Jóhann Jóhannsson

1969 2018

Jóhann Jóhannsson

Composer

Biography

For the Berlin-based Icelandic composer, musician and producer Jóhann Jóhannsson, breaking musical boundaries is a way of life. He is not concerned with labels, explaining, ‘people seem to need labels, but they can be needlessly reductive’ and instead concentrates on whatever speaks to him at the moment He is perhaps best known for his film scores, though he is equally at home in music for theatre, dance and the concert stage. His music is an eclectic blend of electronics and traditional orchestration with notable minimalistic influences.

Jóhannsson was born and raised in Reykjavik, Iceland. The isolated island features a limited number of creative masters, resulting in much collaboration between the different disciplines-music, art, theatre and dance. In 1999, Jóhannsson became a founding member of Kitchen Motors, an art organization that operated as a sort of think-tank to encourage these collaborations up until 2005. According to Jóhannsson, Kitchen Motors ‘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’. They were active in putting on exhibitions, performances and chamber operas along with producing films, books and radio shows. Most of their projects were live concerts, though some albums were made from the live performances.

These early years with Kitchen Motors have proven to be very formative for Jóhannsson, who still seeks out interdisciplinary collaborations on a regular basis. For instance, in March 2015, he joined forces with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) and the Grammy Award-winning vocal group Roomful of Teeth for a performance of theDrone Mass at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Through the years, he has also worked together with Tim Hecker, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Pan Sonic, CAN drummer Jaki Liebezeit, Marc Almond, Barry Adamson, and Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O))).

Jóhannsson’s musical beginnings occurred after studying languages and literature at the university, at which point he began playing guitar with indie rock bands. His love of musical textures was already evident at this point, as he would use ‘feedback-drenched guitar figures to create multi-layered soundscapes’. After hearing the 1970s albums on Eno’s Obscure Records label, Jóhannsson’s stylistic interests expanded to include more minimalism, classical instruments and flexible musical structures. As a result, he ‘set the guitar aside and started writing music for strings, woodwinds and chamber ensembles, combining acoustic and electronic sounds’. He is a master of manipulation, and by digitally processing the resonances of acoustic instruments he has been able to create his ideal sound-world, ‘where the electronic and the acoustic sounds blend seamlessly’.

In 1999, Jóhannsson formed the band, Apparat Organ Quartet, which allowed him to pursue all-analogue music together with three others that played synthesizer and keyboards. In 2012, after two albums, Jóhannsson left to concentrate on his solo career.

Jóhannsson’s first solo album, Englabörn (2002) was released by Touch and is based on a theatre piece of the same name. For this work, which serves as a meeting place for classical strings and electronics, Jóhannsson ‘recorded the strings, then processed them through digital filters to take apart the sounds and reassemble them’. He further explained, ‘I like going to the microscopic core of the music to extract the essence, then use that to build up layers of sound’.

Following Englabörn, Jóhannsson released Virðulegu Forsetar in 2004. This album goes in an entirely different direction than his previous album, as it features ‘a drone heavy hour-long fanfare for pipe organ and brass’. Continuing in his musical pattern of unpredictability, Jóhannsson’s next album,IBM 1401, A User’s Manual(2006), is entirely different. The album was inspired by his father, an IBM engineer and one of the first Icelandic computer programmers, who enjoyed composing melodies using early computer hardware during his free-time at work.

Place is also very important for Jóhannsson, who released an ode to the city Henry Ford tried to build in the Amazon jungle entitledFordlandia (4AD, 2008). He then createdCopenhagen Dreams (NOTV, 2010) in collaboration with director Max Kestner, which serves as both a city symphony and tribute to the city he, at the time, called home.

More heartfelt work was released in 2011 with his melancholic tribute to the coalminers of Durham, England in The Miners’ Hymns. For this work, he collaborated with Bill Morrison, who provided a ‘heartrending collage of archival footage’ to accompany the ‘brooding music, full of low sustained notes played by brass instruments that pay homage to the brass bands in which the coal miners once played’. The  brass version of the 50-minute work was commissioned by Forma Arts and Media and Durham Brass Festival 2010 while a version for symphony orchestra was commissioned by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in 2014.

Orphée is Jóhannsson’s newest album, having been released in September 2016 on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. This same year, his third film score in collaboration with Denis Villeneuve,Arrival, appeared, along with The Mercy, his second film score collaboration with James Marrsh,

Jóhannsson’s other works include Hz, which was commissioned by Bang on a Can in 2013 and the film score toEnd of Summer (2014). He also composed the Golden Globe-winning soundtrack for James Marsh’sThe Theory of Everything (2014) based on Stephen Hawking. His score for Denis Villeneuve’s FBI thrillerSicario received Oscar, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice nominations.

His film scores range from documentaries, such as Eva Mulvad’s The Good Life (2010) to films for international film festivals such as the Chinese films from Lou YeMystery (2012) and Blind Massae (2014), the Hungarian film from Janos SzazsLe Grand Cahier (2013) and the American films from So Yong Kim For Ellen (2011) andLovesong (2015).

Works for theatre include commissions from Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Australia, more specifically, Det Norske Teater (2008), Back to Back Theatre (Australia, 2011) and the Icelandic National Theatre (2003-6). Collaborations with choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir includeIBM 1401, a User’s Manual (2002) and Mysteries of Love(2005).

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