Remembering Jóhann Jóhannsson, Visionary Film Composer

Johann Johannsson

A tribute to modern cinema’s most fearless composer, who sadly passed away last week.

I’d first knowingly heard Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s work in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, in which the score is characterized by low rumbles and staccato vocalizations that, fittingly, sound altogether alien to the ears. Like so many others, I was floored by his work here and sought out his back-catalog, realizing I’d heard and loved his compositions in two of Villeneuve’s other films. To my surprise, I also discovered Jóhannsson had scored The Theory of Everything, the exquisite soundtrack of which is poles apart from the rolling-thunder quality of his compositions for Villeneuve.

This tonal divergence is typical of the work of Jóhannsson, who sadly passed away last week at the age of 48. If anything unites his compositions (including his non-musical sound design for mother!), it’s that they have the unique, timeless quality of feeling overarching and immense at the same time as they come across intimately ambient. They have, too, the ability to evoke a mood all on their own as much as they reverberate the spirit of the visual narrative. Jóhannsson’s work often sounds the way that looking at Iceland’s dramatic landscapes feels: his ear-ringing score for Sicario rising and dropping as dramatically as fjords do; his unearthly compositions for Arrival emanating a sense of ethereality akin to the Northern Lights. It would be wrong, though, to suggest his music has an icy quality to it. Whether it evokes dread, optimism, or a sense of transcendental wonder, Jóhannsson’s work is always oddly inviting, prompting surges of emotion with the same force and beauty as steaming geysers.

It was while passing time in the queue for James Marsh’s latest film The Mercy that I read of his tragic, untimely death this Saturday. I had just seen Jóhannsson’s name on the poster hanging near the screen’s entrance – The Mercy is, sadly, now one of the last films he scored – and was excited to see which direction he had taken the music in; given his contrasting soundscapes for Arrival and Theory, it was anyone’s guess what The Mercy would sound like. My viewing experience was undoubtedly colored by the sad knowledge of his sudden passing, but it was nevertheless impossible to come away from the screening without a new appreciation for Jóhannsson’s ever-metamorphosing genius.

Before his passing, it seemed as if Marsh and Jóhannsson were in the early stages of building up a fruitful working relationship, one which could have rivaled his frequent, radical delight-producing collaborations with Villeneuve. (Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuve’s only film since Sicario not to feature Jóhannsson, after Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s compositions were ultimately chosen over his. There’s hope yet that we’ll get to hear what Jóhannsson came up with in the future.)

Both collaborations with Marsh were on biopics, making Jóhannsson’s work here stand out from the relative atmospheric unity of the three scores he produced for Villeneuve. Both Mercy (review forthcoming) and Theory required music that could match every emotional season of their protagonists’ lives – whether that meant elegant strings and piano music for a wedding scene, or darker, despairing strains to be played in moments of devastation (Hawking’s diagnosis) or desolation (as when Mercy protagonist Donald undergoes a moral crisis alone at sea).

Despite having a theoretical physicist whose work concerned black holes and outer space for a protagonist, Theory is a film characterized by love more than it is by science. Jóhannsson’s score did excellent work in fulfilling its duty of incorporating the full range of emotion in Stephen’s life, but its unassuming brilliance lies in the way it worked as a thematic bridge between Stephen’s discipline and his private life. The last few tracks on the film’s soundtrack – “The Theory of Everything”, “Epilogue” and “The Whirling Ways of Stars That Pass” – take on a transcendental quality that echoes Stephen’s fascination with the celestial world and blurs it with a profound spiritual comprehension of the wonder of life and love. There is a real genius in this feat.

Where Theory ultimately ended on a note of hope, though, Mercy is a more despondent affair, and so a latent sense of dread features much more heavily in its music than buoyant optimism does. As such, Mercy’s score acts like another thematic bridge, this time between Jóhannsson’s traditionally-minded work on Theory and the radical compositions he produced for Villeneuve’s films.

Prisoners was their first collaboration. Much of its score is made up of low, Scandinavian-sounding ambient compositions that amplify the suspenseful mood of the onscreen action and are difficult to distinguish from diegetic (in-scene) sound. In key stand-out moments, however, Jóhannsson’s music takes on a life of its own. “Escape”, which is played as one character breaks free from captivity (and which was also featured in Foxcatcher), features an unexpected surge of severe strings and choral voices that speaks to Jóhannsson’s canny comprehension of the pay-off of musical restraint. Here and elsewhere, the anxiety-inducing music pairs excellently with the film’s oppressive quality, forcing viewers to sit with their own uneasy feelings on the morality of its protagonists.

Next came haunting war-on-drugs thriller Sicario. Josh Brolin, one of the film’s stars, thought Jóhannsson had produced “one of the greatest scores” he’d ever heard, and it’s hard to argue with him. The movie’s music is, as many have commented, a character in and of itself. Perhaps idiosyncratically for a film of this nature, there’s a juddering bass sound that reverberates throughout the entirety of the score before abruptly dropping audiences into a sonic abyss, giving the soundtrack a gothic feel that works entirely independently from the rest of the movie’s components (strong as they are). Carefully measured percussive sounds imbue key scenes with a crucial white-knuckle edge and a military quality that would come across even if the characters weren’t dressed in camo. Jóhannsson’s masterful work here earned him a much-deserved Academy nomination; his ultimate defeat on the night being made palatable only because it was Ennio Morricone who took home the Oscar (his first) that night.

