Jóhann Jóhannsson, Visionary Icelandic Composer, Dies at 48

Jóhannsson, who composed the music for 'The Theory of Everything,' 'Sicario,' and 'Arrival,' was found dead at his apartment in Berlin on Friday.
February 10, 2018, 6:36pm
Jeff Vespa / WireImage

Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Golden Globe-winning Icelandic composer whose cerebral scores for movies like The Theory of Everything, Sicario, and Arrival were regarded as some of the finest in recent cinema, was found dead yesterday at his apartment in Berlin, Germany. He was 48.

Tim Husom, Jóhannsson's manager, confirmed the news to Variety on Saturday afternoon. On Facebook, Jóhannsson's management paid tribute to the late composer in a short statement. "It is with profound sadness that we confirm the passing of our dear friend Jóhann," the statement read. "We have lost one of the most talented and brilliant people who we had the privilege of knowing and working with. May his music continue to inspire us."

Jóhannsson was born in Rekjavik, Iceland, in 1969. He studied languages and literature at university, but dedicated much of his time and energy to playing guitar in local indie rock bands. After discovering the experimental albums that Brian Eno's Obscure Records had put out in the late 1970s, his musical focus shifted; he wanted to write for small orchestras, to manipulate sounds, and bring together acoustic and electronic noises.

"I was completely fascinated by the studio process and layering sounds and creating soundscapes out of layering massive squalls of sound," he told Noisey last year. "Layers of distorted guitar. Fuzz pedals. Filtered and EQ'd with masses of reverb and then stacking and sculpting them."


That desire to blend seemingly disparate ideas stuck with him. In 1999, he co-founded Kitchen Motors, an Iceland-based think-tank dedicated to promoting interdisciplinary collaborations. There, alongside Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir and Hilmar Jensson, Jóhannsson had a hand in producing everything from concerts to experimental art performances, as well as releasing original music from left-field artists like Barry Adamson, Mùm, and Pan Sonic.

Jóhannsson released Englabörn, a debut album based on a harrowing play that he'd scored, in 2002; he followed it up with Virthulegu Forestar, a graceful and understated instrumental album in four parts, in 2004. He soon started playing with unique concepts to inspire his work. 2006's IBM 1401, A User's Manual was inspired by Jóhannsson's father, an IBM engineer who had used hardware to create music when he wasn't working. In 2008, he released Fordlandia, a record influenced by Henry Ford's rubber plant (and adjacent town) in the Amazon rainforest. On each of these albums, he brought drones together with horns, string sections together with looping electric guitar motifs. In Jóhannsson's hands, every instrument was part of a greater whole; at his best, he was in perfect control.

These were inescapably grandiose, even cinematic albums. The exception was Dis (2004), a sort of love letter to his home city, an album that shifted focus, drifting towards lush, electronic pop. It's a rich and weird record that shouldn't be left out of any conversation about Jóhannsson's best work.

His score for the 2010 documentary The Miner's Hymns, directed by multimedia filmmaker Bill Morrison, was a haunting and occasionally bleak piece that leaned heavily on the pipe organ. It received critical acclaim upon its release, and marked the beginning of Jóhannsson's career as a dedicated film score composer. He went on to compose the music for Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners in 2013 before working with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything. The latter won him the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, and saw him nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a Grammy.

He worked with Villeneuve again on Sicario (2015) and penned an stunningly eery soundtrack for Villeneuve's inventive sci-fi movie, Arrival. "He likes things that are bold statements," Jóhannsson said of Villeneuve to Noisey. "Things that have an individuality and hopefully an originality. And I don't make those claims for myself, but that's what I strive to do." Jóhannsson was originally brought in to work on Blade Runner 2049, but eventually left the project without anyone giving much of an indication as to why.

The label Deutsche Grammophon, who released Jóhannsson's last solo album, Orphée, in 2016, wrote a short note on Twitter on Saturday afternoon commemorating the composer: "In the three years of our close collaboration, a true friendship had grown. The power of his music will live on and continue to touch us."

Correction: An early version of this article said that Jóhannsson was 49 years old when he died. He was 48. We regret the error.

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