Jóhann Jóhannsson's Uncanny New World

Jóhann Jóhannsson's Uncanny New World

The Icelandic composer's tells us about his new 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.

Jóhann Jóhannsson shot by Jónatan Grétarsson.jpg

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 bleeding into his own unique voice as 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."

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