Henry Ford has always played the role of iconic figurehead and a longstanding symbol of Michigan's promise. But despite his enormous impact and ingenuity, Ford has some shady and weird stuff in his story that can't be explained away with pithy statements like, "Oh, it was just the times."
One might not expect a contemporary Icelandic composer to make a lesser-known Henry Ford story the focus of his newest work. Yet, Jóhann Jóhannsson's Fordlandia, the second in a three-part trilogy about technology, does exactly that. Fordlandia was what Ford called the land tract in Brazil he purchased in the 1920's to create a place where he could grow and import his own rubber for production. Between having no idea what he was doing and forcing the native Brazilians he was hiring to entirely Americanize their way of life — complete with mandatory hamburger consumption and a prohibition of alcohol — the project ended in total failure when the workers revolted and the Brazilian army had to step in.
Jóhannsson takes this creepy piece of Ford history and intertwines the subtle beauty of his musical ideas with other stories of entrepreneurial oddities. The stories include John Whiteside Parsons, an occultist and rocket propulsion engineer who blew himself up in his garage, and German theoretical physicist Burkhard Heim, the survivor of a horrible laboratory accident that left him without hands and virtually deaf and blind. With these fantastic historical antidotes as his inspiration, Jóhannsson's musical compositions build slowly and intensely — lush string and woodwind arrangements give way to subtle, bubbling electronics. The reaching of each new height, each new movement, is akin to finding out more horrific and fascinating details about the lives of those that moved Jóhannsson to compose this work. Much in the same way that Ford's failed Brazilian rubber plantation must have been after its abandonment, Fordlandia is completely haunting in its calm.