In the last few years, Icelandic contemporary classical favourite Jóhann Jóhannsson has gone from cult concern to sought-after maker of icy, sophisticated Hollywood scores. The news this week that he’s to soundtrack 2017’s hotly anticipated Blade Runner 2 would have most musicians daunted – but Scott Wilson finds him in relaxed form, with a new solo album release to keep him busy until the business of scoring attack ships on fire on the shoulder of Orion.
Jóhann Jóhannsson is busier than he’s ever been. Since rising to prominence in the 2000s with Englabörn and Virthulegu Forsetar, the Icelandic composer has become an in-demand composer for film, gaining several Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe for his work on James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. His next score, which he describes as “a challenge of mythical proportions,” is for the eagerly anticipated Blade Runner sequel, following in the footsteps of Vangelis’ iconic 1982 original. Before that, there’s the small matter of Orphée, his first solo album in six years.
Jóhannsson is so busy, that when I speak to him to discuss Orphée and his work on the Blade Runner sequel – directed by frequent collaborator Denis Villeneuve and scheduled for release in October 2017 – he’s in the middle of a month in the Italian countryside, not for a break, but at an artist’s residency to work and gain a fresh perspective. “I’m just here working and taking a break from Berlin for a month,” he says. “But I’m not on holiday, it’s just a different studio, with slightly greener surroundings than Kreuzberg.”
Despite Jóhannsson’s attention being diverted elsewhere over this period Orphée was written, it’s arguably one of his best albums. Previous solo LPs have explored topics including entropy (Virðulegu Forsetar) and failed utopias (Fordlandia), while 2004’s IBM 1401 was created with sounds produced from the electromagnetic emissions of old IBM mainframes. Orphée’s focus on the multiple retellings of the Greek myth of Orpheus is maybe an unexpectedly conservative choice of theme for Jóhannsson, but it’s resulted in what he believes is his most personal album since his 2002 debut, Englabörn.
“It’s an album that came together over a long period,” he says. “The first ideas were written in 2009 and they came together and formed a little ecosystem that I was growing over a long period. It was very organic – I’m using organic terms because it almost felt like it was a little garden that I was slowly tending to, watering and fertilizing. It began as this series of ascending harmonic ideas, harmonies that have a sense of being ever ascending, ever flowing upward. And it had the sense of going from darkness to light in some way, of crossing over thresholds.”
“It’s difficult to change your life and you make some difficult decisions. The album became kind of a diary of this period of transition”
This bittersweet balance of light and dark has always been a feature of Jóhannsson’s solo work, but on Orphée it feels more pronounced. It’s unsurprising given the part of the Orpheus myth he’s most drawn to, that of Orpheus’s trip to the underworld to bring his wife back from the dead. It was a trip that failed because he did the one thing he was told specifically by Hades not to do – look back at her before reaching the upper world.
“All this is fascinating to me. It was made during a period when I was moving from one city to another – I was moving from Copenhagen to Berlin and leaving an old life behind and starting a new one. Seeing old relationships die and new relationships begin. It was a period of transition for me as well, so that aspect of the myth is something that connected in a strong way to me as well. It’s difficult to change your life and you make some difficult decisions. The album became kind of a diary of this period of transition.”
Opening track ‘Flight From The City’ is the most powerful example of this theme of transition. Its piano riff starts each loop weighted to the ground and finishes by evaporating into the air. It repeats this process like an act of deep, meditative breathing. It’s easy to imagine it as Jóhannsson’s musical mantra, played over and over again as a means of coming to terms with his life’s many changes and not being tempted to look back.
Orphée is made from Jóhannsson’s usual combination of acoustic instruments and electronic sounds, but he also uses more unusual textures. Here it’s the use of recordings of number stations, mysterious short-wave radio transmissions repeating sequences of digits that during the Cold War were generally believed to be used by intelligence services to relay secret messages. It was something that came from Jean Cocteau’s take on Orpheus, a film Jóhannsson says is one of his favourites. It features several scenes in which the protagonist listens to bursts of words, numbers, letters over the radio, which Jóhannsson says “sound like broadcasts from the underworld.”
