IBM 1401, A User’s Manual

From the ridiculous to the sublime…

My brother recently got back from the Iceland Airwaves music festival. I’m a big fan of the Reykjavik scene (and really like Sigur Rós, Amiina, múm, …) so it was great to be introduced to yet another great Icelandic artist. Jóhann Jóhannsson is an Icelandic composer and founder of the Kitchen Motors record label. Jóhannsson’s 2006 album ‘IBM 1401, A User’s Manual’ appeals to me on so many levels, not least because it includes samples from an IBM 1401 Data Processing System. From the album’s website,, we learn more about the history of the album:

“Inspired by a recording of an IBM mainframe computer which Jóhann’s father, Jóhann Gunnarsson, made on a reel-to-reel tape machine more than 30 years ago, the piece was originally written to be performed by a string quartet as the accompaniment to a dance piece by the choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir. For the album version, Jóhann rewrote the entire score, and it was recorded by a sixty-piece string orchestra. He also added a new final section and incorporated electronics alongside those original tape recordings of the singing computer.”

It is seriously haunting and gorgeous, and I could listen to it every day. You can see some footage (and an interview) of Jóhann Jóhannsson on YouTube with a little more detail of the role of the 1401 in the piece:

“My father … learned of a way of making music on this computer. By placing a radio next to it the radio could pick up these electromagnetic waves. They discovered a way of programming the memory so that these waves could be modulated and they could produce melodies. So this is what they did, these engineers at IBM after work they made this music – these melodies – on this computer.”

Incidently, the day after the festival officially finished this year, Erland Øye (Kings of Convenience, The Whitest Boy Alive) performed three songs in a tiny church. Stunning. The more I see, and the more Sam talks about Iceland Airwaves, the more certain I am that I have to be there next year.

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