[translated from the Catalan of the non-existent poet Alberto Cenas]

I first met Jóhann Jóhannsson, quite by chance, on a slow train between La Rioja and Asturias. This was some time ago, around or just after the release of IBM 1401: A User’s Manual, the recording that, in retrospect, can be seen to have established his career.

I was aboard a first-class carriage that halted, as it happened, mere metres from where he stood, intent and ebony-clad, utterly stationary on the platform at Calahorra. And there was something about his eyes, even glimpsed through the smudged carriage window, that immediately arrested me, something restless and absorbed, a cobalt mix of loneliness and liveliness. Indeed, he exhibited a corpulent grace amid the platform’s churn of luggage and goodbyes. He dipped and pivoted—his large frame taut, manoeuvrable—as he hoisted case after rigid case onto the tremoring train.

It was with no small fascination, then, that I saw him enter our compartment, his heavyset face betraying the relief, the mild bewilderment, of those who transfer trains successfully, joining a journey in medias res. The engine throttled into wakefulness. Calahorra was whisked away. Mr Jóhannsson sidled, wobbled, located his banquette, which, as luck would have it, was directly across the aisle from where I sat—desultorily browsing the latest issue of Poesia—next to my dozing mother.

Mr Jóhannsson arranged his paraphernalia, his outsize limbs, and sipped from a styrofoam coffee cup. He scanned the scraggly, diesel-dusted vines we trundled past. He seemed to study a clutch of outbuildings, a brown cow—skin-tight, desperate—an old woman gazing cow-like as our slow train gathered pace again.

He was accompanied by an entourage of one, a pinch-faced Luxembourgian who, I later learned, had been engaged on his behalf as a publicist of some kind. She was hardly seated before she engaged her miniature computer screen, in whose blue and pullulating shallows, excepting the briefest intervals, she would spend the rest of the journey lost.

The train braked and jolted at the foot of some interminable vineyard. Liquid spluttered, spouted from the lid of Mr Jóhannsson’s coffee cup. He cursed, presumably in Icelandic, as the beige and characterless beverage puddled about his newspaper.

I leaned quickly across the aisle, swabbing and dabbing at the spillage. It was an operation I performed with what might have seemed excessive deliberation, employing a sturdy herring-bone handkerchief, one of several that for such purposes I keep ready about my person. But the gesture, its banality aside, proved a conduit to conversation, breaching the aisle-wide bank of reticence that had hitherto sat between us.

And so, with the landscape around Arnedo exhibiting only a beige and vine-ridden blankness, and our first-class compartment otherwise uninhabited, we found ourselves—haltingly at first, in gapped and frustrating English—lulled into conversation.

We dispatched the requisite prefatory pleasantries and Mr Jóhannsson, leaning across the aisle convivially, outlined to me the genesis of his then most recent record. How his father had held a position, in the 1950s I believe, with the IBM computer company. How Jóhannsson père had somehow ‘cracked’ a primitive machine, finagling it into sound. How the circuit boards had warbled out a four-note flickering melody, an act utterly counter to their programming. How Jóhannsson fils had happened upon, quite by chance in a Reykjavík attic, his father’s lost recording of that song. How those dusty tapes, in turn, had sparked the opus he was currently in Spain promoting.

I imagined that moment of discovery: Mr Jóhannsson bent beneath the roof-rafters, dauntless amid Christmas decorations, dust from the ancient cartridges hovering in front of his cobalt eyes. It was quite the origin story, an anecdote to conjure with.

I responded with an account of my own most recent publication. Inheritances I’d dared to title it: an assemblage of meditations, feuilletons, that had been retched, a mere two years ago, if not quite deceased then languidly ante-mortem, from the presses of my home city.

Our dialogue continued, as we rattled through Alcanadre and Ladero, turning to the pleasures and exigencies of travel. Mr Jóhannsson, it turned out, was bound for Salamanca, thence to Lisbon, Amsterdam, Chicago. He described an endless set of public interviews, of looping implausible itineraries, of brief performances with his computer, accompanied, when circumstance permitted, by some happenstance ensemble. In Madrid, for example, he had been joined by an overly drilled quartet, in Seville by a single cellist.

He assumed, no doubt due to my haphazard English, that I, too, was on some promotional excursion, that a lecture, perhaps, or public reading of some kind awaited me in Oviedo, rather than the overdue execution of my Uncle Dominic’s will and testament. It was a misapprehension that I, to my shame, did little to correct.

