Jóhann Jóhannsson, Iceberg
Regency Ballroom SF, April 2017
An immaculate reel-to-reel tape deck with two large white reels stands alone on stage. A technician walks in and presses Play. A woman speaking the names of random numbers in German, filtered through old radio technology – I recognize it immediately as a recording from the Conet Project, a collection of encrypted WWII spy radio transmissions. After several minutes, the 7-piece string ensemble and Jóhannsson enter and begin to play, looking like Iceland anthropomorphized, a graceful iceberg of a man.
A repeating bass figure starts to wobble, then disturbingly decompose. Sounds like a technology glitch at first, then slowly becomes intentional, but violins maintain composure. Jóhannsson rewinds the reel; the deck itself is mic’d, so we hear 1/2″ tape flapping against hardware as it unravels. Now the descending staircase of “Flight from the City,” drawn out for live performance. Strobe lights, but gentle, not like disco. I see bombed out Aleppo suburbs, hopelessness, then something trans-dimensional too, an arrival (hope) over the top. Jóhannsson goes into ritual mode, holding the next reel from his stack up to the light, acknowledging its hidden contents, then carefully slides it onto its spindle and threads the tape. More spy voices. A bass tone rises up, frequency perfected to vibrate the human spleen, maintained. Something rhythmic, almost, in wide-open fields. Jóhannsson moves slowly to his piano, something exactly halfway between classical and performance art. The performance is filmic, ethereal, thick, but with plenty of open air. You want to close your eyes, but can’t. Jóhannsson threads another tape.