I have been listening to Johann Johannsson’s music for over a decade. I have written numerous poems as reflections upon and inspections into my emotional interactions with his music, his aesthetic. His heartfelt compositions have guided my dreams many a night, as I plug in my iPod and set it to shuffle through his music and other similar compositions. His music was integral to my process as a writer, as a music junkie, and someone continuously learning to deal with depression (it serves as a balm, believe it or not).
A week and a half ago, I was distressed to learn of his untimely death, amongst the many depressing things Twitter served up for me that Friday morning. Upon reading of his death, I choked back a couple lonely tears. Not because I had lost a “friend.” Not because my family had been whittled down by one. Because I faced a void in the sonic landscape of the future. Because an artist with real drive to make his audience look around and within themselves had vanished from the land of the living.
There will be no new albums or soundtracks or concerts of his to look forward to. Not one new sweep of cellos and field recordings composed by him will soar out of my stereo speakers.
This is not hero worship, but homage to an artist who truly touched my soul. Sometimes, you can legitimately, validly, and logically love a human being you’ve never met and, quite often, those people are artists, because art enriches our lives in so many facets. So many facets that we may have a better understanding of exoplanets than all the ways in which art can enrich, and even save, our lives.
Only twice have I seen him perform live – both times with the NYC-based ACME quartet. The first time was at the Triple Door (downtown Seattle for those that don’t know). My mom bought me and three of my friends tickets for my 35th birthday present. I still wonder how they were able to book him with tickets on sale for only $16 (wtf?!?); maybe he got a cut of the dinner sales. Maybe the money didn’t matter…yeah, right…keep fooling yourself, Gabe. All of that doesn’t really matter. It was the tectonic impact of the performance that mattered. I wept openly at the beauty of the performance. I firmly believe in open, unfettered emotional reactions to music and my engagement with it. It was a powerful performance. My friends teased me a little bit for being so weepy. I took it in stride and didn’t care one lick; I had seen a once-in-a-lifetime performance. It was clear that Johannsson gave his all in his live performances; he wanted you to feel it.
The second time I saw him perform was at Benaroya Hall. I took my septuagenarian friend, Ursula, with me. She frequents classical music performances and I thought it would be interesting to take her to a new-ish experience. As a retired person, she doesn’t have a ton of expendable income, but I somehow convinced her to join me, despite the fact that she hadn’t been very familiar with his work. I probably still owe her 30 bucks in recompense for her displeasure; she didn’t like the music, but she sat with an open mind. She was integral in the post-performance discussion. She voiced her distaste for his music, but was receptive to the fact that it had an impact and that, clearly, many people loved it. The exchange was scintillating and probably exactly what Johannsson would’ve wanted, regardless of approval rating.
After the show, we went across the street where my friend Tracy was playing a show…at the Triple Door no less. At one point, I went outside for a cigarette and saw Johann and the quartet loading out after the show. With a couple whiskeys in me, I had the courage to cross the street and approach them. In a simple manner, I just told him that I loved his music and thanked them all. He had a nervous response. It seemed that he was a quiet and reserved person and I may have made him self-conscious. He displayed gratitude through his discomfort. I went back inside to my friends, but with a shine that I had again witnessed a great performance with the addition of getting to meet him briefly.
All this is to say, the passing – all too early, all too suddenly – of Johann Johannsson has struck a deep chord within me. I will forever listen to his music with deep meditative approach and concentration, with a joy and a sorrow and an awe. His body of work cannot be dismissed or ignored in the canon. He deserves a level of recognition we’ve normally reserved for those we deem “masters,” because he is truly a master, in a realm and a time that rarely sees one in the way we venerate the masters of Classical music such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. Part of the sadness is that knowledge that so many people won’t know his grand impact until long after his death.
To Johann Johannsson, I offer my deepest gratitude. Thank you for the sounds you have gifted us with and I hope you find a grand performance hall in the afterlife.