Jóhannsson first became aware of number stations through The Conet Project, a set of CDs collecting number station recordings that was released 20 years ago. Once he had made the connection between them and Cocteau’s film, he decided to use the recordings in Orphée. He started drawing links in his head of Cold War spies sending messages across the Iron Curtain and “communicating over some unseen threshold” to the album’s themes of transgression and boundaries.
“This seemed very relevant to me as someone who lives in Berlin,” he says. “I live right across from where the wall used to be. For me this album is very much about crossing thresholds, it’s about transgressing. Crossing a threshold is also sometimes about transgression – you’re crossing over into something you’re not allowed to and in some way the Orpheus myth is about that: the artist’s duty to transgress, to disobey and to rebel. To reach into the darkness in some way.”
It seems likely that an exploration of darkness will characterise his next major musical work, the score to Denis Villeneuve’s united Blade Runner sequel. The original, based on Philip. K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is an exploration of what it means to be human, set in a dystopian future ruled by megacorporations. Its potent symbolism and ambiguous ending are still debated to this day, and Vangelis’ original score is regarded to be one of the genre’s best. Jóhannsson is acutely aware of the significance of the task he’s been handed.
“Vangelis is a huge influence on me as a composer, certainly in the early part of my career”
“I saw the original when I was 13, the year it came out, and it had a huge effect on me. I was already a big fan of Philip K. Dick’s novels, so I knew the original. Obviously the film is very different from the book, but I was a huge fan from day one and it’s a film that’s hugely important to me in terms of both being a visual masterpiece – this amazing world that Ridley Scott and his team created – and also in terms of the music and the sound design, which is tremendously strong and which was very memorable at the time when I saw it. This is true of many people of my generation who experienced that film, it had a deep impact on them.”
“Vangelis is a composer that has been a huge influence on my own work – not only the Blade Runner score, many of his solo albums have been a rich part of my life for a long time,” he adds. “What I love about his work, which I think is also present in my own work, is his sense of space – the way he uses space, the way he uses silence and a sense of monumentalism. Vangelis is a huge influence on me as a composer, certainly in the early part of my career, so I have the deepest respect for him as a composer.”
The film, which stars Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto alongside original lead Harrison Ford, hasn’t yet finished filming. But Jóhannsson says he’s visited the set and has already started working on the score. “Denis I tend to start very early in his process,” he says. “I start working on the music when he starts prepping the film. When he starts shooting I’ve usually started collecting material and putting together ideas and starting the process of finding the sound of the film. This is a long process that can take many months and I like to start early in order to send things to Denis while he’s filming.”
Jóhannsson has already had a chance to score one sci-fi movie, Villeneuve’s Arrival, which is released in November. “For that film I did some recording sessions very early on, just before they started filming. I sent just a little snippet of iPhone footage to Denis for one of the pieces I was working on and he replied to me immediately saying ‘this is great, please send a five minute version of this.’ And so that became one of the main themes of the film. That was written basically before I had seen any footage, basically just from reading the script and talking to Denis and having an instinct for the atmosphere of the film. This is a really creative way of collaborating in film music. It often feels like film music happens after everything else is done. With Denis we try to make the music while the film is being created, so it becomes more a part of the DNA of the film.”
Something that will be at the forefront of the mind of most Blade Runner fans is whether Jóhannsson intends to revisit any of the themes and motifs of the original score. “It’s too early to tell. Frankly, it’s just so early in the process that it’s really not a question I can answer right now,” he says, refusing to deny that there could some continuity between the the Vangelis score and his own. Whether he uses Vangelis’ score as a groundwork or decides to start from scratch, Jóhannsson already feels like the right person for the job. He’s not the only composer since Vangelis to combine synths with classical instrumentation, but few are able to do it as evocatively or as imaginatively as he can. Blade Runner isn’t a huge franchise like Star Wars, and its themes and dreamlike visual language call for something a little more abstract. The “primal, subterranean rumble” he used to soundtrack the Mexican desert in drug cartel thriller Sicario, for example.
“It’s obviously a huge challenge,” he adds. “I feel like I’ve been given an enormous challenge of mythical proportions, almost. I feel like Frodo, almost. It’s definitely a challenge. I relish challenges, I love to be given a challenge and this is a big one. I’m very thankful to Denis and the producers of the film to entrust me with this project.”
Scott Wilson is on Twitter.