Deutsche Grammophon is set to issue the world premiere of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s 12 Conversations With Thilo Heinzmann on 20 September 2019. The album will be released a day after the future-embracing Icelandic composer would have turned 50.
Jóhannsson’s sudden and untimely death in February 2018 put an end to his unique practice of bringing different art forms together. The Icelandic composer was known for his inventiveness in allowing music and literature, music and theatre, music and film to communicate with one another in his works, and for combining classical and electronic elements with original, profound and often melancholic results.
British philanthropist and art collector Richard Thomas was fascinated by this process of breaking down artistic boundaries. He came up with the idea of commissioning a work that would establish a dialogue between music and the visual arts, with neither form overpowering the other, and in which the production and interpretation aspects of each would blend together to create a single entity. Thomas already had an artist in mind for his project – Berlin-based painter Thilo Heinzmann. He in turn thought instantly of Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Thomas’s original inspiration had something of an ulterior motive – his conviction in the ideals of the European Union. Now he had an Icelandic composer based in Denmark working with a German painter on an idea originated by a British music-lover, a project which would later also involve the Brussels-based musicians of Echo Collective – all in all a reflection of the cultural unity which, for many, is central to the EU.
Over a period of four years, Heinzmann and Jóhannsson met up from time to time and engaged in a series of in-depth conversations about art, politics and their own lives. Working to, or rather with, a painting by Heinzmann, Jóhannsson composed a new work for string quartet, 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann.
Commissioned by the Richard Thomas Foundation, 12 Conversations is both exceptional in and typical of the composer’s output. The Golden-Globe-winning Jóhannsson, who was born in Reykjavík in 1969, established connections not only between music and other art forms – almost standard practice among Icelandic artists of his generation – but also between different musical genres and eras. A brilliant auto-didact, who learned the trombone and the piano, and studied languages and literature at university before cutting loose to immerse himself in Iceland’s hugely varied and often raucous indie rock scene, he was constantly aware of the interplay between genres, between all times and sounds.
One of Heinzmann’s paintings adorned Jóhannsson’s studio wall as he worked on 12 Conversations, a score of absolute purity, written just for string quartet and entirely devoid of electronic elements.
12 Conversations seems tailor-made for the Echo Collective players heard on this recording – violinists Margaret Hermant and Sophie Bayet, viola-player Neil Leiter and cellist Thomas Engelen. The musicians of this ensemble have made a name for themselves as genre-defying pioneers, dismissive of any barriers between classical and diverse musical genres. They have worked with contemporary artists such as Dutch pianist Joep Beving and A Winged Victory for the Sullen.
Jóhann Jóhannsson worked with them for three years on an earlier work, Orphée, and came to admire them greatly because, he said, they understood that apparently simple music is not to be taken lightly, that its dynamics and expressive aspects require absolutely precise calibration. Shortly before his death, he invited them to help him realise a definitive edition of 12 Conversations. In the event, they were tragically deprived of the opportunity of discussing the finer points of the score with him, instead basing their interpretative decisions on the conversations they had managed to have with him about the work.
Premiered in London in 2016, 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann as now recorded by Echo Collective, forms part of Deutsche Grammophon’s ongoing celebration of Jóhannsson’s life and work. The Yellow Label’s tribute began with the release of Retrospective I, the first of a two-part edition comprising his most significant compositions. Retrospective II and a number of previously unrecorded works and unissued recordings are set to follow at a later date.
Echo Collective will be performing 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann live on tour this autumn, with concerts in Germany, Belgium, the UK and elsewhere.