Jóhann Jóhannsson: The Miners' Hymns

Having produced award-winning film scores for the Icelandic film Dís (2004) and Varmints (2010), Jóhann Jóhannsson is no novice when it comes to soundtrack composing. The Icelandic-born composer's debut album for FatCat's 130701 imprint, The Miners' Hymns, not only represents the latest chapter in that ongoing story but a triumphant shift in focus, with the soundtrack material eschewing strings altogether and emphasizing brass instruments in their place.

Presented as a six-movement composition, the work exudes the character of a requiem, fittingly so given the subject matter involved. In its complete form, The Miners' Hymns is a collaborative work first presented as a live performance at Durham Cathedral in July 2010 that combines Jóhannsson's lyrical score and a film treatment that American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison created using archival BFI and BBC footage. Focusing on the mining community in North East England, the film centers on myriad aspects of the now-extinct industry in conjunction with the tradition of colliery brass bands associated with Britain's mining communities. Jóhannsson's comment about the film, that it serves as a “kind of requiem for a disappearing industry but also a celebration of the culture, life and struggle of coal miners,” could be easily applied to the score too. The Miners' Hymns can be experienced as a stand-alone soundtrack or along with the film, as BFI plans to release the full film as a DVD in June 2011.

It's probably as pure a modern classical work as Jóhannsson has yet produced, as electronics, exploited in this case for their reverberative potential, assume a more subliminal presence within the work (their ghost-like presence is particularly audible in the pauses between the horn declarations in “Freedom From Want and Fear”). Brass instruments (specifically a sixteen-piece brass ensemble comprised of members of the NASUWT Riverside Band), organ (the Durham Cathedral organ played by Robert Houssart), and small-scale orchestral percussion instead become the focal points.

In keeping with its title, “They Being Dead Yet Speaketh” begins peacefully, its organ chords suggestive of communications from the awakening dead, but slowly swells in volume and intensity as the flickering presence of brass instruments appears on the horizon. Growing ever more triumphant in spirit, the piece gives the spotlight to a lone trumpet whose pining declaration receives support from a snare pattern, muted brass accompaniment, and the omnipresent organ, whose chords thread themselves comfortingly throughout the piece. “An Injury To One Is The Concern Of All,” by comparison, is a heavier affair, dominated as it is by crushing chords and percussive detonations that, at certain moments, grow almost violent. Even so, the brass instruments rise above the turbulent fray, suggesting a life-force that refuses to be extinguished. Two shorter settings, “There is No Safe Side but the Side of Truth,” and “Industrial and Provident, We Unite to Assist Each Other,” alternate between moods of resignation, affirmation, stoicism, celebration, and hope. Even sans visuals, “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World” provides an affecting conclusion to the piece, with the muffled horns' defiant and uplifting attack bringing the work to a transcendent close. Here and elsewhere, one can't help but be moved by the music's dignified tone, which honours a way of life now sadly gone.

August 2011