Appreciating The Musical Scores Of Jóhann Jóhannsson

Let’s look back at the work of a composer we lost far too early.

The recent death of Jóhann Jóhannsson was a devastating loss to cinema. Aged 48, Jóhannsson was only just hitting his stride as an international film composer, after decades of work in bands, theatre, and experimental music. Thus, we’ve only got a limited body of work to appreciate - but what a strong back catalogue it is.

Long before rising to international prominence, Jóhannsson had already been working in his native Iceland for over a decade, composing scores to films and theatre productions, as well as several “solo” neoclassical concept albums that themselves sound like scores to movies that never got made. From the quiet, mysterious melancholy of Englabörn to the livelier, more muscular work that followed, Jóhannsson’s style can be heard from early on. His work involves experimental combinations of orchestral and electronic instruments, using unusual chords and rhythms - nowhere more evident than on IBM 1401, A User's Manual, which used recordings from the ‘50s-era computer in its sound mix. Jóhannsson took social issues like miners’ strikes and the closing of factories as inspiration for several records, and the result is a body of work with an audible degree of empathy.

Jóhannsson made his English-language debut with Josh Waller’s McCanick, but he wouldn't receive widespread recognition until the release of Prisoners - the first project in what should have been a long-lasting creative relationship with director Denis Villeneuve. Prisoners - an underrated feature that elevates numerous thriller cliches - is all about desperation and paranoia, and its score reflects that perfectly. Its thick bed of strings spins a web of quiet doom over the film's suburban community, while synths approximate the sound of tinnitus, upping the surreal qualities of its character arcs. The whole work just sounds heavy, putting it in lock-step with the work done by every other department on the film.

Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything brought Jóhannsson his most prominent awards honours, in the form of a Golden Globe win and an Academy Award nomination. It’s a more conventional score than those in Villeneuve’s subtly experimental films, but as far as conventional scores go, it’s terrific. A soaring, dense nest of rhythms and melodies, it evokes the complexity of Hawking’s work without ever feeling like a mathematical exercise. More importantly, like Hawking’s depiction in the film, it directs awe at everything from the smallest gesture to the full majesty of the universe, leaping nimbly between fine figurative work and full-throated orchestral grandeur. The film would lack much of its optimism without Jóhannsson’s music pirouetting through it. God, it’s good.

Like many, I first discovered Jóhannsson’s work through his Oscar-nominated score to Sicario (2015). Legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch described his approach to George Lucas’ THX 1138 as using sound effects as score and score as sound effects, and rarely has this been reflected more eloquently than in Sicario. With rasping, growling bass drones and thundering, distorted percussion in the distance, the Sicario score plays like an oppressive, dread-inducing psychological experiment, constantly reminding the audience of the film’s ever-present danger. It’s so effective that even the gentle guitar or more conventional string pieces feel uneasy. Sicario’s score does extreme tonal heavy lifting, telling the story more directly than many scores, and becoming absolutely one of its most memorable components.

Jóhannsson continued down that path in his third collaboration with Villeneuve, the alien linguistics movie Arrival. Here, he wore his oft-cited influence of Mica Levi (Under the Skin) on his sleeve. Full of odd ambience, electronic blips, looped and modulated vocals, and the occasional deafening drone, Arrival's score is the perfect auditory accompaniment to a unusual science fiction story of mystery, wonder, and burgeoning communication. If any score is made painful to listen to after Jóhannsson’s death, it’s this one - you’re hearing a composer whose creativity and playfulness is on full blast.

Sadly, the Academy disqualified Arrival from award nomination on account of its use of pre-existing music - namely German composer Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight" in its opening and closing sequences. It’s the same rule that disqualified Carter Burwell’s score to True Grit (2010), which was adapted from classic hymns, and Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood, which drew from a wide array of sources - not to mention slews of sequels deemed insufficiently original. That the Academy has no consideration for adapted music is a true shame, given the number of brilliant scores deemed inadmissible.

Even more inadmissible for awards consideration are the two scores Jóhannsson composed for films released in 2017. Jóhannsson worked on both Blade Runner 2049 and Mother!, but neither film actually ended up featuring any of his music. In both cases, it was down to a decision to go in a different direction - a decision made by Jóhannsson, in conjunction with the films’ respective directors and sound designers. On Blade Runner, which would have been his fourth collaboration with Denis Villeneuve, Jóhannsson admitted the film needed something different to what he had been composing, so the decision was made to hire Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to create the Vangelis soundalike heard in the final film. With Mother!, the about-face was even starker, with Jóhannsson’s score removed entirely in favour of a purely effects-driven mix. 

It takes serious professionalism to recognise when one’s work isn’t necessary or right for a project, and I have great respect for creatives who can make tough decisions like that. I wonder whether we’ll ever hear what Jóhannsson created for those two films. Regardless of their suitability or polish, they’d make a fascinating listen from a procedural point of view.

Jóhannsson was the kind of artist from whom it seemed like we could still look forward to decades more output. We’re not going to get that, but incredibly, due to the timing of his death, three more Jóhannsson scores are yet to come. The Mercy, by The Theory of Everything director James Marsh, was just released in the UK, and its score can be purchased via the usual music retailers right now. Later this month, a second new Jóhannsson score will come to light, in the form of Mary Magdalene, the new film by Lion’s Garth Davis (a score co-composed with Hildur Guðnadóttir). And later this year, Panos Cosmatos’ Sundance title Mandy will knock all our socks off, if early reviews are to be believed. Sadly, Jóhannsson died mid-composition on what would have been his final score, for Disney’s Christopher Robin.

And then...that’s it. Someone else will have to pick up where Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sonic innovations left off. In Christopher Robin’s literal example, that’s Klaus Badelt, but it remains to be seen who will step up after that. Good luck to them - those are some major shoes to fill.