Icelandic composer/arranger/electronics-manipulator Jóhann Jóhannson’s first release for FatCat, The Miners’ Hymns, is the score to an exciting collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison (best known for his masterpiece Decasia, heralded by the Village Voice as “the most widely-acclaimed American avant-garde film of the fin-de-siecle”). Their film/music project treats the history of Northeast England’s mining community using gorgeous found footage and a brass-based score, which moves from dark and brooding minimalism to moments of rousing transcendence. The Miners’ Hymns album will be released in the U.S. on June 7.
Centered around the Durham coalfield in Northeast England, The Miners’ Hymns film focuses on the hardships of pit work, the powerful role trade unions have historically played in bettering the lives of miners, and the trade unions’ battles with police during the famous 1984 strikes. The film was initially commissioned for Durham County (UK) Council’s International Brass Festival, which incorporated the annual Miners’ Gala into a program celebrating the cultural history of mining with a strong focus on the regional tradition of colliery brass bands. It was created from BFI, BBC, and other archival footage and produced by British artist organization Forma. Immaculately edited, and almost entirely in black-and-white, the film intercuts footage spanning the past 100 years, serving, as Jóhannson puts it, as “a kind of requiem for a disappearing industry, but also a celebration of the culture, life, and struggle of coal miners.”
The Miners’ Hymns marks a welcome return to brass instrumentation for Jóhannson, whose recent work has paired his electronics primarily with strings. Performed and record live by a sixteen-piece brass ensemble (whose ranks included players in the current incarnation of a brass band started by miners in 1877) led by Iceland’s Gudni Franzson, the score is at times lamenting, lyrical, almost droning; elsewhere led by sweepingly triumphant chords and pulse-quickening crescendo. Combined with the ensemble and the huge Durham Cathedral organ, Jóhannson’s own subtle electronics peek through gaps in the score like shafts of life through the church’s stained-glass windows, adding quiet, otherworldly brightness.
The beautifully-packaged CD release of The Miners’ Hymns includes liner notes giving an overview of the historical importance of brass band music in the history of English coalmining and the rise of trade unions, as well as archival photos, film stills, and shots of the recorded performance inside the great Cathedral.
Jóhannson's music has also recently been used for film in a quite different context, soundtracking a much talked-about trailer for the blockbuster film Battle: Los Angeles; watch the trailer here.
The Miners’ Hymns is a featured selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Jóhann Jóhannson will be touring later this year in support of the album.
The Miners’ Hymns at Tribeca Film Festival:
4/22 – Clearview Chelsea 5 (7:00 pm)
4/25 – Clearview Chelsea 9 (7:30 pm)
4/28 – Clearview Chelsea 8 (12:45 pm)
The Miners’ Hymns Tracklisting:
1. They Being Dead yet Speaketh
2. An Injury To One Is The Concern Of All
3. Freedom From Want and Fear
4. There is No Safe Side but the Side of Truth
5. Industrial and Provident, We Unite to Assist Each Other
6. The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World