[Premiere] The First Full Track From 'Arrival,' a Sci-Fi Film About Communication

The film's composer Jóhann Jóhannsson talks about how he created the unearthly soundtrack to sci-fi movie 'Arrival.'
October 28, 2016, 1:40pm

The soundtrack for the upcoming alien sci-fi film Arrival will be the third collaboration between director Denis Villeneuve and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Their previous partnership was for 2015's Mexican cartel thriller, Sicario, for which Jóhannsson received an Oscar nomination. Like that film's unnerving, drone-like foreboding that moved away from typical Hollywood thriller compositions, this new soundtrack takes a more unconventional approach—especially for a Hollywood sci-fi movie, an arena dominated by the unsubtle scores of John Williams and Hans Zimmer.

Take, for instance, the first full track released from the soundtrack “Kangaru” which The Creators Project premieres today—it uses the human voice but repeats and layers the vocals until they become an echoing, encompassing, otherworldly chant. The human voice is is an important component in the film, which is about communication and language, so Jóhannsson wanted the to score to be a reflection of this, invoking the themes of the film while adding to its tensity.


The human voice wasn't the only instrument Jóhannsson layered to create his peculiar, unfamiliar soundtrack, though—he also layered piano sounds and percussion, recording it all on a tape loop to get the desired effect.

To bring a classical element into the vocals Jóhannsson worked with the celebrated musical ensemble Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier, along with artists such as Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Hildur Guðnadóttir. He also used “found sounds” from legendary avant-garde vocalist Joan La Barbara.

The result is one where sound design and soundtrack walk the same line, where experimental is favored over convention and where the stratified sounds accentuate the tension on screen. We fired off a few questions to find out more about the score and the first track from it:

Jóhann Jóhannsson. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Creators Project: Can you briefly give some context to the song "Kangaru" and where it features in the film? 

Jóhann Jóhannsson: “Kangaru” is a track that is featured in the end credits. It’s a version of a piece called “Heptapod B,” which is featured in a montage sequence which shows how Louise [Banks, played by Amy Adams] and Ian [Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner] [are] in the process of deciphering the aliens’ language. “Kangaru” differs to “Heptapod B” in that there is no percussion and the focus is on the vocals, particularly the repeated leaping female vocal ostinato motif.


Considering you said you had carte blanche to create the soundtrack, where do you begin on crafting it? What were some of your goals for the sort of soundtrack you wanted to make in terms of this being a movie about alien contact?

I read the short story ["Story of Your Life"] by Ted Chiang and then the script of course. I knew from the first few pages that vocals would feature prominently in the score. I have been writing for choir quite a bit in recent years and this score gave me the opportunity to explore techniques and vocal textures that are unusual and experimental. I also wanted to blend a “classical” avant-garde vocal ensemble, Theatre of Voices, with sounds from vocalists from other backgrounds and also to layer the voices and process them with both analog means like the tape loop, and digitally.

Many of the sounds were created by layering vocals and piano sustains without the attack on an analog 16-track tape loop and this is directly inspired by the circular motifs in the film, the so-called logograms, the form of writing used by the aliens. This is a film about communication, about language and the nature of time and how we perceive it. All of these ideas were fascinating to me and directly inspired the music. The key elements of the music were decided and a lot of it was written before I saw any footage, just based on the script and the concept art.

And did you start with some key sounds (menacing or otherwise), elements or musicians you know you wanted to include? 

I wanted to work with Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier, partly as they are—in addition to being masterful interpreters of early music—also specialists in harmonic and overtone singing and this was a technique I wanted to employ. I also knew I wanted to work with Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who has an amazingly unique and versatile voice. I also recorded some Japanese wind instruments like the Hichiriki, which is used in Gagaku, the traditional Japanese court music. I also recorded a lot of percussion, mainly using planks of wood of various kinds, played with mallets and layered and processed digitally. There is also some unusual metallic percussion layered with this.


Can you break down the processes behind the particular song "Kangaru"—how was this created and what was the idea behind it? I wrote some stuttering, staccato vocal parts recorded in several layers which are then joined by a more traditional choir sound, though still singing in a relatively arhythmic staccato which establishes the harmonic pattern. Then we hear a high female voice singing an ostinato vocal phrase I borrowed and altered slightly from the legendary avant garde singer Joan La Barbara’s 1980 piece “Erin” (below). The original is a very complex piece but I loved the idea of taking one simple phrase from this relatively obscure piece of contemporary vocal music and making it the main “hook” of the piece.

Then you hear the orchestra join in, stuttering, aleatoric string rhythms and brass swells. There is also a harpsichord continuo which slowly fades in and emphasizes the rhythm. There is quite a lot of harpsichord in the score, but I use it principally as a rhythmic instrument. There is also some processed vocals and orchestra which fills in the sound. There is no percussion and the lower end of the spectrum is kept empty, which gives it a very airy feel.

Does the approach to that song typify how the soundtrack was made? Or what were some of the other key approaches and processes to making it? 

The first pieces I wrote for the score were composed using a technique employing analog tape loops, an old technique that has been used by artists from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Pierre Schaeffer to Brian Eno. Using a 16-track tape machine, I recorded and layered the sounds of four different pianos, recording endless layers upon layers of the sustain of the piano note without the attacks. Eventually, the tape was filled with a very deep and organic drone, where the resonant qualities of the piano strings built up into a captivating and otherworldly sound, made entirely by using a very ordinary instrument in a unique way, without any further processing. This drone then became the basis for various vocal experiments with one of my regular collaborators, Robert Aiki Aubry Lowe, who provided vocals for parts of the score. I gave him a sequence of notes and he sung them in his own unique way using harmonic or overtone singing. This was also recorded into the tape loop and layered creating an unearthly, uncanny sound.


Percussionist Ólafur Björn Ólafsson laying down some drums for the Story of Your Life score

A video posted by Jóhann Jóhannsson (@johann_johannss) on

Apr 21, 2016 at 6:51am PDT

Following on from that, the press release notes you mixed orchestral sound writing with digital processing. Why do you like combining those two methods?

I have used digital processing of acoustic recordings for a long time and I try to create a sound where the source material and the processed sound truly meld together organically, so that it becomes one instrument almost. The vocals are mostly not processed though, they are natural voices, layered voices. But I combine these sounds with many layers of different acoustic sounds which are layered and processed digitally.

Your film scores are very audiovisual, as it were, where sound design and musical score merge. Why do you favor this approach? I always think about the sound design, the dialogue and the aural image of the film as a whole when I compose for film. With Denis Villeneuve there is a dialog between the music and sound departments going on at an early stage and the two are working in tandem, under the direction of Denis.

The Arrival - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is out November 11, 2016 on Deutsche Grammophon. Jóhann Jóhannsson will be playing the Barbican in London on December 9, 2016. Visit Jóhann Jóhannsson's website here to learn more about the composer.


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