The Epic Sound World of Jóhann Jóhannsson
The music and film scores of Jóhann Jóhannsson conjure a compelling, profound, and deeply perceptive sound world, full of stark and striking images, powerful orchestration, and time-bending electronics. The Icelandic composer, whose sudden death in 2018 came as a shock to the film and music worlds, was a driving force behind the sort of “neo-classical” movement, particularly in film music, of the last two decades or so. His work combines traditional concepts of orchestral melody and harmony, with electronic manipulation, synthesizers, apparent influences drawn from the minimalist composers of the 1960s and ‘70s, and indie and post-rock sounds of the 1990s and 2000s.
Jóhannsson’s music career began in Reykjavík in the 1990s. After finishing university studies in literature and languages, he composed for and performed in a number of indie rock outfits, with some blossoming national success. His early experiments and experiences in the Reykjavík music scene helped to solidify the organic combination of acoustic instruments and electronic manipulations that would come to define his style as a cinematic composer.
Jóhannsson’s career as a film composer eventually took him to Copenhagen and Berlin, where he lived at the time of his death. His film scores reflect those environments, as well as his native Iceland, both literally through song titles and direct inspiration, and tangentially through absorbed experiences and perspectives. Let’s explore a handful of Jóhannsson’s tracks from his solo catalogue as well as a couple of his excellent cues from films.
IBM 1401 A USER’S MANUAL
IBM 1401 A User’s Manual is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s fourth studio album, released in October 2006 on the 4AD label. The work draws inspiration from the late composer’s father, who was a computer engineer at IBM and one of Iceland’s first computer programmers. Jóhannsson’s father would use early computer hardware to compose melodies for fun. Accordingly, Jóhannsson incorporated electro-magnetic emissions from the IBM 1401 computer into his compositions. The IBM 1401 computer was one of the first computers built by IBM in 1959 and became an unexpected commercial success for the company.
At nearly eight and a half minutes, the first track titled “Part 1”, begins with a slow fade-in on a repeating four-note motif. Monumental, gusty strings emerge underneath, adding depth and dimension to the repeating phrase. Around 2:00, a higher-register motif emerges in the violins that echoes the opening motif on a longer time scale, eventually morphing in its own direction. A drop in dynamic just before 3:00 catches the listener off guard, but the energy is quickly swept up in a new direction, this time led by the strings into a floating landscape of orchestral imagery.
Around 4:05 the piece reaches its first climax, with a crescendo in the strings followed underneath by a resonant oscillator ramping up the emotional intensity. After this, we hear some light keyboard bells in the background and the music becomes slightly more harmonic focused, while all the while the four-note motif from the beginning remains.
The piece climaxes again after 6:00, led once more by the strings, and eventually fading out to reveal the original four-note motif. A beautiful example of form and shape in music and a great display of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s deft combination of electronic and acoustic components in composition.
“THEY DREAM THEY’LL GET THERE” FROM COPENHAGEN DREAMS
Jóhannsson’s score for Max Kestner’s documentary film portrait of the Danish capitol, Copenhagen Dreams, is both evocative and plaintive – a prime example of the composer's style in action. Recorded with some of his key collaborators, the score features string quartet, clarinet, celeste, as well as keyboards and electronics.
The film is an exposé on the physical surroundings that shape our everyday lives and “the buildings we wake up in, the front doors we walk out of, the streets we traverse … the places we dream of and the walls onto which we scratch the names of our loved ones, before it’s too late”, according to Jóhannsson’s site.
The cue “They Dream They’ll Get There” is short at just 1:26, but powerful. It opens with a descending string melody, accompanied by a reverb-laden piano figure. The initial melody statement is followed by a variation that leads into a second section dominated by a continuously resolving piano figure as the strings slowly fade out into the background. Sometimes the simplest of vignettes can be the most potent emotional forces.
