Whenever a composer is described as being one of ‘the greats’, your mind is naturally drawn to the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach. But at the very least, when it comes to composers of the modern day era, we most certainly lost one of the greats, one week ago today. Whether it be his solo work or his film scores, Jóhann Jóhannsson was totally uncompromising with his art. Despite scoring blockbuster films such as The Theory of Everything (for which he won a Golden Globe) and Arrival, Jóhannsson’s work was always resolutely individual, and thought-provoking.
Jóhannsson was born and raised in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík. His chosen discipline at university was languages and literature — it wasn’t until the mid ‘90s that he became more active as a musician, performing in a number of indie rock bands. At the end of the decade, Jóhannsson founded an arts organisation called Kitchen Motors, dedicated to the genesis of collaborations between artists across the musical spectrum. This was a very formative moment for him, as his multi-genre approach was born.
Jóhannsson’s first solo work, Englabörn, showed off his experimental nature with digital processing of string music, and more so with his second record, Virðulegu Forsetar, an hour-long ambient piece with a brass section, piano, organ, and added electronics. Both albums received very favourable reviews online, the critics seeing a great prospect for the future.
The Icelandic composer truly came into his own with 2006’s IBM 1401, A User's Manual. Jóhannsson sought inspiration from his father, one of Iceland’s first computer engineers, who would often use early IBM hardware to compose melodies. His son would use electromagnetic emissions from the IBM 1401 to form part of the music. With this being set to a sixty-piece string orchestra, the result is spell-binding. The closing track, The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black, is particularly haunting and heartbreaking, as a computer voice sings the title repeatedly, while the orchestra develops its motif. It’s no surprise that it’s been used in film and television a number of times.
He would release a number of other conceptual albums, including The Miner’s Hymns in 2010 — inspired by mining in County Durham, and the strong brass band tradition in the region. 2016’s Orphée, Jóhannsson’s excellent and final solo album, would further solidify his place as one of the leading lights of the neo-classical scene, alongside fellow composers, Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds.
It is for his work in film, however, that Jóhannsson is known best. He worked on several Icelandic projects throughout the 2000s, but his career really caught fire thanks to his collaborating with visionary film director, Dennis Villeneuve. Despite Prisoners (2013) being Jóhannsson’s first major studio movie, there was never any chance of him opting for a more commercial sound. He deliberately created a very cold sounding score by instructing the string players to not use vibrato, recording organ parts inspired by Icelandic hymns, and seamlessly blending in electronics.
Villeneuve was so impressed with the results, that their partnership would endure for Sicario in 2015, and Arrival in 2016. Jóhannsson’s dread-inducing score for the former earned him an Oscar nomination. His work for the science fiction masterpiece, Arrival, was a typically painstaking creative process for Jóhannsson — he recorded hours of piano drones, and collaborated with vocalist, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, to create some distinctly otherworldly vocal parts that depict the alien entities of the film in such a beguilingly ethereal manner.
Sadly, one of the greatest director-composer partnerships ended when Villeneuve, despite regarding Jóhannsson so highly, decided to reject his score for Blade Runner 2049, and brought Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch in at the eleventh hour. This was a mere blemish on his film career, however. His work for the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory Of Everything, won him a Golden Globe in 2015.
Fellow neo-classical composer, Ólafur Arnalds, paid tribute by posting a story about his work on Darren Aronofsky’s film mother! on Twitter. It emerged that Jóhannsson, after completing a huge swathe of the music for the film, came to the conclusion that the movie would be more effective without his music, relying instead on silence and its sound design.
He approached Aronofsky with this realisation, and after lengthy discussions, they agreed to scrap his score, instead blending minute parts of it into the film’s sound design. This is so telling of Jóhannsson’s nature — there are precious few musicians who would be able to separate their ego from a project in such a way.
I was very fortunate to see Jóhannsson perform live at the Barbican in 2012, at a concert where he performed after Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. I remember quite vividly that he would silently nod his head to the audience in thanks for their applause, being too shy to speak to the large crowd. But silence, something he knew the power of more than most, became an intricate part of that stunning live show.
The tributes haven’t ceased since the news was confirmed. Nils Frahm wrote, 'Goodbye dear Johann, thanks for all you brought into this world.' Record label, Ninja Tune, wrote that Jóhannsson was 'one of the finest composers in the world.' Tim Hecker added: 'Jóhann was an amazing composer, a gentle spirit, as well as a favourite collaborator and human being. Drift easy into the night, and rest in peace, my friend.'
Leaving us at the bitterly young 48, the easiest option is to dwell on what could have been — it really does feel like Jóhannsson was just getting started. But the wiser and most beneficial thing to do is to joyfully celebrate the volume of breathtaking music that he gave to the world in such a short space of time. Many film fans would go and see films just because his name was attached, and to have such a large solo output next to his filmography is such an achievement.
Without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest composers of our time, and one of few people you can unabashadley and concretely attach the word ‘artist’ to, for he was consummate. Thank you, Jóhann, for giving us your music, which was equal parts pain and joy. We will continue living out the emotions you shared with us for many, many years to come.
Words Adam Protz