In Memoriam: Jóhann Jóhannsson

As 2018 winds down (finally!), it is the perfect time to take stock of what was gained and lost over the last 365 or so days. In many ways, pop ruled the landscape of music, probably due to how brutal and exhausting this year has been for many. When it comes to who we have lost, there are honestly so many: Pete Shelley (lead singer of The Buzzcocks), Mac Miller, Aretha Franklin, Avicii, Lovebug Starski, Craig Mack, and Dolores O’Riordan are a few of them.

That’s a lot of loss, not only of talent and art, but of life, especially considering the youth of a few of those mentioned. Another artist passed away this year, but it’s most likely a name that you might be less familiar with—unless you’re really into movies.

I was eager to write about Jóhann Jóhannsson for a few reasons. One, his youth. At only 48, and with so much promise, it’s a stinging loss to both the worlds of film and music. He is not your standard composer in any way. Most composers find their style and get comfortable really quickly. No shade intended, but think about your famous film composers (John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, etc) and there is an obvious style. You know exactly what you’re getting. More than most musicians who have their names known, it can become purely a job wherein the composer creates what the director wants and can possibly feel constrained by too many cooks in the film kitchen. Jóhannsson was constantly railing against those limitations, something that was increasingly apparent in his work.

His output alone is terribly impressive. Despite his untimely death in February from a heart attack at the age of 48, he was involved in the score of nearly 30 films, 9 solo albums, and numerous short films and plays. Did I mention he was 48?! All of this work was produced over just two decades. He was building an impressive reputation in the world of film, with two Academy Award nominations (The Theory of Everything, Sicario), two Golden Globe nominations (The Theory of Everything, Arrival), and two Grammy nominations (The Theory of Everything, Arrival). As a note, he did win a Golden Globe for The Theory of Everything.

Jóhannsson’s Beginnings

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because Jóhannsson did not begin with film. When I first decided to write this piece, my only connection to his work was film, so I decided to go back to the beginning and listen to absolutely everything I could. I wanted to just drown myself in his music, to understand what was lost. If you go back to 2002, to his solo debut of Englabörn, you can begin to hear all of the influences that would form him as an artist. This album was composed for a play, but released as a solo album. There are, of course, classical elements, but what really stands out is how influenced he is by ambient sound and electronic style. He was never afraid to combine the classical and the modern into something not heard before. The consequence of this is that, if you are not prepared, his music may be a bit hard to access. But this double album is worth the listen if you are willing to let Jóhannsson retrain your ears to accept this beautiful amalgamation of sound.

2006 brings, in this writer’s opinion, Jóhannsson’s most interesting work: IBM 1401, A User’s Manual. This is an album that I was dreading listening to, because, well, look at the title. It doesn’t exactly scream “fun.” Although his film work is arguably more complex, this may be his best output. Here is Jóhannsson willing to push the boundaries even further, somehow using the electronic cadence and robotic-sounding “vocals” to instill emotion into the work. This album also provides some insight into Jóhannsson’s roots, as his father was an IBM engineer and one of Iceland’s first computer programmers. Jóhannsson even used sounds produced from the IBM 1401 in his compositions. This album is a bit hard to describe. It feels ancient, futuristic, and timeless all in the same breath. IBM 1401, A User’s Manual truly must be heard to be believed.

This is around the time that his career trajectory changed as he began to work on feature film scores. From 2011-2012, he produced scores for 3 films: The Miner’s Hymns, Free The Mind, and Copenhagen Dreams. This will be brushed over a bit, in order to discuss his more well-known work where he really began to shine. But I would be remiss in not discussing The Miner’s Hymns because this really showed his ability to be flexible. The Miner’s Hymns is a more grounded piece of art, almost a workman’s like performance from Jóhann Jóhannsson. Although it may not be one of his memorable scores, it was a fine beginning and actually evokes some memories of the score from The Two Towers, specifically some of the horn work from “An Injury to One is the Concern of All.”

Gaining Notoriety 

Soon after this was his first collaboration with director Denis Villenueve. On Prisoners, we find Jóhannsson confident and powerful. Though much of the electronic influence is not present here, his score impacts the movie throughout. The use of strings inspires emotion that is complemented by the performances in the film, particularly of pained father Hugh Jackman. The use of bass and drums focuses the audience when things become dangerous and dire for people that we think are good that are about to cross lines. It may not be the work that is most indicative of him as an artist, but it certainly gets the job done and then some.

