Jóhann Jóhannsson emerges blinking from the dark doorway of the studio into the brightness of a late-summer Reykjavík afternoon. He’s looking fresh and relaxed, jacketed and bristly-bearded, enjoying the sun as he beckons me inside with a friendly, scholarly bearing.
Jóhann is currently based in Berlin, but his workplace today is an airy, comfortable practice space, usually used by Sigur rós, in a converted warehouse in the ex-industrial harbour area, Grandi. “I haven’t spent longer than ten days in Iceland for years,” he says, as sunbeams stream through the room, catching swirls of dust. “But this weather is making me think twice…”
He’s earned some summer. Over the past couple of years, Jóhann’s long, steady ascent as a musician and composer has steepened to a near vertical trajectory. After over a decade of band projects, solo albums, collaborative audio-visual projects and film work that began with Icelandic documentaries then Danish and American feature films, his score for the hit biopic ‘The Theory Of Everything’ earned him a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination, catapulting him onto the world stage as one of the most in-demand screen composers around.
Let me tell you about my mother
His success shows no signs of slowing. In August, Jóhann hit the headlines when it was announced he’d be creating the score for the follow-up to the 80s sci-fi classic ‘Blade Runner’. It’ll be his fourth collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve.
“They’re shooting now, and I started sending material to Denis already,” says Jóhann. “That’s how we try to work—we start a dialogue about the music very early on. I send him ideas while he’s filming. He’ll react strongly to some things, and refer to them for mood and atmosphere while he’s filming.”
It’s a working method the two developed working on the successful thriller ‘Sicario’. But Jóhann notes that such close collaboration is not always a given in the film world, where many productions use temporary music that’s replaced later with the score. While he stresses that he’s happy to work flexibly, Jóhann seems happy working with Denis in their organic, flowing fashion. “I send him iPhone video of sessions and works in progress,” he says. “Sometimes he’ll respond strongly or say: ‘Hey, you have to send me that track.’ Those pieces can become central to the mood of the score, very early on.”
Jóhann sees filmmaking as a deeply collaborative art form. “For me, the score should be treated in the same way as set design, sound or costumes,” he says. “It shouldn’t be an afterthought. You need a confident director to do that. You don’t always know what kind of film you have when you start making a film. But a director with a strong vision, and belief in the team he assembles… it makes the music an integral, organic part of the film’s DNA. The music grows as the film grows, and they feed each other.”
Not a strange world
When the ‘Blade Runner’ sequel was announced, fans responded with a mixture of delight and dread—after all, film culture is littered with unloved reboots and lesser sequels. But this time, the signs seem promising. Jóhann speaks at length about his love of the original film and, especially, its seminal score, by Vangelis.
“We’re aware that we’re handling a delicate, precious object,” he says. “It’s something that has to be approached with a lot of care. I saw ‘Blade Runner’ when it came out in 1982, at Austurbærbíó, when I was thirteen or fourteen. I remember it vividly. It was the first version, with the narration and the happy ending. I loved it from the beginning. I was someone who’d delved deeply into Philip K. Dick, so someone filming that novel was a huge deal for me. They managed to create something really new and original—that’s based on Dick’s work, but creates its own world.”
Jóhann won’t be drawn on the direction the score might take, but he does have a well known interest in vintage synths and organs, as heard in his work with the Apparat Organ Quartet. “Vangelis was a big influence on me,” he recalls. “It’s not something I’d quote as an influence in my work over the last twenty years or so, but it’s certainly there as a very vivid early influence. It’s a world I feel very comfortable entering. It’s not a strange world to me. Everything in that film and everything connected to it has informed my life. It’s one of those dream projects. It’s a very exciting time.”
Narratives and frames
Film soundtracks are just one strand of Jóhann’s practise. In fact, this blossoming chapter of his career began when he started receiving requests to license his solo work for use in films and documentaries. His solo work touches on minimalist electronica, drones, and contemporary composition, with a concept-driven edge.
“One of my obsessions in my solo work is creating some kind of narrative or conceptual frame around mostly instrumental music,” he explains. “For me, the framework around it gives me the frame to work in. With films, you have the context and story—when I work on my solo stuff, I create the narrative, and the whole concept.”
This approach perhaps comes from Jóhann’s background as a student of literature and language. “My background isn’t really in music,” he says, “so I lean naturally towards a more conceptual, narrative-driven way of writing. You can hear it on ‘IBM 1401’ and ‘Fordlandia’ as well, and the new album ‘Orphée’ also.”
This expanded practise of composition allows Jóhann to create rich worlds within his albums by stringing together a web of reference points, all connected to a central theme. “It makes the associations between the music and the concept concrete—between the context, the artwork, the titles, and the music,” he enthuses. “With Spotify and iTunes, a lot of that is lost on people these days. If you don’t have the record, you don’t have the liner notes—just a piece of instrumental music with a strange title. You’d have to do some Googling to find the meaning.”
And that’s not enough for Jóhann, who places great importance on the conceptual content of each work. “It all comes from this interest in having this oblique narrative attached to the music,” he says. “It always has to have a non-musical narrative idea for me to consider it something I can present.”
