It was with a heavy heart and shocked sadness that we reported last month the death of iconic Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. His haunting music has graced everything from television and cinema, both in Scandinavia and the world at large, culminating in a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for his score of ‘The Theory Of Everything’. He was 48 years old.
Jóhann’s life is a wonder to behold. Born in Reykjavík in 1969, he was proficient at piano and trombone by the age of 11. Although he went to Reykjavík University to study language and literature, music continued to call to him, starting off in the late 80s with the quirky shoegaze project Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, which caught the attention of John Peel.
Reykjavík’s music scene being as intertwined as it is, he would work with many different Icelandic bands, and helped found Kitchen Motors, a think tank, art group and music label that encouraged artists across different disciplines to collaborate. He would soon thereafter launch a solo path that catapulted him into the composer class. His haunting and elegant compositions would end up gracing such films as Sicario, Prisoners and Arrival. The rest, as they say, is history.
On this memorial page, we spoke with some of the people who knew Jóhann, and review his most stand-out scores. Rest in peace, dear friend. May your memory live on in our hearts.
Jóhann’s Stand-Out Works
A composer with an oeuvre as vast and glorious as Jóhann’s makes it difficult to pin a few standout tracks. So instead, we’re taking a broader approach. This selection is by no means definitive.
Orphée. Described by Rolling Stone as “breathtaking washes of melancholy, swoon, nostalgia and mystery”, this is probably the solo album to get into if you want an introduction in Jóhann’s world.
Miners’ Hymns. This is the soundtrack to Bill Morrison’s documentary of the history of coal mining in northern England. From this unlikely source comes a work that Pitchfork called “a halcyon autumn record, bathed in inviting half-light”.
The soundtrack to Ófærð (Trapped). The dread-filled, almost claustrophobic atmosphere of the acclaimed Icelandic television series is due in large part to Jóhann’s soundtrack. A very insightful work by an Icelandic composer creating music for an Icelandic setting.
The soundtrack to Sicario. Jóhann won both an Academy Award for Best Original Score and a BAFTA award for Best Film Music for this soundtrack. When you hear it, you understand why. You don’t even need to see the film first to appreciate this haunting, almost fragile soundtrack.
Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, “Spray Can”. This single from Jóhann’s first band has more than just nostalgia value. The dirge-like plod of this song is at once compelling and deeply moving. People have often compared this band to Jesus And Mary Chain, and while it’s easy to see why, DHPF had a sound all its own, and gives us a peek of the composition spirit that would inform Jóhann’s later works.
Úlfur Eldjárn, musician, Apparat Organ Quartet: “Jóhann was an extremely gifted and intelligent person, a sweet guy and fun to be around. Our time together in Apparat Organ Quartet was a period of an amazing creative friendship. It was the band we had all secretly dreamt of – revenge of the keyboard nerds—a stadium rock band with organs instead of guitars, and instead of a long-haired singer with star power and moves, we had motionless bald headed Jóhann and his vocoder, stirring the crowd into a frenzy with repeated monotone phrases such as “Stereo Rock’n’Roll” and “Músíka rómantíka y fútúristíka, de Íslandía.” It was Jói’s deadpan humour at it’s finest hour. His talent for writing simple, yet complex melodies, riffs and hooks was a real gift and his artistic vision was so strong and pure that he vowed to stop making music if he would ever start digging ska. “You have to warn me if I start liking to ska” he sometimes asked us.
“It didn’t really surprise us when Jói started scoring major motion pictures, he had all the skills needed and as a serious film buff, he had a deeper understanding of the format than most. It was incredibly inspiring to follow his work, to see how he managed to keep artistic control and integrity at all levels, yet perfectly servicing the needs and purpose of the film. To see how he managed to adapt his strict aesthetics and musical language to a more conservative and elaborate form of scoring when needed, such as in The Theory of Everything. But also how he pushed the boundaries, introducing raw elements of avant-garde and underground music to Hollywood films. He never took the easy way out.
“It’s tragic that our friend is gone, much too soon and a loss for the world that we won’t get to enjoy his future compositions. He will live on through his music, all the musicians he inspired and in the hearts of his fans.”
Kira Kira, musician: “Jói and I had an intensely creative friendship which sprouted music and playful collaborations across artforms that made me who I am as a composer today and I know our friends would say the same. We were music nerds with grand ideas and lots of guts to make them happen and the friendships that were sparked through the projects we produced will continue to flourish with his spirit in our hearts.
He was an explorer, a gentle philosopher who approached sound and music with a wild, almost childlike enthusiasm.
The last conversation we had was about honouring the legacy in the music that happened in Kitchen Motors through re-releases and archiving treasures that never came out. Regardless of how busy he was with his Hollywood scores, he always reserved energies for collaborations and experimental music adventures that were close to his heart and sparked his inspiration.”
Ólafur Arnalds, musician: “My favourite Jóhann story is when he had spent a year writing the score for Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother” and at some point realised that the film was better with no music at all. He proceeded to convince Darren to delete everything. It takes a real, selfless artist to do that. To realise the piece is better without you.
The most important part of creating art is the process, and Jóhann seemed to understand the process. The score needed to be written first in order to realise that it was redundant. So in my view, Mother still has a score by Jóhann. The score is just silence… deafening, genius silence.”
Óttar Proppé, musician and politician: “When I first heard Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, their sound made me think they were numerous, rambunctious and huge. In reality, Jóhann was relatively slight and quiet. Curious is the word that comes to mind. He was instinctively curious about ideas and art of all kinds. Jóhann and I met through music and most of our collaborations were musical.
However, most of our discussions and frenzies involved literature and cinema. No thread was too obscure or too banal to warrant investigation. Jóhann was informed as an artist and he was a perfectionist like no other.
For those of us who were anxious for results, Jóhann’s obsession with a single note, oftentimes followed and repeated through the night, could be infuriating but most often paid off. The task took precedence over practicalities; food and rest took a backseat. Although our work eventually led us in separate directions, our discussions continued whenever we met or got ahold of each other. There was always a new insight, an unknown work to share. Endless curiosities to work over that eventually might lead to unexpected juxtapositions and magic. Dear friend may your magic continue. I miss you sorely.”