Fordlandia: The Ambition Of Strings
Magnus Helgasn - Melodia (2008)The rigidity of the scientific community has always confused me, since many of its predominant theories were developed in isolation of prevailing traditions or lines of thought. How would a modern outsider have the capacity to conduct compelling oppositional research without a lab coat or a postdoctoral fellowship or a catalog of peer-reviewed articles in institutional publications? In this week of inaugurating new hope (even as politics continue to present elite class and education in sheep's clothing), the messy possibility of open and multi-vocal institutions seem more real than ever.
It is in flurries of this context that I sit down to write about Johann Johannsson's 2008 masterpiece "Fordlandia". In sound, its classical instrumentation swells from sterile modern hesitance to lush grandeur. With the exception of a female choir on one of the songs, it tells a complex story through instrument alone. In concept, it is a broad statement about ambitious minds and their struggle as vision clashes with reality. The meaning deepens with the introduction of its characters through song titles. These tragic heroes include: the theories of quantum physics devised by an unlikely Burkhard Heim; the influential and magic-inspired space rocket engineering of Jack Parsons; the complex symbolism of the Greek God Pan with connotations of art, nature, masculinity, and eventually Satan; and - of course - the capitalist megalomania of Henry Ford.
"Melodia (Guidelines For A Propulsion Device)" is structured like long winter periods of subzero plodding with stringed wind at your back. It toils yet sustains persistence like its feet are scrawling mathematic proofs on sheet after white sheet in the notebook of the snow. Its shallow breath struggles to produce a voice from the cold without sight, hearing, or hands. It pushes uphill until incessance breaks upon the rocks of discovery without ever having left a drafty German study. Burkhard Heim wears the frostbite of stubborn will as a house coat. With a whipped back against a wooden door, or scabbed knees on a wooden floor, or atrophied forearms pressed on the top a wooden desk, it begins, finally, to move faster than the speed of light.
"The Rocket Builder (lo Pan!)" lays sweeping innovation over a low pulsing heart, or ticking clock, or piano hammer gently tapping a loosening string. In a break of silence, a slow motion rocket begins to launch and birth a cloud of mercury fulminate powder along the ground and into Jack Parson's lungs. The song veers from science towards Babylon Working magickal ritual with a sinister bass and dripping electronic fragments. Proceeding breaths are prayers to the Greek God Pan and the exhalations are Thelma's "Do What Thou Wilt" philosophy. With the song's last violin and jet fuel sigh, its lungs dissolve in the indirect suicide of a successfully experimental life.
These smaller stories are framed by an overarching tale of Fordlandia in three movements at the beginning, middle, and end of the album. Opening vastly on 2.5 acres of land in the Brazilian Amazon is the first, titled simply "Fordlandia". The warm sun sparkles with Henry Ford's hope for carving out a new American colony, domesticating rubber production with white fences and square dancing on the weekends. It's a beautiful symphony of picturesque landscape and soaring human ingenuity. The escalating bass builds to the pinnacle of the dream. But as soon as this height is seemingly achieved, the song begins to slow and slide towards its end like brand new machinery gradually sinking into rain forest mud. The bass notes become less confident and more ominous.
A few songs later, in "Fordlandia - Aerial View", a lone violin resurrects the theme. This time the gorgeous coastline has turned into mosquitoes which has turned into Malaria. The tropical climate has turned into heat which has turned into late afternoon exhaustion. New jobs have turned into plantations which have turned into oppression worthy of native riots. The sounds are a soft-focus lens on the depression of a dying dream.
And finally, in the last and wistfully-titled song "How We Left Fordlandia", the experience's emotions are allowed to play out for over fifteen minutes. The middle hits hard on the album's theme of passion overflowing into aggressive desperation. But the grandiosity is now more ethereal, almost calmed with hindsight, as if reflected from a plane headed home. And the album ends for minutes, as it should, like the siphon of an overextended rubber tree slowing a drip and then to nothing.
Johann Johannsson Melodia [Guidelines For a Propulsion Device Based On Heim's Quantum Theory] (mp3)