We remember the maverick Icelandic composer, who died last week at the age of 48.
For most composers, removing your musical voice from a multimillion-dollar Hollywood film is tantamount to madness. But Jóhannsson wasn't like the others. In an environment dominated by a small number of composers churning out identikit scores, he was uncompromising, unique and influential. It's hard to overstate how out of place he was in the commercial cinema industry—Jóhannsson was the kind of guy who skipped the Academy Awards, where he was nominated for his work on Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, to play at Unsound Festival.
Where much film music is prescriptive and emotionally literal, Jóhannsson's scores displayed his uncanny ability to scrutinise a movie's DNA. Sometimes it seemed like he knew the soul of the film better than the director themselves, evincing a sensitivity to a script's needs that routinely went above and beyond the call of duty—indeed, his rigorous interrogations and penchant for abstraction may have cost him the score for Blade Runner 2049. Whatever the cost, he always tried to look into a picture's core, to think through its implications to the ultimate conclusion. This wasn't a sixth sense, but rather a dedication to hard work and process.
These things were Jóhannsson's calling cards long before his ascendance to the mainstream. While he was equally at home working with guitar noise or Soft Cell's Marc Almond, his time spent writing for theatre and dance in the '90s was the germ cell of his sonic identity. His first solo LP, Englabörn, was written for a play of the same name and introduced his signature combination of rich acoustic tones and subtle electronic interventions. But it was IBM 1401, A User's Manual that displayed his ability to draw pathos from arcane concepts. By incorporating sounds from a primitive, redundant IBM computer recorded by his father before being decommissioned in the early '70s, Jóhannsson was able to explore the loss inherent in technological and generational change in a way that audiences understood on a gut level.
It's not often that a record about an old computer brings tears to your eyes, but such achievements would become routine for Jóhannsson. Fordlandia brought out the madness and tragedy of Henry Ford's failed attempt at setting up a rubber plantation in Brazil, while The Miners' Hymns is a touching paean to the quiet strength of the working class, asserting that "The Cause Of Labour Is The Hope Of The World." Jóhannsson's breakout scores for Sicaro and Arrival were no less affecting but are even more disturbing and allusive, simultaneously endearing him further to the avant-garde while satisfying a burgeoning new audience.
What follows is a short guide to Jóhannsson's work. It isn't definitive and doesn't cover his entire career. But what it does highlight is the essential qualities of his artistic voice and the compositions that will continue to inspire and move artists and audiences for years to come.
Taken from Jóhannsson's debut LP for the vital experimental imprint Touch, "Karen Býr Til Engil" illustrates his ease with placing small, delicate sounds within a subtly disturbing narrative. A fragile glockenspiel combines innocence with melancholy, subtly enhanced by whisper-quiet violins. But a dark mass of bass slowly creeps into frame as the violins become trapped in digital jitter, generating a sense of threat that contrasts with the child-like presence of the glockenspiel. The menace slides away without truly materialising, but the glockenspiel loses its humanity in a flurry of granular slices. In other words, Jóhannsson's sonic storytelling powers were formed years before he took Hollywood.
Arrival, Jóhannsson's last picture with Villeneuve, gave him the chance to evoke alien languages, futuristic spacecraft and the fear of the unknown. "First Encounter" covers all three using dark, low strings, an endless sense of space and plenty of pregnant pauses. It's the sort of piece that really gets the subs rumbling in the theatre, as rising glissandi queasily tease out the low frequencies while mirroring the launch sequence of alien craft. Clearly, we're being set up for a shock, but it's still hard not to be startled when a huge wall of drones suddenly rises out of the silence.
IBM 1401, A User's Manual
In 1971, the IBM 1401 Data Processing System was redundant and due to be decommissioned. Jóhannsson's father worked for IBM and learned how to make the primitive computer play basic melodies, which he recorded before the machine was scrapped. When Jóhann found the tapes in his attic, it became the basis for "Part 1 / IBM 1401 Processing Unit," whose plangent opening motif carries a nostalgia that's not unlike Boards Of Canada. The same figure is maintained for the duration as every inch of its emotional power is teased out by grandiose waves of strings.
The Miners' Hymns
The Miners' Hymns is a documentary with no narrator that depicts the struggles of the mining community in Durham, a town in England's North East. Even as the screen shows police beating striking miners, Jóhannsson's music ultimately communicates the strength and dignity of labour. With its muted church organ and tragic chords, "They Being Dead Yet Speaketh" initially sounds like a requiem. But as the piece progresses, resolute chords, flashing brass and chattering snares conjure images of the proverbial miners' marching band, suggesting strength and a pinhole of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
It sounds like Jóhannsson had fun with Sicario, a Villeneuve crime-thriller that, after being nominated for his score for The Theory of Everything in 2015, netted him his second Academy Award nomination. "Surveillance" creates the effect of a giant mechanical lizard lumbering towards you, breathing fire and crushing cars under foot, while the finger-picked guitar in "Melacholia" builds an air of medieval tragedy with its lilting phrases. Sicario has the hallmarks of many action scores—evolving drones, imposing crescendos, marching drum patterns—but Jóhannsson exhibits remarkable restraint, using the orchestra to generate density and negative space to control the mood with a distant but firmly controlling hand.