Remembering Jóhann Jóhannsson, a composer who elevated good films to greatness
When the news of Johann Jóhannsson’s death broke this weekend, there was a collective, melancholic sigh across the worlds of cinema and avant-garde music. The composer, famed for his Oscar-nominated work on films like the sci-fi drama Arrival, had seen his reputation soar over the past half-decade. From 2013 onwards, he had transitioned from Iceland’s foremost maker of offbeat classical soundscapes to a friend and collaborator of any film auteur worth working with.
The label ‘visionary’ is thrown around somewhat flippantly nowadays, but it meant something when it sat next to Jóhannsson’s name. He was the kind of artist whose work could fill you with fear, rupturing every blood vessel in your body and reducing you to tears; unpredictable, scarce and piercingly effective. In a seemingly everlasting era of John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman scores, he was able to bury himself deep into the beating heart of any project he lent his name to, creating something singular with each new turn. There are only a handful of composers – even fewer who are alive today – who can truly claim to do the same.
Born in late 60s Reykjavik, Jóhannsson’s first foray into music came as a teenager as the lead vocalist for the short-lived shoegaze group Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. They were famed for their appreciation of extreme vocal distortion and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The late John Peel loved them too, spinning their cover of Blondie’s Heart of Glass a handful of times on his Radio 1 show. Jóhannsson would go on to play a vital part in Iceland’s rock scene in the 90s, playing guitar for Unun, Olympia and HAM, before finding the multi-disciplinary arts and music collective Kitchen Motors in 1999.
But his destiny lie elsewhere. Turning his attention to film scores, it soon became apparent that Jóhannsson’s music had the ability to make good films great, and great ones brilliant. It’s strange to think the film which led him to Golden Globes glory was The Theory of Everything: a cookie-cutter drama about the early life of Stephen Hawking that was somewhat formulaic; designed for awards season success. Jóhannsson’s work on it, a lustrous marrying of piano, fleeting flutes and layers upon layers of strings, is the closest he ever came to creating a sentimental film score, but its greatness lay not in how inventive it was, but how perfectly it paired up with Hawking’s story.
But it was the scores for the films of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve which would act as his most alluring and impressive works. They collaborated three times, on Prisoners, Sicario and, finally, Arrival, earning Jóhannsson two Oscar nominations in the process. With Villeneuve’s foreboding films as a reference point, his music became a beast: one that was gigantic in scope, but still bearing the layered intricacies that made his work so unique.
It was his score for Arrival that left most of us shaken, beguiled by a score that somehow managed to capture extraterrestrial contact, the limitations of language and the struggles of familial loss so effortlessly – as if the trio were a standard thematic combination. It was the antithesis of his score for The Theory of Everything, much of it merging ominous, nightmarish drone noises and a persistent, echoing percussion with weird vocal ticks; perhaps it would be a cliche to call it ‘otherworldly’.
Still, he was never complex for complexity’s sake, nor was he a fan of the formulaic approach, taking the short-cut to people’s hearts through exploitative, tear-jerking musical techniques. Instead, his compositions always felt impulsive and alluring, commanding as much attention on their own merit as they did when they were carefully mapped to the characters and story they were made for.
Jóhannsson was selfless, too. When Darren Aronofsky enlisted him to provide the score to last year’s indefinable, divisive thriller Mother!, the duo came to the mutual decision to scrap Jóhannsson’s music altogether, leaving an ominous collection of razor-sharp creeks and clacks behind instead. “You start with a slab of granite or marble, and you carve things out,” Jóhannsson told Vanity Fair, describing the process of writing music for the moving image. “And in [Mother!’s] case, we carved out all the granite, all the marble. And none of it was left.”
When he wasn’t working on film scores – a task that seemed to consume so much of the last years of his life – Jóhannsson worked on solo records, releasing no fewer than eight albums since his 2002 debut Englabörn. His final solo effort, the grand and dreamlike Orphée, wound up being one of his finest albums. Flight From the City, the album’s opening track, feels like a poetic ode to the past, the nostalgic sound of what could be flickering and crackling celluloid burrowed beneath a panoramic slate of repeated piano chords and string sections.
But it’s his soundtracks that will stand the test of time. If Jóhannsson was attached to a work it was often enough to convince a movie fan to see something they may never have expressed interest in otherwise; in other words, Jóhannsson’s name holds as much weight as any great director or star performer, a rare class of film composer indeed.