Our train halted, heaving, at the modernist station of Logroño. I watched an old man disembark, set out beneath the steel and angular pavilion, hand a brown-paper package to what can only have been his daughter. It was then I remembered the brandy bottle.

The subject of brandy is one in which I can pretend to some expertise, the trade having been in and out of my family since at least the 1750s. We have cultivated and distilled. We held fields of sloping purple. We have exported, sourced and speculated in all the Americas and Spains, developing over the centuries a precise and dispassionate palate, one transmitted effortlessly, through some quiver of epigenesis, from father down to son.

The bottle that that afternoon I happened to have among my traps was at the very least entirely passable. I proffered a dram to Mr Jóhannsson, tipping the amber casually into the cup that had previously held his macchiato. He sipped, winced in appreciation.

I poured for myself as the engine chugged and spluttered into motion. I urged Mr Jóhannsson to savour the brandy’s furious seduction, its play, its agitation on the lips, the palate, the tip of the tongue. It was with smouldering joviality, then, that we finally broached the topic of machines. Mr Jóhannsson, it turned out, was convinced that homo sapiens, alone among species, was creating its own replacements. For it was our destiny, he maintained, to be superseded sooner or later by our baroque and digital children, by beings evolved from the software and from the silicon to which we proved so devoted.

He spoke of these putative successors with some reverence, presenting them as shimmering intelligences that would spill forth—liquid, indeterminate—from their programming, their very circuitry. And such a forecast, he insisted, needn’t induce despair. For the human race would live on, after a fashion, in the memory of our inheritors; our tyrannies, our achievements suspended forever in their computerised minds, in bodiless, digital amber.

The whole thing struck me as quite implausible, to be frank, as we sipped from our soggy styrofoam. But Mr Jóhannsson extracted from me a promise to acquire, on my return to my hometown, his aforementioned just-released record album, in whose harmonies, he assured me, were embedded a further elucidation of such themes.

We sat after that in companionable silence, sipping the adequate brandy, as the silvery train continued—grudgingly, unhurriedly—through the chalk and flaxen territory of Castile. He disembarked at León, taking his narrow-faced publicist with him.

I continued, with my mother, to Oviedo, saw to the estate of Uncle Dominic, made the dusty journey home again. And my thoughts, through those sad, administrative days, circled again and again around Mr Jóhannsson: his serendipitous attic discovery, his belief in our benign, electrical successors, his precise electric eyes.

I can’t have been home more than a day or two, then, when I set out to tribute synchronicity, to purchase IBM 1401: A User’s Manual, to honour that most pleasant, unexpected conversation on the train. But the recording, to my displeasure, was only available as a ‘compact disc’, a brute and crudely futuristic medium I had hitherto assiduously avoided. For the digital, in music and in manners, leaves me itching and dissatisfied. No minuet, I’ve found, has ever reverberated with such tart and tremulous sadness as that elaborated by the dust and valves of my late Uncle Jordi’s phonograph.

My pledge to Mr Jóhannsson, then, necessitated not only the purchase of the recording itself but also of a ‘Discman’, a vulgar throwaway contraption, Japanese and plastic. I ventured down to Carpenter Street, pretended to listen as the sales assistant rhapsodised about superior fidelity, handed over my grudging euros.

I listened to the album through, just once, turned off the stupid disc-device, told myself that was that. The following night, however, saw the Discman at my belt again. And as that indolent summer approached I found myself each evening in my bedchamber, inserting the device’s awkward ear plugs, giving myself, once, twice, three times, to that wayward computer’s song.

The city simmered. It overheated, emulsified into summer, curdled into the earliest impossible days of August. And still the disc’s five tracks fixated me.

Indeed I kept up, over the years that followed, with Mr Jóhannsson’s burgeoning oeuvre. I saw, I believe, each and every film he composed for: tolerating Mannick, suffering through Prisoners at the Phenomena (dubbed into appalling Spanish). I purchased Englabörn, The Miners’ Hymns. I enjoyed them. I applauded—from a distance, unbeknownst to him—as his tremulous melodies seduced the critics first, then a slowly budding cohort of the public.

But it was always IBM that I came back to, re-entering, once a month at least, that exquisite unstable world, attending over and over to those liquid strings, to the violins and cellos rising, solidifying into half-glimpsed shapes, only to melt and then descend again.