In exploring his award-winning score for The Theory of Everything, I wish I could say that the awards committees got it right. But as a fan of Jóhannsson, I just cannot bring myself to say that. There is no way of knowing what he thought of this score, but in listening to it in the context of his career, it is quite boring. Now, I am not saying that the music is bad or that it doesn’t work for the film. Neither of these statements are true. But, something feels off. It feels like a score that any composer could create, almost as if he was hamstrung by other forces. It’s painful, because this is a missed opportunity. Given the subject matter of Stephen Hawking and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s tendency to move towards electronic music, this should be a marriage made in heaven. Instead, the film’s creative team opted for a score that was more pretty than adventurous. And pretty it is, but to my ears, mostly empty.

Following his win for The Theory of Everything, Jóhannsson returned to working with Villenueve on his next two films, Sicario and Arrival. At this point, Villenueve and Jóhannsson seemed to have develop a creative partnership that allowed Jóhannsson greater freedom in crafting these scores. Jóhann Jóhannsson really comes into his own here and is able to combine orchestral standards, electronic, and frankly, noise, to create a back to back that is hard to equal.

On the pulse-pounding opening to Sicario, entitled “Armored Vehicle,” Jóhannsson sets the tone for not only the score as a whole, but also the film. He almost literally forces your heart into your throat, and given the plot of the movie, it is all extremely fitting. One of the most suspenseful scenes of that year, which takes place at a border crossing is perfectly encapsulated by the track “Convoy.” Specifically through the use of drums and horns, he tells us that we need to be on our guard and the film rewards that warning. This is the marriage of audio and visual impacting the audience on a visceral level. But this is nothing compared to his next effort.

Arrival can be a very difficult movie to talk about, especially without spoiling the ending. It’s about many things; alien communication, linguistics, family, connection, time, life, you name it. So imagine seeing what this movie was about (again from director Villenueve) and attempting to create music to capture all of these themes. Even just a quick glance at the track listing (including “Sapir-Whorf,” “Xenolinguistics,” and “Non-Zero-Sum Game”) shows that this is not for your standard composer. In my mind, Jóhannsson was the only person for the job. His use of ambient noise and electronic influences harkens back to his solo work and still somehow fits the film. As you listen to the score, you can almost feel the haze hiding the alien craft in the distance.

If you want one thing to listen to in order to understand Jóhannsson’s talent and ability, Arrival is where I would send you. There is gorgeous instrumentation, ambient sound, indescribable vocals, and just enough electronic noise to shake you out of ignoring a score. Arrival is a beautiful film that is only improved by Jóhannsson’s stunning work.

This should have been a collaboration that continued, but even before his untimely death, there was an interruption. Though Jóhannsson was involved in the beginnings of the score of Blade Runner 2049, he was replaced by the director, who stated that he wanted music closer to the the Vangelis score of the original film. Jóhannsson was contractually forbidden to discuss his feelings on the matter, but, in my opinion, a quote from Villenueve says it all. “It’s an artistic process. You cannot plan things. Jóhann Jóhannsson is one of my favorite composers alive today. He’s a very strong artist.”

To my ear, this reeks of a disagreement on the direction of the score, and it pains me that we were robbed of what this work could have been. I am no huge fan of Blade Runner 2049, but I am a firm believer that is would have been improved with Jóhannsson setting the tone.

The Final Score

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final work was for an insane little movie from this year called Mandy. I won’t delve too deeply into the film, but it is part slow romance, and part bloody chainsaw revenge story. Somehow, these pieces work together in concert, tied together by Jóhannsson’s genre-defying score. It is the best score of 2018, and, to me, there are really no close contenders. When it needs to be, it is soft and romantic, forcing us to fall in love with the protagonists, then switches gears to become the closest thing to metal that a film score really can be.

When the second half of the film occurs, it is a shock to the system, and so is the music. Jóhannsson has the ability to lull you into a false sense of security and then bash you over the head until it feels like you are about to bleed. This is Jóhannsson at his most free. He is able to tell the story of Mandy by any means necessary, and director Panos Cosmatos seems happy to allow this creation to take form.

This is where we end, and it hurts—badly. Jóhannsson was clearly coming into his own as a composer. He was not only pushing boundaries as a musician, but seemed willing to fight for what he believed was the right direction for his film scores to go in. I’m sure that if he had wished it, Jóhannsson could have worked for major directors. Instead, he chose artists like Villenueve and Cosmatos. This enabled him to work within the system, while still pushing himself towards the creation of scores that never follow the written and unwritten rules of the Hollywood system.

Every year, this is hard. It’s hard to remain grateful for the gift of music when our favorites pass, especially before their time. Thankfully, there is the permanence of media. Whenever I want, I can queue up Aretha, or Mac Miller, or The Buzzcocks, or Jóhannsson, and I can remember. I can remember not only the music itself, but the effort and power behind it. I will always regret the 20-30 years that we missed out on Jóhannsson, but I will never forget what he made me feel. 

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