The Miners’ Hymns, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s latest effort, is really one-third of a project which is international in its scope: the Icelandic composer and producer collaborated with US filmmaker Bill Morrison on the documentary of the same name which traces the social history of miners in the city of Durham, England. Before you can even begin to make assessments about the quality of the music, you have to make an assessment about what it is you’re assessing: Is this a set of tracks to accompany the film, or does it stand alone?
And should it? Undoubtedly, The Miners’ Hymns is a nuanced, moody, and often creepy exercise in ambiance which, if it needs to, holds up as a unique work. But, Jóhannsson’s choice to use brass arrangements, often an archetype of music which celebrates the working class and industry, should tell us something. While instrumental, the recurrent use of a glistening fanfare motif, present across the album’s six tracks, gives these pieces a much stronger sense of cultural and biographical identity than most vocal music.
To reinforce that, Jóhannsson runs with such titles as “Industrial and Provident, We Unite to Assist Each Other” and “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World”, so that even without the helpful coalition of audio and image, the emergence of thematic narrative between melody and language emerges. That sense of social context the album certainly achieves, and more: reminiscent of American school band favorites John Philip Sousa and Aaron Copland (how could you not think “Fanfare for the Common Man” when euphoric melodies rise over the marching beat of a snare drum?), The Miners’ Hymns brings to the proceedings a sense of late-Victorian Central European grandeur that, alongside the celebration of industry and comradeship, might not be out of keeping with composer Kurt Weil’s assertion that music aided the socialist cause.
That sense of celebration, of course, is countered by bitter nostalgia: the mining communities of England died decades ago. After all, while these epic sweeping sounds and brass announcements engender a sense of that, to name the album’s second track “An Injury to One Is the Concern of All”, they also remind us that the sense of comradeship, at least in industry and industrial action, has largely gone in England.
Perhaps the true purpose of that fanfare cycle, to that end, is to remind us of what was lost; with each epic twist of that brass, our alienation from that sense of social cohesion intensifies, and as the music – and it often does this – becomes eerily silent, rumbling quietly away under the sounds of our own modern world, with its tapping of office keyboards and tooting car horns, we’re encouraged to remember that our predicament isn’t so far from those of the miners whose sense of community almost saved them. Even more bothersome, the potentially ironic play of nostalgia and euphoria here may hint that, just as that sense of community isn’t alive now, it wasn’t then, either.