Liner Notes: Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson remembered

Updated / Wednesday, 14 Feb 2018 22:00

By Aedín Gormley

Not long after I came off air last Saturday, the very sad news broke that Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson had died at the age of just 48. For me, he was one of the most creative, inventive and eclectic composers out there, and a creator of new sounds.

He did work successfully outside of film soundtracks. His 2015 piece for electronics, string quartet and vocal ensemble, Drone Mass premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His 2016 album Orphée is well worth checking out, where the composer drew inspiration from the story of Orpheus' attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld.

In terms of film soundtracks, there may be just a handful to mention but they are examples of a shift in the approach to film scoring. Sadly now with his untimely death, and a career cut short they make up just a sample of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s talent, but no doubt his compositions will influence many others in the years ahead.

The Theory of Everything starring Eddie Redmayne as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is his most accessible tuneful score. He won a Golden Globe for this soundtrack and earned himself an Oscar nomination. Jóhannsson said that he had always been fascinated by Stephen Hawking, and that he approached the music very much on emotional terms. It is quite minimalist in style with emphasis mainly on strings, piano, harp and woodwinds - but also has emotional power when needed.

His most successful collaboration was with Denis Villeneuve. Jóhannsson worked three times with the French Canadian writer/director on Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival.

Strangely enough, I watched Sicario last week. It’s not an easy film to watch, it has to be said. The 2015 crime-thriller starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin follows a principled FBI agent who is enlisted by a government task force to bring down the leader of a powerful and brutal Mexican drug cartel.

In an interview with Deadline Hollywood about Sicario the composer said, "The percussion is definitely a huge part of the film and that came from our discussion about the film very early on. Denis said that he saw the film as a war film and that he wanted me to write "subtle war music."

Now there’s a challenge, and one Jóhannsson rose to with a rather unique soundscape to create an ominous, percussive work with low brassy chords that seem to come out of nowhere alongside threatening pounding rhythms and ominous bass sounds.

I think his finest achievement in film scoring though was Arrival, the 2016 science fiction film starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.

The film follows a linguist enlisted by the U.S. Army to discover why aliens have arrived on Earth. This was a science fiction film with a difference, as it was very much focused on how humans could communicate with an alien species. It is a film about language and communication, and so Jóhannsson cleverly decided that the human voice would feature prominently in the score. The composer worked with various singers and vocal ensembles, including the renowned Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier. Heptapod B is one of the stand-out tracks where this otherworldly atmosphere is created.

Have a listen to the track First Encounter, when we finally see the alien creatures that have landed on earth. Jóhannsson creates a sinister drone with a blast of horn as these extraterrestrial beings suddenly appear on the screen.

Director Denis Villeneuve heard the first notes of Arrival’s music before shooting and said that he shot the movie listening to Johann’s score.

Vileneuve and Jóhannsson were to collaborate together on Blade Runner 2049, but in the end Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch scored the film. In an interview with IndieWire the director explained why.

"The thing I will say is that making movies is a laboratory. It’s an artistic process. You cannot plan things. Jóhann Jóhannsson is one of my favourite composers alive today. He’s a very strong artist," Villeneuve told Al Arabiya English. "But the movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis. Jóhan and I decided that I will need to go in another direction — that’s what I will say. I hope I have the chance to work with him again because I think he’s really a fantastic composer."

Though Jóhannsson has tragically left us, we will still hear more of his music in upcoming films. He composed the score for the thriller Mandy starring Nicolas Cage (which just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival) as well as the film Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara, which can be seen at this year's Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

Hear the soundtracks from Sicario, Arrival and The Theory of Everything on Movies and Musicals with Aedín Gormley, Saturday 1-4pm on RTÉ Lyric fm