Jóhann Jóhannsson The Miners’ Hymns Review

Soundtrack. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

A gorgeous brass-based requiem for northeast England’s former mining community.

Spencer Grady 2011

In his book, London Under, Peter Ackroyd notes that the world beneath our feet can "move the imagination to awe and to horror". But, equally, it’s a locus for prodigious triumph and catastrophic ruin, as this collaboration between Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and American filmmaker Bill Morrison unequivocally shows.

Taking the ill-fated mining community of Durham in northeast England as their subject, the pair has crafted a brooding, dark tribute focused on the appalling hardships of pit labour and the undeniable salience of the trade union movement in times of political cataclysm. Morrison deploys archival footage of the 1984 strike and the attendant running pitch battles with police alongside more genteel moments – charting the remarkable escalation of the prosaic towards the historic. Yet, despite the miner’s defiance, the eventual death knell of the industry had been sounded by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and the flow of a community’s economic lifeblood had been staunched. In this light, The Miners’ Hymns becomes something of a fighters’ lament.

As Morrison’s arresting imagery filters through, the only sounds heard are those provided by Jóhannsson’s highly emotive score. The potency of the pictures’ powerful message can only be fully comprehended by hearing their audio accompaniment. By returning to the brass arrangements of 2004’s Virðulegu Forsetar, Jóhannsson is referencing both the popularity and symbolic importance of the region’s traditional colliery bands, while evoking Elgar’s distinctive brand of Englishness. But these supremely evocative compositions also percolate in fuggy, swirling miasmas, recalling not only Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes, but also the catalogues of other artists forging ghostly cavernous sonorities below the Earth’s crust, such as Pauline Oliveros with her deep listening cistern operations and Oliver Beer’s explorations of the resonances inherent in Victorian sewers. Here dwells the belly of the pit, the occupational heart of darkness.

While nowhere near as immediate as Jóhannsson’s string-based albums for the 4AD imprint – IBM 1401, A User’s Manual and the sublime Fordlândia – The Miners’ Hymns is far more complex in its use of dynamics while succeeding totally in its evocation of time, place and message. And those still seeking the attention-grabbing symphonies of before will no doubt get a suitable fix from the gloriously drilled The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World, drawing to a rousing end this powerful testament to the plight of traditional labours and our nation’s working class.

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