Jóhann Jóhannsson's Uncanny New World
The Icelandic composes tells us about crafting the score for 'Arrival', a unique challenge in a terrifying age.
In the last few years, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has demonstrated a marked savvy when it comes to film scores—and he's been lauded accordingly. His composition for 2014's The Theory of Everything garnered him Oscar and Golden Globe nominations (he won the latter), and the following year he received his second Oscar nod thanks to his score for Denis Villenueve's Sicario. And this Sunday he'll find out if he'll walk away with another Golden Globe statuette for his work on Arrival, Villenueve's cerebral, nuanced take on alien sci-fi.
In fact Arrival is the third project on which Jóhannsson and the French-Canadian director have partnered—a relationship that began with the 2013 thriller Prisoners. In all three collaborations, Jóhannsson displays a rare acumen for making music which functions as an essential element to the film's emotional infrastructure. He provides a soul of sorts, a reliable touchstone that becomes indispensable to a film's disposition, and with Arrival, Jóhannsson's excelled once again. At the beginning of the film when we don't yet know what has arrived, his inscrutable sonic portrayal of the mystery matches Villenueve's slow divulgence of facts beat for beat. And when the revelation finally comes, the moment is seared into our minds by a profusion of alien sounds, showcasing a soundscape that's new and exotic and yet still distinctly Jóhannsson. Next up the composer will lend his scoring capabilities to the much anticipated (again) Villeneuve-helmed Blade Runner 2049, out this coming fall.
Born in Reykjavík, Jóhannsson grew up listening to classical music, learning to play both piano and trombone, but he was ultimately disinterested in pursuing a formal, conservatory-bound education. Instead he studied linguistics and pursued music by playing with noisy, minimalist shoegaze groups and developing a zest for the studio. "I was completely fascinated by the studio process and layering sounds and creating soundscapes out of layering massive squalls of sound," he tells me on the phone from Berlin. "Layers of distorted guitar. Fuzz pedals. Filtered and EQ'd with masses of reverb and then stacking and sculpting them.
By eschewing the rigors of academic study, Jóhannsson's taste remained mutable and dynamic, open to creative forces that extend back hundreds of years. Included on his post-1900 list of influences are such varied artists as Karlheinz Stockhausen, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Suicide, and Philip Glass—with traces of each bleeding into his own unique voice as a composer.
Jóhannsson's distinct style first manifested on Englabörn, a 2002 record based on his music for a theater piece of the same name, which he describes as "a dark, very disturbing play about domestic violence." He continues: "It was dealing with very ugly things—the worst in the nature of man. My reaction to it was to try to write the most beautiful music that I could."
After positive responses from both critics and audiences, Jóhannsson expanded the music into a suite, subtly reconfiguring the score to better serve as a standalone record. Piano, glockenspiel, celeste, organ, percussion, a string quartet, and electronics all figure into the music, which is soft, melancholic, and very beautiful indeed. Englabörn is anchored by Jóhannsson's deft use of space and colored by his variegated musical experiences. "This music was kind of a Eureka! moment for me," he says. "Everything I'd been doing up until then seemed like it had led to that album and to that music."
The composer's approach to the standalone Englabörn doesn't differ much from how he tackles scoring a feature length film. "It's about putting yourself in a receptive state of mind where you react to inputs, and it can be from anywhere. It doesn't really matter if you're writing for film or if you're doing your own piece; you always have to put yourself into that space," he offers. "There are practical parameters, of course, involved in writing film music rather than doing your own album, but I view them very much as the same body of work. And, for me, there are very clear lines for me between Englabörn to Arrival."
Arrival certainly shares some sonic hallmarks with Jóhannsson's 2002 record: there's the emotive strings and the familiar staccato percussion, as well as a rich, contemplative character that suggests Jóhannsson's spent a lot of time distilling the story's essence, enough to match—and even help define—its tenor.
The flourishing rapport between Jóhannsson and Villeneueve is at least partially responsible for the music's potency. Villenueve grants Jóhannsson the freedom to maintain his osmotic approach, so that even with a concept and visual framework in place, the composer can still put himself in a space to receive those inputs, and interpret accordingly. "He likes things that are bold statements," Jóhannsson says of the director. "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."
One of the reasons Jóhannsson's sonics are so original and essential to the movie narrative is because he doesn't have to wait for a locked picture before he starts to compose—the score is not merely an auxiliary component to the film, it's encoded in its very DNA. "Denis is very generous with sending me material early on; in the case of Arrival, for example, I started recording the week they started shooting," says Jóhannsson. "One of the main themes was written during that first week, so Denis was immersed in that sound world and the distinctive sonic palette that distinguishes the Arrival score from the beginning."
Based on Ted Chiang's short work of fiction, "Story of Your Life," Arrival begins when 12 alien ships land at various locations on Earth, each hovering with otherworldly stillness just a few dozen feet off the ground. Inside the ships are what humans call Heptapods (named for their seven appendages), which look like the offspring of an elephant/squid affair. Their movements are fluid and judicious; their language cryptic and non-linear. Cyclical inkblots ejected from their tentacles serve as the only clues to their alien grammar.
Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is a linguist tasked by the US military to decode the language and, ultimately, discover why the Heptatods have come to Earth. After weeks with the creatures, Banks pieces together a syntax and discovers that they have come to offer a "weapon." Or could that be the word for tool? It's impossible to know given the inchoate understanding of the language's semantics. Meanwhile linguists across the globe struggle to deduce the true interpretation, igniting the short fuses of military officials and a frightened global populace.
This uncertainty furnishes the film's underlying tone. Should we be curious or afraid of the Heptapods? Awe-struck or terrified? Jóhannsson captures the threshold that exists between these emotions, holding us there in perpetuity. His music skillfully mimics Arrival's dilemma, constantly oscillating between fear and curiosity, violence and trust—often embodying two opposing emotions at the same time.
"It was obvious that we needed to keep people in this space," he tells me, but this seesaw is easy to tip. Lean too much toward terror and it sounds like a horror film; go too far in the other direction and emotional intrigue quickly dissipates. This created a notable challenge for the composer.
"One of the scenes that was quite difficult to get right was the scene where they make the first meaningful contact [which is soundtracked by his composition "Hazmat"]. The challenge is to convey the uncanny. There's fear and there's a sense of stepping into the unknown, but there's also awe and this sense that you're in the presence of something greater than yourself… finding that balance was tricky."
So how did he achieve that balance? In "Hazmat," pensive strings open the piece, wavering and becoming ever more unstable. When they're about to break, though, a resounding bass cleaves them and provides low-end support. The strings' vibratos then diverge from uniformity in arrythmic dance. Everything strobes. As the instruments teeter and sway, Jóhannsson introduces a number of new timbres, each more alien than the last: distorted glissandos, ominous static, and, eventually, the voice of experimental vocalist, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (a.k.a. Lichens), which arises from the abyss in tandem with the strings. Jóhannsson achieves balance because his music is dynamic. It breathes. It matures and then suffers setbacks—just like we do.
"A lot of the things that people think are bass synthesizers are actually Robert Lowe singing a line with layers and then those layers are slowed down so it's very human," the 47-year-old explains. "There's very little synthesized sound in the Arrival score. There are a couple of synthesized beats in there, but 99 percent of the sounds in there are acoustic in origin and either played or sung by a musician or a singer and recorded in a room."
After recording the musicians, Jóhannsson used the studio to sculpt his sound—as he's been doing now for nearly two decades. Percussive clicks are layered on top of one another in a rhythmically ambiguous mélange. Alien brass swells amidst the skittering vocal blips. "The sounds and the palette and the instruments that I wanted to use and the colors came to me very quickly after reading the script and seeing some of the concept art and immersing myself inside the story," he say. "It was very clear, for example, that the human voice would be a very important part of the score."
Jóhannsson used his knowledge of linguistics to outline the human voice's role, composing it in such a way that it resembles the prosody of speech. "For me the linguistic aspect was something that interested me very much," he elaborates. "Using the voice as a textural instrument… I wanted to use those basic building blocks of language as the basis of the score. There are no actual words being sung; they're syllables. There's this stuttering quality. A hesitation. Almost like there's a language being formed."
In Arrival the Heptapods' gift for humanity is their non-linear language, a tongue that, when learned, allows speakers to experience time in a non-linear way. While Johannsson's own language develops in the background, world powers debate whether they should accept this gift or respond with violence—many countries are still convinced that the aliens have brought a weapon. Nationalism, power, and scaremongering inevitably become dominant themes, as per real life, and uncertainty leads nations to the brink of world war. It's hard to imagine a more germane time for a film that's about the struggle to communicate and understand each other on a global scale.
Science fiction, at its best, can provide a fantastic lens through which to view our culture. It acts as commentary not only for where we are, but also where we're going. Arrival does this and Jóhannsson's score facilitates the journey. The soul he's contributed to this film is exceptionally human and, as such, exceptionally relatable. "[Arrival] relates with people's concerns today where there's a lot of uncertainty in the world," says Jóhannsson. "Our systems seem to be falling apart everywhere."
Arrival is reflective of our own world's volatile landscape. At any moment, it feels as though a major event could tip us to sharper clarity or set us into an ever-growing delusion. In the film, the implications that hang in the balance are of apocalyptic proportion, which feels all too prescient given today's current climate. There will always be uncertainty, especially during tectonic cultural and political moments and their resultant aftermath, so we must be vigilant in our attempts to better understand one another. Sometimes we just have to trust that the person across from us is good simply because they are human, and that is enough.
Photograph by Jónatan Grétarsson.
Arrival OST is out now via The Yellow Label.
Jóhann Jóhannsson Tour Dates
Feb-10-17 DE, Hamburg - Elbphilharmonie
Mar-25-17 USA, Durham, NC - Duke University*
Apr-17-17 US, Los Angeles, CA - Disney Concert Hall*
Apr-18-17 US, San Francisco, CA - The Regency Ballroom*
Apr-20-17 US, Seattle, CA - Nordstrom Recital Hall*
*w/ American Contemporary Music Ensemble
Keagon Voyce is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.
- Jóhann Jóhannsson
- Denis Villeneuve
- blade runner 2017