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Johann Johannsson: Ambience In Action

Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson makes propulsive and powerful music using unlikely sources and unlikely means: Before releasing last fall's lovely Fordlandia, he'd achieved notoriety for IBM 1401, A User's Manual, in which he paired ambient classical soundscapes with field recordings of archaic computers in action. (Click here to hear Johannsson's self-explanatorily titled "Part II - IBM 1403 Printer.")

On Fordlandia, Johannsson crafts somewhat more conventional orchestral works, though he still lets nervously twitching computerized beats be his guide. Listeners will need to employ a bit of imagination to match Johannsson's composition to the title "Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device Based on Heim's Quantum Theory)," but it's hard to deny the propulsion at work here. It takes a few minutes for the song to register as more than a faint stirring of strings, but as it progresses, it gathers portentous energy almost subconsciously.

By the time the song has begun to approach the seven-minute mark, "Melodia" has transformed itself into a wholly absorbing, head-clearing instrumental epic — the kind that induces trance-like bouts of concentration on long drives and in late-night stretches of near-catatonic relaxation. With music this hypnotic, who needs drugs?

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)