Deutsche Grammophon is proud to release the world premiere recording of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s A Prayer to the Dynamo. This major orchestral work was inspired in general by the composer’s fascination with technology, and in particular by field recordings he made at Iceland’s Elliðaár power plant and the writings of Henry Adams. It is paired on this new album with two suites compiled and arranged by the composer from existing material drawn from his Academy Award-nominated scores for Sicario and The Theory of Everything, also recorded here for the first time.

Daníel Bjarnason conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in recordings made at the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík. With booklet notes by renowned music writer and radio host John Schaefer, in conversation with Jóhannsson’s father, Jóhann Gunnarsson, A Prayer to the Dynamo will be released on CD, vinyl (2 LPs) and digitally on 15 September 2023. Three taster tracks will be shared over the summer: “A Model of the Universe” and “Forces of Attraction” (both from The Theory of Everything) on 30 June and 28 July respectively, with Part 1 of A Prayer to the Dynamo following on 25 August.

A Prayer to the Dynamo was written in response to a commission from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. It received its first, and so far only performance at the orchestra’s New Music Festival on 3 February 2012. As noted by the festival’s curator, composer Matthew Patton, it represented a turning-point in Jóhannsson’s career, having been written without any of the narrative constraints involved in composing for film. “He never wrote a piece for orchestra this big, this long, and with this much freedom.” This recording will turn a much-deserved spotlight on to a work Patton has described as a “lost symphony” and introduce it to audiences worldwide.

Composed for full orchestra, A Prayer to the Dynamo also features a soundtrack of recordings of electrical installations, generators and high-voltage wires made at the decommissioned Elliðaár hydroelectric power plant on the outskirts of Reykjavík. Always fascinated by our relationship with (sometimes obsolete) technology, Jóhannsson had wanted to capture the sights and sounds of Elliðaár. As he said at the time, “I recorded the sounds [and] also filmed the station in black and white Super 8. [Together with] my experience of working with old technical images from the British coal industry in the work The Miners’ Hymns, [this] sparked in me the idea to make a short film about the power station.”

Sadly, the film project was left unfinished on his death in 2018, but Jóhannsson had also woven his Elliðaár experiences into his Winnipeg commission. For this he drew further inspiration from the work of Edison, Tesla and, primarily, a chapter in the memoirs of American historian Henry Adams (1838-1918). Entitled “The Dynamo and the Virgin”, this records his impressions of the 1900 Paris Expo, reflecting on the hidden force of the huge machinery he witnessed there and the similarly invisible power of religious faith, thoughts that also led him to write a “Prayer to a Dynamo”, as part of a longer poem. Jóhannsson’s notes for his film liken the Elliðaár plant to a cathedral, and ideas of scale, majesty, mystery and consolation can all be heard in the music of A Prayer to the Dynamo, featuring massed strings, chorale-like brass writing and soaring woodwind, all underpinned by the humming, pulsing reverberations of his field recordings.

The album also includes two short suites of music from the composer’s soundtracks for The Theory of Everything and Sicario, both of which were nominated for Oscars and an array of other awards, with the former winning the Golden Globe for best original score. No longer tied to the narrative demands of a film, Jóhannsson arranged his suites based on purely musical decisions. His Theory of Everything suite, for example, ends with the original opening track, “Cambridge, 1963”, and begins with “A Model of the Universe”. These frame a trio of pieces unified by the sound of the celesta, to create a lyrical sequence of episodes. 

By contrast, in just three concise movements, starting with the stark sounds of “Target”, the Sicario suite captures the feeling of menace and impending violence that pervades the film. A solo cello takes centre stage in “Desert Music” before the closing track, “Melancholia”, brings the suite, and the album, to an end with what Variety has described as “the kind of quiet, if rueful, beauty one has come to expect from Jóhannsson”.

These three world premiere recordings add yet more breadth and depth to the composer’s discography. As noted by Gramophone last year in its review of Drone Mass, “Jóhannsson’s music gives the impression of having arrived in a time capsule from a distant planet that is a mirror image of our own. His own absence now adds further mystery and magic to his music’s unique sound world.”