Noteworthy People – Jóhann Jóhannsson

by Jess

For this edition of Noteworthy People, we want to celebrate the beautiful compositions of Jóhann Jóhannsson who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago.

Jóhann Jóhannsson was an Icelandic composer renowned for his music for screen.  If you don’t know the name behind the soundtracks, you’ll definitely recognise the films he wrote music for….

Most recent box office hits include “The Theory of Everything”, “Sicario” and “Arrival”.

His writing style is particularly recognisable.

Unlike the catchy melodies of John Williams or the driving rhythms of Hans Zimmer, Jóhannsson is extremely effective with his use of blending interesting orchestral textures with electronics. His music creates an atmosphere rather than being obviously thematic and he experiments hugely with harmony.

When he does use melodies, they are often long and sweeping

…featuring lots of indulgent string writing or emotional piano lines!

His most notable film partnership was with director Denis Villeneuve, beginning their work together in 2013 for the film “Prisoners”. Leading on from this were the soundtracks for “Sicario” and “Arrival”, both scores being nominated for BAFTAs, Arrival nominated for a Golden Globe and Sicario nominated for an Oscar.

Not bad going!

“The Theory of Everything” (2014) was also another success for Jóhannsson, nominated for an Oscar and BAFTA, and winning the Golden Globe in 2015.

Have a listen to this section of music from near the end of the film and enjoy his beautiful string writing. Notice how he uses small cells of music in his compositions, repeating the short snippet of music but using different harmonies in the background. Once these snippets are layered and the textures are built up, the long lyrical string and piano melodies I mentioned above come in.

Film music wasn’t his only claim to fame and Jóhannsson also released several solo albums. The underlying conection with his albums is the tying together of traditional orchestral set-ups with electronics, often working with electronic music producers. The albums vary from music inspired for theatre to ambient pieces for string orchestras.

To see him live in action, check out this performance for KEXP with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. What is particularly great to see is that he performs the works with the group, playing piano and working some of the electronics.

Not many composers do that!

The interview also gives an insight into his composition process, with him talking about ideas he had or the briefs he got given.  My favourite piece of the set is called “The Drowned World” which is 30mins into the programme.

Finally, there is a lot to be said for the link between successful, high quality musicians and selflessness.

This anecdote from a fellow composer Olafur Arnalds really highlights this:

“My favorite Jóhann story is when he had spent a year writing the score for Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother” and at some point realised that the film was better with no music at all.

He proceeded to convince Darren to delete everything. It takes a real, selfless artist to do that. To realise the piece is better without you.
The most important part of creating art is the process, and Jóhann seemed to understand process. The score needed to be written first in order to realise that it was redundant. So in my view, Mother still has a score by Jóhann. The score is just silence… deafening, genius silence.”

Make your next coffee break or work commute ultra-relaxing with this Jóhann Jóhannsson playlist on Spotify. Enjoy.

R.I.P. Jóhann Jóhannsson 1969-2018