Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who penned a slew of influential solo albums and a number of Hollywood scores, including The Theory of Everything and Arrival, died in Berlin on Friday, February 9. John Twells looks back on a life of artistic integrity, exploration and collaboration.
I was wearing an Iron Maiden shirt when I met Jóhann Jóhannsson for the first time, idling backstage after a performance of Fordlandia in Brussels. “Iron Maiden? Have you seen Chemical Wedding?” he asked. Jóhannsson was talking about Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s foray into screenwriting: a critically mauled low-budget horror film that wondered what would happen if a Cambridge University professor was possessed by the spirit of sex magick deity Aleister Crowley, in virtual reality, of course. It takes a fan of a certain caliber to pay attention to a dalliance like this, but Jóhannsson was a man who concerned himself with details others might overlook.
It was a few years earlier when I’d first come across Jóhannsson’s music. I was thumbing through LPs at Pelicanneck in Manchester when I was handed Jóhannsson’s debut solo album, Englabörn. The record was released in 2002 by long-running experimental imprint Touch and teemed with life. Unlike some of the more austere, academic releases on the label, Englabörn was unashamedly sentimental, a careful blend of widescreen orchestral flourishes, music box chimes and eerie robotic voices. It was an immediate favorite; when I met Jóhannsson in Belgium we were discussing a possible vinyl release of the album on my own record label.
Although Englabörn was his solo debut, Jóhannsson had already been active on the Icelandic music scene for many years. When he was just 18 years old, he was chugging away at The Jesus and Mary Chain-indebted noise pop under the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm moniker and nudging towards wider notoriety with popular Icelandic rock band Ham. Later, he circled synthpop with Lhooq: a Dubstar-esque collaboration with singer Sara Marti Guðmundsdóttir and Pétur Hallgrímsson that was popular enough for Jóhannsson and Hallgrímsson to bag production credits on Marc Almond’s 2001 album Stranger Things.
In 1999, alongside guitarist Hilmar Jensson and producer Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir (aka Kira Kira), Jóhannsson established Kitchen Motors, an art collective and record label that highlighted innovation in the Icelandic music and art community. Kitchen Motors promoted shows, produced films and encouraged collaboration; the label didn’t release much, but highlighted an Icelandic scene that put artistic exploration way ahead of genre. This fluidity is something that’s been present in Jóhannsson’s work throughout his career, from his electro-prog-metal experiments with Apparat Organ Quintet to his kosmische adventures with Stilluppsteypa and BJ Nilson as Evil Madness.
In parallel, Jóhannsson was slowly building up a reputation for his soundtracks. His confident fusion of classical tropes and subtle electronics was almost tailor made for the big screen and he scored a slew of Icelandic productions in the early 2000s, including Varmints, a short from animator Marc Craste. This score was released as And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees in Iceland 2009 and Jóhannsson asked me to issue the global edition on Type.
A couple of years later, he collaborated with acclaimed filmmaker Bill Morrison on The Miners Hymns, a documentary that explored the history of coal mining and workers’ rights in the north of England. Jóhannsson’s accompaniment cleverly focused on brass – a nod to the brass bands that were a staple of mining communities in the UK – a touching treatment that sidestepped the lumpen, self-absorbed melancholia that dogged many similar projects. And soon enough, Jóhannsson was eyeing Hollywood, collaborating with young Québécois director Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners, Villeneuve’s first English-language feature.
Prisoners kicked off another stage in Jóhannsson’s career. In just a few years, he went from being a high-profile Icelandic experimental artist to Hollywood composer de jour, with a slew of high profile projects – Villeneuve’s Sicario and James Marsh’s Theory of Everything – that garnered him a couple of Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe win. But Jóhannsson couldn’t rest on his laurels. It would have been easy at this stage in his career to start dialing it in. Hollywood can be a production line of sorts and a movie’s soundtrack is often an afterthought; if you’re close enough to Hans Zimmer’s The Thin Red Line then you’re usually in the clear, but Jóhannsson had no intention of turning his art into sterile commerce.
After working with Villeneuve on 2015’s acclaimed sci-fi epic Arrival, he was tapped to compose the score for Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult 1982 favorite. Jóhannsson was an avid fan of the first movie (and Philip K. Dick’s source text, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and had grown up deeply attached to Vangelis’s career-defining soundtrack, so set to work working on a treatment that retained the virtuoso qualities of the original but traveled in a bold new direction, avoiding repetition and cliche. Sadly, this wasn’t what the film’s producers wanted and Jóhannsson was replaced with composers that would toe the line: Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.
Not long later, Jóhannsson worked with Darren Arnofsky on the score for mother!, a challenging film that left critics and audiences confused and often angry. After finishing the composition, Jóhannsson and Arnofsky began to think that the film would work better without a score. They removed it, leaving only traces of sound design in its place and the result is chilling. The last time I met Jóhannsson in person we talked about mother! and he urged me to see it; he was fascinated by the film and pleased with his decision. He hadn’t told me that his score had been axed, so when I watched it a few months later it was even more unsettling. It was a score inverted, with all focus on the processed clink of a glass or a foot pressing down on a creaky wooden board.
This boldness was Jóhannsson’s greatest strength. He was an artist, first and foremost – the community-minded, free-spirited thinker behind Kitchen Motors. Even when he was staring down global fame and the promise of its financial rewards, he was still able to make tough artistic choices that hampered his immediate progress. In the next year we’ll get to hear his scores for Beyond the Black Rainbow-director Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, Theory of Everything director James Marsh’s The Mercy and Garth Davis’s big-budget Biblical epic Mary Magdalene, but that’s where the book closes.
When Jóhannsson died on Friday, February 9 in his adopted home of Berlin, he left a chasm in his wake. Jóhannsson was a talented solo artist, insightful collaborator, community leader, father, brother and acclaimed Hollywood composer. He was a trusted friend to a sprawling constellation of minds and an inspiration to many more. He will be missed.
John Twells is FACT’s Managing Editor. He is on Twitter