful string soundscapes. Everytime when the listener thinks that the high point is reached, the string ensemble surprises with incisive or even louder styles of play. This song ends quite gloomy as well, with an electronic, machine-like drone sound and screeching rat-like noises and fragile crackles. This mood shift is in stark contrast to the vibrant colors before it.


IBM 729 II Magnetic Tape merges with this dark surrounding, and the strings play the theme more melancholic than ever before while the haunting voice of Erna Ómarsdóttir is featured time and again, adding a human but frosty element to the song, for her howlings seem to transport despair and pain. The final part is called The Sun's Gone Dim And The Sky's Turned Black which presents a heartbreakingly dusky atmosphere with a surprising peculiarity: a poem by Dorothy Parker read by Jóhannsson. His voice is vocoded and sounds robotic and computer-like. Fortunately, the song brightens up a bit with a shift to a less heavy melancholy. Vibraphone sparkles and Ómarsdóttir's elegiac but also optimistic singing illuminates the dark atmosphere. The brightness increases tremendously once ankther shift takes place. After a short pause, the formerly slowly meandering and dreamy strings play quicker and start to pulsate again, marking the start of the final section. This is a viable change of pace, for the album ends on a very positive note, crushing the heaviness and melancholy and thus the whole overarching atmosphere of the album while retaining the majesty.

This album is an absolute gift – it's not free, but its existence is miraculous – from Jóhannsson to the listener that is very intimate, but allows us to experience a cold, electronic device on several levels: via super-rare and private samples of instructions and spoken manuals, glorious strings plus the haunting vocals by Erna Ómarsdóttir, and on an invisible, subjective level. If you got to know and use this computer, your interest or curiosity in Jóhannsson's project is naturally higher than that of people who know next to nothing about computers in general. Whatever your opinion of the matter is, the album is incredibly warm most of the time, with stark gloominess and cold whisperings and crackles at the end of few of the tracks. That's an objective assertion. But even subjectively, the overarching concept, the sparkling brightness and glowing heat are perceptible.


The album shows the human side of technical projects and tells a story about a son's interest in his father's project that is light years away from pop standards and clichéd songs about father-son-relationships. Spare me with these false fragments of social warmth, for Jóhannsson's approach is much more heart-warming and truly unique! While nature is often depicted in electronic Ambient music, we have the opposite case here with an electronic device whose power is aurally painted with natural instruments. It is true that the album can be considered as overly elegious and heart-warming, but this and the dark counterparts could also be interpreted as its strengths. That an arranger realizes an elegy of a computer with the help of a 60-piece string orchestra seems like a bizarre joke, but believe me, the music is far less funny and all the more enchanting and encapsulating. Since the melodies are very lush and easy on the ear – without crossing the line of the Easy Listenin genre! –, this is also a pitch-perfect album to novices of Modern Classical music who prefer a more streamlined and harmonious approach over eclectic cacophonies. Recommended for the seeming obscurity that morphs into an unexpected, awe-inspiring bliss from the first note onwards.


Ambient Review 045: Jóhann Jóhannsson – IBM 1401: A User's Manual (2006). Originally published on Mar. 7, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.