It wasn’t to be for Arrival’s score either, as Jóhannsson’s final collaboration with Villeneuve was disqualified from the Oscars on a technicality. There was much controversy over it being made ineligible at the time, and it’s easy to understand why: Jóhannsson’s compositions for the cerebral sci-fi film make up one of the boldest scores we’ve had in modern cinema, and earned Jóhannsson a fan in Hans Zimmer, no less.

In his non-film albums, Jóhannsson was a keen innovator in the field of blending classical components with elements of electronica, and nowhere in his movie work does this enthusiasm bear out more than in Arrival. Recordings of human voices, pianos and cellos were layered, looped, and put through modernist post-production techniques until the results were unrecognizable from those initial recordings. Conceptually, there could be no better accompanying score for Arrival than this one, since both music and narrative take something we’re all familiar with and cleverly render it entirely novel.

Much of the score was theorized and composed before shooting on Arrival had really begun. (Sicario was similarly scored to a cut of the film that didn’t feature any temporary music, contrary to common practice.) Re-watching Arrival with this in mind, you can’t help appreciating the way that Jóhannsson’s score so perfectly matches the tone of the narrative and the mise-en-scène. A particularly striking composition sonically emerges just as the pebble-shaped alien ship does visually, and like the latter, the music immediately strikes the senses as otherworldly. Later, disjointed, unintelligible human voices stipple the ears on top of the score’s underlying drone sound, a din that recalls both Prisoners and Sicario insofar as it resembles something like the warped pitch of a hydraulic press. The strange vocalization on tracks like “Heptapod B” almost sounds like something from an anthropological archive, which is a fitting non-diegetic accompaniment given the aliens’ own guttural communications. As with the scene that introduces the alien ship, the primordial-sounding “Heptapod B” proves the perfect aural motif for the onscreen action: it plays as the scientists are busy working on deconstructing the aliens’ language.

With Arrival’s soundtrack, Jóhannsson demonstrated a shrewd, instinctive understanding of the interconnectedness of film and music, as well as a fearlessness in composing that we rarely see in a modern film. Had it not been ineligible for an Academy Award, it would have been the most deserving winner in its category in recent memory.

His scores for the above movies are likely the starting points on any Jóhannsson fan’s journey, but his career in film composition didn’t begin and end there. There was, for instance, the music he produced for Baltasar Kormákur‘s dark Icelandic TV series Trapped. A claustrophobic, icy thriller series about a small-town community ripped apart by lies and prejudice, Trapped benefits greatly from Jóhannsson’s extensive experience with suspenseful, melancholic narratives.

A 2011 documentary collaboration with Dawson City: Frozen Time director Bill Morrison is perhaps the most hidden of all his career gems, however. Titled The Miners’ Hymns, it was a project memorializing the extinct mining culture of the North East of England, which was rapidly eroded after coal-mining went into decline around thirty years ago. As such, Hymns isn’t particularly well known outside of the UK, but it’s worth seeking out if only for Jóhannsson’s deeply moving compositions.

In producing its score, Jóhannsson had studied the brass band culture of colliery communities. As with his work on Arrival, he worked out a way to remodel orchestral recordings into compositions that reflected his own interdisciplinary interests. There’s a pathos to the deep, sonorous brass instruments that is amplified beyond expectation by underlying, electronically-produced wailing sounds. This idiosyncratic combination imbues the film’s visuals with a deeply elegiac quality; when his compositions were performed in former mining communities, a rapturous response from the audience indicated the music’s visceral poignancy. Once again, Jóhannsson’s perceptive work had spoken to something that sits deep within its listeners.

It would be amiss not to recognize Jóhannsson’s non-musical work in cinema, which was remarkable in its own right. Three years after Hymns, Jóhannsson’s first film — the documentary short End of Summer  was released. Written, directed, edited and lensed by Jóhannsson on Super 8 during a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula’s uninhabitable islands, this black-and-white short has the look of decades-old archive footage with its static camerawork and crackly quality. It is set, characteristically, to eerie, otherworldly notes that Jóhannsson worked on with Sicario collaborators Robert Lowe and Hildur Guðnadóttir (who will, fittingly, carry the baton by scoring Sicario’s sequel).

End of Summer works as a testament to the hardiness of the landscape and its wildlife, but, as with all of Jóhannsson’s scores, there’s a melancholic quality to it. You can’t help but feel it’s a requiem for something: whether of the passing of one season to another, or of climate change’s impact, Jóhannsson leaves up to us. Whichever conclusion you draw from its suggestive score and remarkable visuals, End of Summer is a precious glimpse into a creative side of Jóhannsson we didn’t see enough of. Here’s hoping that we’ll be given another chance to appreciate his directorial work with a posthumous release of Last and First Menhis Tilda Swinton-narrated feature debut.

Jóhannsson’s work displayed a deep interest in mourning. His post-modern studio album “IBM 1401, A User’s Manual” looks back to expired technology and nostalgia’s inherent sadness, while his film work was no less consumed by the same thing. Many of the stand-out moments of his scores for James Marsh and Denis Villeneuve are those that signal the death of hope, security or some other spiritual essential in a character. In his self-directed short, he mourned the lapsing of the South Pole back into its wintry ways, while his work on The Miners’ Hymns lamented an extinct industry and the community spirit that went with it. With so much of his work touching on loss, there is no more fitting way for fans to mourn the passing of a visionary like Jóhann Jóhannsson – or, indeed, celebrate his life – than to listen to his work.

Red Dots

You can hear Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final compositions for film in upcoming releases The MercyMary Magdalene, and Mandy.

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Freelance writer based in the UK. According to Lil B, I'm "a true positive spirit - Lil B"