A Soundtrack To An Imaginary Film: Jóhann Jóhannsson's 'Orphée'

Nov 3, 2016

Droning organ sounds, piano fragments, rainy-day strings, a choir, and even the shortwave sound of mysterious “numbers” stations come together on Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s debut release on the classically oriented Deutsche Grammophon label.

The album, “Orphée,” is loosely tied to the Orpheus myth, or rather the Roman poet Ovid’s telling of it within the “Metamorphosis.” Jóhannsson writes in the liner notes that the poem’s themes of death and rebirth seemed applicable to the head space he was in back in 2009 when he began writing the music.

What started as a larger work was transformed into fifteen miniatures; only two of the tracks on this disc are over four minutes long. The titles of the pieces refer to science fiction literature, like “The Drowned World,” or architecture, such as “The Radiant City,” an idea of Le Corbusier’s that would plot a utopian living ideal around a central city spine. Other titles go as far back as beautiful Biblical poetry from the Song of Solomon, or draw from thinkers and authors like Thoreau.

There’s something here about love, order, chaos and loss… but the music itself seems fragmentary, as if a collection of soundtrack cues awaiting a film, or perhaps a ballet (see below for a combination of the two). Taken as a whole work, it doesn’t coalesce. But as individual cuts, some of Jóhannsson’s melodies are really lovely.

Recommended tracks: “The Radiant City,” “Orphic Hymn.”