In the grand scheme of the universe, and even on the lifeline of music composing history, 1964 isn’t that long ago. In terms of computer technology, though, it’s virtually the beginning of time. And so, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s IBM 1403 - A User’s Manual—in which the Icelandic composer combines vintage musical fragments coaxed out of one of the first digital data processing systems by his father in 1971, along with other, new Eno-esque electronic sounds and a 60-piece orchestra—gives you the sense of hearing something truly ancient being married to something very modern and present, and, then, something very futuristic. The album tackles age-old comparisons between man/machine, processed/organic, and new/old. Only here, ironically, the machine happens to be the “old” while Jóhannsson’s more traditional, cinematic orchestrations are the “new.” IBM 1401, which evokes every computer sci-fi film I can think of since 2001: A Space Odyssey, was originally written as a performance piece with choreographer Erna Ómarsdottir, who contributes operatic vocals to “Part 4 - IBM 729 II Magnetic Tape Unit.” The album is less musically varied than Jóhannsson’s previous work, but it’s also more ambitious. In the album’s press notes, Jóhannsson and Ómarsdottir liken machines to neglected children and this is no more apparent than in the moving “Part 2 - IBM 1403 Printer,” where the maintenance of a computer is akin to the birth and nurturing of a child, maintained and cared for to “prolong the life” of “the power supply.” (The narration is supplied by a computer maintenance instruction tape found in Dad’s attic.) In fact, the whole of IBM 1401 evokes the lifespan of a computer: In addition to the four original pieces, a new finale called “The Sun’s Gone Down And The Sky’s Turned Black,” with Jóhannsson’s computerized voice singing lyrics taken from a poem about unrequited love by Dorothy Parker, could very well be the suicide note of a machine helplessly in love with a woman. Some theorists claim humans can simulate anything with a computer, even a soul, and with IBM 1401 - A User’s Manual, Jóhannsson comes chillingly close.
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