“THE BEAST” FROM SICARIO
Sicario, the second collaboration between Jóhann Jóhannsson and the director Denis Villeneuve, follows the story of battles between United States federal agents and the Mexican drug cartels out of Ciudad Juárez. As such, the film score and music is dark, violent, and tense.
The cue “The Beast” is perhaps the first example in contemporary film score music of this sliding, microtonal string motif. Maybe you could draw a connection back to the opening sounds of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, where guitarist Tony Iommi bends his low guitar strings behind the guitar’s nut to create the foreboding and ominous presence that harkens a deeply apocalyptic feeling. Is it any coincidence that Jóhannsson was a metal head as a teenager? But, you can now hear similar concepts in Mica Levi’s Academy Award winning score for the film Jackie as well as in Marco Beltrami’s excellent score for the epically haunting A Quiet Place.
Jóhannsson‘s “The Beast” is essentially divided into two formal sections. The first section opens with the descending, “Iron Man” figure played in the double bass, as a distorted and disfigured drum sound emerges underneath. The two elements combine for about 2 minutes until they fade and are replaced by a clean drum beat and dirty synth figure – almost like a pure play on opposites.
“I CAN’T FIND THEM” FROM PRISONERS
However, Sicario was not the first meeting of Jóhannsson and director Villeneuve. The two initially collaborated on the 2013 film Prisoners, an Academy Award nominated film about the abduction and subsequent investigation of two young girls in Pennsylvania. Like Sicario, the film delves into the darker corners of the human psyche – a corner that Jóhannsson’s film scores seems to illuminate quite well.
The cue “I Can’t Find Them” is especially poignant. The first minute of the cue opens with a gently building motif in the woodwinds, supported by a deep drone, and later shadowed by the violins. The second iteration of the motif begins around 1:00 and includes deeper textures from the lower parts of the string section and more prominence from the upper strings. Around 2:00, the motif repeats for a third time. This time, the gesture is supported by the full string section, but does not come to completion.
Around 2:40, the deep drone fades out and we are left with the original motif in the woodwinds. The space Jóhannsson leaves here, after filling up the soundscape with such powerful strings, is stark and meaningful – echoing the title of the cue and the brutal feeling of loss.
“MANDY LOVE THEME” FROM MANDY
The main theme from Jóhannsson’s score for the 2018 psychedelic horror film Mandy is lush, epic, and elegantly simple. Like a twisted combination of Angelo Badalamenti’s theme from Twin Peaks and Robert Smith’s guitar on The Cure’s “A Forest”, Jóhannsson soaks the listener in a beautiful and aching modulated world. Try playing all three songs at once; it’s quite an experience!
“Mandy Love Theme” opens with a reverb-laden string texture floating above some synth soundscape. A gentle, floating melody emerges doubled on guitar and synth. Dynamic waves of synth texture modulate between statements of the eight note melody line. Around 2:00, the original soundscape washes away.
The melody again emerges after a brief period of rest, however this time it is played on some combination of heavily modulated electric guitar and synth, bringing to mind some defining guitar tones from bands like New Order. The density again deepens around 4:00, perhaps due to some adjustment in the depth or mix of the modulation effects.
Overall, this theme is hauntingly beautiful and a great example of Jóhannsson’s abilities in the realm of synthesizers outside his purely orchestral works.
GONE TOO SOON
Without a doubt, Jóhann Jóhannsson was one of the most intriguing and powerful composers of his time. His work has such poignance, depth, and elegance. His ability to manipulate emotions and generate powerful narratives with siple gestures and motifs is astounding. His combination of post-rock and ambient guitars, synths, and electronics with orchestral writing and arranging should be well studied and appreciated by both composers and music-lovers.
He has an extensive catalogue of works to explore, with his estate planning new, posthumous releases of Jóhannsson’s film scores and music, including the upcoming drop of “Drone Mass” from Deutsche Grammophon.
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Cover Credit: Bil Zelman / Getty Images
Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.