Ever since he was 18, when he started performing in rock bands in Reykjavik, Jóhann Jóhannsson has been looking for ways to break out of rigid categories. The music he¹s written for contemporary dance and theater productions, films, pop musicians and his own albums, has always explored the boundary between natural acoustic sounds and electronics, with the goal of exploring and unifying these opposites. “Music is important to me, but it¹s not how I define what I do,” he says.” ”I’m obsessed with the texture of sound and interested in minimal forms, with how to say things as simply as possible, how to distill things into their primal form. The simpler the expression, the easier it is to communicate ideas.”
Jóhannsson started studying piano and trombone when he was 11, but stopped formal musical studies in high school, feeling hampered by the constraints of academic music. After studying literature and languages at university, he spent 10 years playing his music in indie rock bands, concentrating on feedback drenched compositions using layers of guitars to sculpt interesting multi-layered soundscapes. “When I discovered the albums on Eno's Obscure Records label from the 70's, my interest moved into creating minimal, ambient structures with classical instruments. I set the guitar aside and started writing music for strings, woodwinds and chamber ensembles, combining acoustic and electronic sounds.” By manipulating the resonances of acoustic instruments with digital processing, Jóhannsson created music that integrated acoustic and electronic sounds into something unique and new. “My ideal is music where the electronic and the acoustic sounds blend seemlessly.”
Reykjavik¹s fertile creative community was small and collaborations between musicians, artists, actors and dancers were common. In 1999, Jóhannsson was a founder member of Kitchen Motors, an art organization/think tank/record label that encouraged interdisciplinary collaborations. “We tried to amplify the opportunities that already existed, pulling together people from the worlds of jazz, classical, electronic music, punk and metal to encourage new hybrids. My own music grew out of those experiments.”
Jóhannsson’s first solo album, Englabörn (Touch, 2002), was a suite based on the music written for the theater piece of the same name, a meeting of classical strings and electronics. “I recorded the strings, then processed them through digital filters to take apart the sounds and reassemble them. I like going to the microscopic core of the music to extract the essence, then use that to build up layers of sound.”
Writing music for plays, dance and theatrical performances led to work on film soundtracks. Jóhannsson scored more than a dozen movies, including The Good Life (Eva Mulvad, DK 2010), Varmints (Marc Craste, UK 2008) and For Ellen (So Yong Kim, US 2012) before his recent work with director Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners and Josh C. Waller on McCanick. His music has also found a home in art house films across the globe, from Lou Ye's Mystery (CN 2011) to Janos Szazs' recent prize winning drama, Le Grand Cahier (HU 2013).
Jóhannsson and Villeneuve decided to try something radical for the soundtrack for Prisoners, a gripping drama about kidnapping and revenge. “Denis wanted the music to be a poetic voice that worked in counterpoint to the action of the film,” Jóhannsson says. ³Even though the film is a thriller, the music is lyrical and beautiful, in stark contrast to the horror, ugliness and atrocities that the film depicts.” Jóhannsson composed the score watching an early cut of the film, reacting to the disturbing images on screen. He scored the music for an orchestra withlarge string and woodwind sections and featured the sounds of two little known instruments. The Cristal Baschet is an instrument similar to a glass harmonica, with huge metallic resonators, while the Ondes Martenot is an early electronic instrument similar to a theremin, but with a softer sound. By blending those unfamiliar sounds with string instruments, Jóhannsson created music with a delicate, glassy surface. His tranquil music actually heightens the tension of the film, despite its ambient sound.
For his score for the crime drama McCanick, Jóhannsson took an entirely different tack. “It¹s a psychological drama, so I used a small string orchestra as a percussion instrument. I recorded 20 players just hitting their instruments with the back of their bows, then manipulated those textures and blended with electronic sounds.” The result is dark, skittering music that amplifies the film¹s heart pounding tempo.
Jóhannsson says his approach to film music is informed by influences as diverse as Kraftwerk, Steve Reich, Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans, Arvo Part, Ennio Morricone, Morton Feldman, and Bernard Herrmann, but a list of his influences doesn’t do justice to the journey he took to arrive at his singular vision.
Jóhannsson grew up in the suburbs of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. His father was the chief maintenance engineer for IBM and one of Iceland¹s first computer programmers. ³In his downtime, at work, he’d compose melodies and sounds on the IBM 1401, a prehistoric computer, Jóhannsson says. “The music he programmed inspired my composition IBM 1401- A User¹s Manual. I incorporated some of the sounds he created when I composed the piece.”
Jóhannsson's interest in modular synthesizers and ancient electronic instruments found an outlet in his all-analogue side project Apparat Organ Quartet, a band he formed in 1999 with 3 fellow synth and keyboard enthusiasts. After two albums, he left the band in 2012 to concentrate on his solo work.
His varied discography includes Virthulegu Forsetar (Touch 2004), a drone heavy hour-long fanfare for pipe organ and brass; Fordlandia (4AD 2008), a cinematic ode to the city Henry Ford tried to build in the Amazon jungle and Copenhagen Dreams (NTOV 2010), a visual and musical tribute to his current hometown and its people. His soundtrack for Free the Mind, a film that shows how meditation helps people suffering from PTSD and ADHD, is now available on iTunes. The soundtrack album will be available on July DATE and the film will soon be released on DVD.
Jóhannsson is also working on two ambitious multimedia projects with American filmmaker Bill Morrison. IBM 1401 - A User¹s Manual, was inspired by his father¹s early experiments in electronic composition. A new expanded score will be played by the Calder Quartet in front of projections of archival film material composed by Morrison. It will see release as an album, film and DVD.
The Miners’ Hymns, a melancholy tribute to the coal-mining culture in Durham, England, features Morrison¹s heartrending collage of archival footage and Jóhannsson¹s brooding music, full of low sustained notes played by brass instruments that pay homage to the brass bands the coal miners once played in. Jóhannsson will be performing The Miners¹ Hymns with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble at selected venues in the United States in early 2014, bringing in local brass bands to play the score.
Jóhannsson has collaborated with pop artists like Marc Almond; Barry Adamson; Finnish electro band Pan Sonic, The Hafler Trio, the nom de musique of English avant garde composer Andrew M. McKenzie; CAN drummer Jaki Liebezeit; Stephen O'Malley of the dark metal band Sunn O))) and many others. “I like to get out of my own studio and work with other people. Being in a room with someone who has a different approach inspires me. Feeding off of each other¹s musicality always produces interesting results.”