I have always, almost despite myself, been one for memorabilia, for antiques and incunabula, autographs and inscriptions. So when it came to my attention that Mr Jóhannsson and confrères were due to perform in my hometown, and that the theatre selected for his performance—as it happened—was one that had benefitted over the decades from my family’s largesse, I immediately made it my business to have him sign my copy of IBM.

I envisaged a dressing-room tête-à- tête, perhaps, or stage-door reintroduction. It was a tryst to be facilitated by Pascaul, the venue’s long-suffering duty manager, a man of letters and bon viveur, with whom, at that time, I was in moderate cahoots.

Who knows? I might find myself persuaded to some back-stage bacchanal. I imagined a dim-lit cavern beneath the theatre, the slow drone of electronics, a gathering of svelte and fashionable bodies at which I—game but deferential—would linger appropriately in the background, clutching not my usual dry white wine, but some risqué and rococo cocktail.

I reached the venue early, the worn-away disc in my valise, sat through the performance, a perfectly enchanting hour-long affair, all cello and electronics, then set out for my reunion with the maestro.

It was with no little nervousness that I pushed through the post-concert bustle, making for the foyer where Pascual was set to meet me. Imagine my chagrin, then, to find my machinations utterly superfluous. For there in the marble atrium stood the venerable Mr Jóhannsson, stouter than I recalled, sporting, despite the September mildness, a sable leather jacket. He was stood behind a trestle table, shaking hands, applying his signature, greeting any concert-goer that requested his benediction.

I joined the queue. I shuffled and swayed, surprised at my apprehension, as with expectant, aching slowness the snaking line staggered forward. One by one they were summoned, received their audience with the maestro: a ragged youth tattooed and vaguely Antipoedean, a Basque girl self-possessed and youthful who proffered his record sleeve for autograph, a potbellied Scot who had his t-shirt signed.

There was, of course, no flicker of recognition when it was my turn, finally, to stand before Mr Jóhannsson. And it came to me, as I handed the album over, that he harboured no recollection, however incomplete or partial, of our brandy-softened discourse, that nothing about my face or voice had triggered such recall. The train-bound afternoon that for me had been saved, preserved in the deep cells of memory, had for him been summarily deleted. It was a matter of necessity, capacity. How could one man’s memory be capacious enough for the railroads, for all the hotel rooms he must have experienced, promoting IBM and subsequent albums?

I said nothing, let him sign the compact disc’s packaging, stepped past the foyer’s faux gold columns and out into Balmes Street.

It is February. I have learned, only yesterday, of Mr Jóhannsson’s passing at 49. I am seated in my bedchamber as so many previous evenings, the rickety Discman on my belt, IBM rotating and rotating.

The worn device skips and stutters, steadies itself again. I peruse a shelf of keepsakes: my jade hare of dubious provenance; a camel-bone chess set—incomplete, seventeenth century—bequeathed by Uncle Dominic; Uncle Jordi’s dust-furred phonograph.

Silence. Then a lone voice drifts through the static, through the inadequate earphones: We now come to the general mechanism. Every six months check the oil level of the drive-housing. The voice continues, clipped and British, culled, I believe, from some long-ago tape recording, one of those abandoned in the attic for Mr Jóhannsson to discover.

Mr Jóhannsson, you have left me almost too much: a signed inlay, a single sun-lapped memory, these cellos, these violins that spill into the composition. They recede and rise and ebb again, their swellings, their recessions scarcely noticeable at first. I step out on to my balcony as the finicky voice continues, outlining, in scrupulous detail, the specifics of printer maintenance: Do not forget to check that the cap-nut of the draining port is tightened. Make sure that the adjusting hub nut of the drive gear is not loose.

I reach for a bottle shipped directly from the Penedès, from an estate in which my family, for some generations now, has retained a significant interest. I pour myself a caramel and aromatic dram.

Clouds are massing, stacking above the city’s edge, building a high and unlikely edifice. Traffic noise floats upward, the noises of children pretending. I turn the volume on the Discman up.

The violins, the cellos come more emphatically now. Their promise-filled waves reach higher, submerging, with each successive surge, the trustworthy voice and its instructions. One notices, each time as if for the first time, how their four-note motif evolves, with subtle insistence, from that ancient computer’s song.

The Discman skips and rights itself. The cellos, the violins rise—indifferent, melodic and electrical—in washes of data and glass. And that faraway voice continues—oblivious, intoning—while the future in a slow wave passes over it.