Ambient Explorations and Paralyzing Enormity: The music of Jóhann Jóhannsson

By Will Ross 

As much as any one piece can mark a culmination for an artist whose efforts spanned dozens of works and a myriad of musical identities, Last and First Men, the posthumous directorial debut of Jóhann Jóhannsson, is indeed a culmination, a project of paralyzing enormity and spareness.  Jóhannsson’s endlessly experimental and reflective approach to scoring movies begat an unlikely rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood composers (he was nominated for the Academy Award twice) and a legacy of starkly minimal yet affecting music. 

With that said, Jóhannsson’s earliest musical efforts were anything but stoic. His first recorded output was as the lead singer and guitarist for Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, a band championed by the influential English DJ John Peel. The handful of songs released by the group showcase the thick, oft-distorted electric guitars, dreamy and inscrutable singing, and straightforward songwriting typical of the shoegaze genre. Those simple compositional structures and thick, aurally enveloping textures remained fixtures of Jóhannsson’s artistic style. 

It’s telling that his earliest efforts as a solo artist were multidisciplinary collaborations. The music of his 2002 debut album, Englabörn, was originally written to accompany a theatre piece. It announced many of the techniques that recur most often in his work: high, shivering strings, soft piano lines, light electronic experimentation, motivic writing, and an overwhelming atmosphere of slow, reflective melancholy. Whatever expectation a listener might have for “gloomy Icelandic minimalism” is likely to be affirmed upon hearing it, yet there is an undeniable intricacy that gives it an emotional magnetism. 

While Englabörn set the blueprint for the approach that Jóhannsson became best known for, he would soon establish his considerable range. The 2004 Icelandic comedy film Dís featured one of his earliest and best scores, showcasing an understated-but-upbeat electronic sound that may surprise audiences who are only familiar with his efforts for American productions. Be it the score’s almost dance-ably catchy pop compositions or its more dramatic piano-dominated moments, the music is almost always driven by propulsive rhythms, reflecting the restlessness of the title character as she searches for a vocation. Jóhannsson recorded and arranged material specifically for the album release of Dís with the aim of crafting a standalone musical experience, an attentiveness to crafting the listening experience that had begun with Englabörn and would continue throughout his career. 

In the mid-2010s Jóhannsson began composing for mainstream American cinema. His score for The Theory of Everything offers a further example of his omnivorous approach to stylization. For the James Marsh-directed Stephen Hawking biopic, Jóhannsson adopted an intelligent, classical approach centered around a small orchestra, showing an open sentimentality rarely heard in his work. Its energetic but gentle piano performances may remind listeners of Alexandre Desplat’s smaller-scale drama scores, but its emphasis on slow-moving sonic details evince Jóhannsson’s personal touch. That score netted him his first Oscar nomination. 

Jóhannsson’s most popular music was largely written for Denis Villeneuve, one of Canada’s best-known contemporary exports to Hollywood. Villeneuve’s films emphasize visually dense cinematography and quiet, slow-moving interludes, an aesthetic approach that found a powerful accompaniment in Jóhannsson’s music. To complement the existential nightmare of Prisoners, the composer leaned heavily on strings, pitting the tortured good intentions of violins and violas against a creeping horror signified by cello and double bass while eschewing a forward melodicism for ambient explorations of simple motifs. Underlying these is the performance of the prominent main theme, which rises briefly before descending down, down, moving so slowly that a single expression takes a full 30 seconds to perform. While the theme may sound like it’s played on an organ, it’s actually a Cristal Baschet, an unusual contemporary instrument of glass and metal rods whose wavering fragility leaves that theme, the score’s most overtly humane gesture, sounding like it’s ready to shatter at any moment. 

If the music for Prisoners dramatized a tension between human intimacy and impending evil, Jóhannsson’s next two scores for Villeneuve explored the extremities of those emotional poles. For Sicario, an action-thriller deconstruction of the war on drugs, he opted for doom and brutality, using electronically distorted brass blasts, pounding drums, and heavy industrial sounds to evoke a psychopathic moral landscape of unrelenting violence. Unusually for such uncompromisingly harsh music, Sicario’s music received an Oscar nod, Jóhannsson’s second and final such acknowledgement. Arrival, on the other hand, counterpointed Jóhannsson’s signature string-led evocations of humanity with unusual percussion, electronic tones, and uncanny vocal samples — an adroit metaphorical union with the film’s tale of a linguistically-challenged first contact in the shadow of personal trauma. However, the most prominent piece in Arrival was not Jóhannsson’s own work, but Max Richter’s 2004 quartet “On the Nature of Daylight”. 

This use of another composer’s music foreshadowed the fate of Villeneuve and Jóhannsson’s next effort together. While they were slated to rejoin on Blade Runner 2049, their highest-profile movie yet, Villeneuve removed Jóhannsson from his duties before the score was done, replacing him with Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer. Villeneuve has since explained that he decided to pursue a synthesized sound closer to the original Blade Runner’s Vangelis soundtrack, and perhaps Jóhannsson’s musical vision for a futuristic dystopia was carried over to the decidedly unsynthesized music of Last and First Men. That film’s spare grayscale imagery and oblique voiceover storytelling are an unmistakable extension of the newly-minted director’s musical voice, yet the project he exercised the most complete control over was unfinished at the time of his unexpected death. His collaborators undertook its final edit, with his friend Yair Elazar Glotman finishing the score and his mentee Hildur Guðnadóttir, the Oscar- winning composer of Joker and Chernobyl, providing performances on cello, percussion, and vocals.  

As Jóhannsson’s only effort at the helm of a film, the painful irony of Last and First Men’s title is unmistakable. Yet his music was as prolific as it was accomplished as it was varied, be it his discordant offerings for the psychedelic horror of Mandy or the touching vocal ascensions and messianic overtones of his collaboration with Guðnadóttir for Mary Magdalene, his final completed scores. From his first to his last, Jóhannsson achieved something that’s rarely heard of — let alone rewarded — in a medium and industry that often favour musical extroversion: he discovered depth and character in simplicity and restraint.    

Bill Morrison’s The Miners’ Hymn, featuring a stirring, sombre score by Jóhannsson, is currently available for GOLD Subscribers on VIFF Connect. Last and First Men screens online at this year’s VIFF from Sept 24-Oct 7.

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