His eighth solo album, ‘Orphée’, is a series of quiet, mournful pieces that spiral upwards seemingly endlessly. It developed differently from his usual method of establishing a foundational concept early on.
“This time, I just started writing music,” Jóhann says. “I based it around an endless set of variations, around a chord progression that feels like it’s forever flowing upwards. The theme recurs throughout the record, and is present in some form in many of the pieces. Everything on the record grew from that. It’s not always apparent—sometimes you don’t hear the origin any more—but they’re offshoots that organically grew from the same plant.”
The record still developed a wider theme, gleaned from the worlds of mythology, literature and film. “One of the variations lent itself to vocals, so I decided to do a choir piece with Theatre of Voices,” he explains. “I tend to use existing text—I don’t really write. I tend to go for old poems. I found a section of Ovid’s Metamorphosis where he retells the story of Orpheus. Maybe because of this sense of the music flowing upward, that oft-retold story became the thread.”
Jóhann went about exploring the various retellings of the Orpheus myth, including the 1950 Jean Cocteau film ‘Orpheus’. “It’s old favourite of mine,” says Jóhann. “There’s a section where Jean Marais is listening to his car radio, and he picks up these strange voices on the shortwave spectrum. It’s a voice intoning a strange sequence of words, numbers and letters, that sounds like abstract beat poetry.”
The scene recurs a few times in the film, becoming a motif. “Cocteau based this on transmissions that he heard during WWII, from the British side,” he says. “During the Cold War, these transmissions could be heard quite frequently, and there are vast archives of them—very mechanical, very emotionless, robotic, usually female voices, repeating sequences in various languages—Spanish, English, Russian, Chinese. It’s haunting and beautiful, like unintentional poetry. Nobody owns up to being the origin of these transmissions, but they’re clearly intelligence agencies at work. They still exist even now. In the piece, they become like voices from another world—strange, haunting, oblique and mysterious messages.”
Creating such involved works alongside a demanding schedule of scoring films isn’t always easy. Jóhann’s last solo album was ‘Fordlandia’, released in 2008, and he cites time pressures as one of the main reasons for the long gap.
“‘Orphée’ is my first solo album in a great many years,” says Jóhann. “I started writing the first pieces and ideas in 2009. I’d find a week here or a week there—I did a string quartet recording in 2010, and some pipe organs and keyboards in 2011. The film music activity intensified from 2012 onwards. It was harder to find space to finish it.”
He remains mindful of cultivating space for the various aspects of his work to flourish. “I have to be aware of time,” says Jóhann, “so I have to say no to some exciting film projects. Sometimes it genuinely pains me to say no—but it’s very important for me to make space for solo work. What I do on my own albums informs the score work, and vice-versa. There’s a genuinely synergy and symbiosis happening.”
Both strands of Jóhann’s work have their upsides—the solo work is solitary by nature, whereas film scoring means working with a large production team.
“That collaborative edge gives a different kind of freedom,” he says. “In my own projects I have freedom, but in the score work it opens things up—I allow myself to explore a wider spectrum than I would in my solo work. You have to do what the film asks for, and create a world that works for the film.”
“I’m very lucky to work with directors who understand the potential and power of music,” he continues. “They understand what the music can do, and they give me the time and resources necessary to achieve what the film needs, and to avoid the cookie-cutter standard-ness that a lot of film music has. It’s easier to do that on a European auteur art film, but it’s harder on a $120m budget production. Denis [Villeneuve] manages to create that auteur feel, though—he manages to work with genre material and put his stamp and vision on it. The dialogue is between me, the director and editor, with no interference. His work has a more individual touch than a lot of stuff you see from that environment.”
The next chance to experience Jóhann’s work on the big screen will come this autumn, when a new collaboration with Denis will be released. It’s a big-budget sci-fi called ‘Arrival’, starring Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner.
“‘Arrival’ is maybe my most experimental score yet,” smiles Jóhann, “which is funny, as it’s the biggest movie so far. The weirder, more experimental end of what I listened to when I was younger is coming to the fore now.”
It’s this restless creativity and broad frame of reference that drives Jóhann’s work forwards. “To keep myself interested I have to find something new in a project,” he says. “There has to be something that challenges me. Film scores certainly offer that. Each project offers the possibility to try something new—something I haven’t tried before.”
Jóhann also keeps his process fresh by pursuing new collaborations, whether with directors and editors, art filmmakers, theatre productions, or the musicians that he writes for. “As a composer you’re always working with musicians,” he says. “I’m always working with string quartets, classical players, orchestras, ensembles. You’re always collaborating and writing with the player in mind. I’m a reasonable piano player but I can’t play violin or cello. These are sounds I use a lot. So it’s always a collaborative process. I like to work with people whose voices and styles I know intimately.”
“It’s always been about working with people that are interesting and nice to be around, and that make challenging and interesting work,” he concludes. “In the last years I‘ve worked increasingly on my own—since the Kitchen Motors years. A lot of it is a very lonely process—you do it alone, in a room. But I also regard these projects as springboards or potential avenues to collaborate with someone that has a unique sound or personality. Collaboration is a very important part of what I do.”
Read about Jóhann’s previous bands and his development through the Icelandic scene here.