Interview with Johan Johannson

By • November 4, 2016

Maybe it’s something in the water in Iceland that’s produced an invasion of mournfully beautiful and stylistically innovative musicians, each setting out to revolutionize the word with a tonal language of ear-opening, futuristic art. In much the same way that Bjork has caught the world’s attention with her mind blowing take on pop, Johann Johannson has been terraforming a sometimes typical landscape of film scoring into a thing of haunting beauty. Listening to such works as “Prisoners,” “McCanick,” “Free the Mind” and his Oscar-nominated “The Theory of Everything” and “Sicario” are haunting journeys into humanity at its worst, and best. Low, nearly sub-sonic tones dance with subtle, yet memorable themes, his melodies journeying into the depths of hell or the highest reaches of scientific and spiritual heaven with striking originality. In that way, Johannson hasn’t diluted his indie street cred honed on any number of strange art music albums, operas and exhibition pieces. He’s made that rare segue from high-minded music to the more plebian demands of the big screen, spearheading a music revolution shared by such high art composers as Max Richter (“The Congress”), Jay Wadley (“Indignation”) and Mica Levi (“Under the Skin”).

Levi created a brilliantly confrontational “Skin” score that was as extra-terrestrial as film music could get with the buzzing tonalities of its black oil seductress, Now Johannson has initiated a scoring close encounter that’s just about as strangely memorable with “Arrival” – his latest tour into the extremes of human endurance with Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve. On the pitch black surface of its alien orbs, this tale of linguist trying to find common, grammatical ground for the sake of the planet’s survival might not seem to be made of the same unholy moral quagmire stuff of “Prisoner’s” psycho child-napper or “Sicario’s” ruthless drug war assassin. But those expecting ultimately happy Spielbergian wonder don’t know Villeneueve very well, as the translator finds herself moving through time and ponders visions of motherhood, all the while desperately trying to bridge the communication gap with creatures that would give Cthulu pause.

It’s a sense of dread, and wonder that Johannson conveys with icy, ominous strings, unearthly brass, tribal percussion, emotionally resonant melody and a dialogue between chirping women, moaning males and the approximation of alien whale cries Much in the same way we might not makes sense of the visitors’ Rorschach Test language, Johannsson’s score is its own wonderfully trippy and beautiful language that doesn’t spell itself out, yet remains thematically hypnotic throughout. Like this striking, challenging film, Johannsson’s “Arrival” evolves a musical conversation where Johannsson again proves himself as a composer driven to push the outer limits of the art form – yet in a way that multiplex movie audiences will want to understand, and hear more of.

In a way, do you think that you come from an alien planet given Iceland’s rugged environment? And do you think its wild, strange nature was an influence on your musical voice?

That’s a question I get asked frequently, to which I would respond both yes and no. I think any artist is influenced by the surroundings and geography of his upbringing. So it’s inevitable in a way. But living in Berlin, and having lived abroad for 10 years, I have a more romantic view of Iceland than I had when I was living there. I miss the light and the harshness and variety of the winter weather. So yes, it’s an influence, but no more than any other artist’s place of origin.

What kind of training do you think your concept albums gave you to become a film composer?

I think of my solo work and the film music as being very related. My first major film scoring commissions were the result of the filmmakers hearing my solo work. I try to keep the ratio of solo work and film work at 50/50, but this has been difficult in the last years as bigger, more time consuming film projects have come my way. I recently released a solo album, “Orphée” and there are more solo projects on the way that I have been working on over the last few years. I like the cross-pollination between the score work, theatre work and my solo work. For me it’s one body of work and I try to choose projects where I feel that my voice will bring something to the table.

What was your own experience like learning the English language, let alone the “Hollywood” language of scoring?

I learned English when I lived in France as a child and went to an American Middle school, which catered to the children of diplomats and English speaking ex-pats. So I became fluent quite quickly and I have a strong affinity for the English language because it’s so rich and full of nuances. I learned French also, which I still speak and read, but have fewer occasions to use. Iceland has quite a small population, with its own language, but only 350.000 speakers. This makes it very important for us to learn international languages, as so many people are fluent in other languages in Iceland.

I think your question about the “Hollywood language of scoring” is a bit reductive and generalizes an entire industry, which is very varied and full of talented people with original voices. So I can’t really answer it. I was writing in the style of my score for “Prisoners,” both for my own albums and for small European documentaries and art films for years before Denis got in touch and hired me for his film. Denis Villeneuve has always encouraged me to experiment and to seek out new sounds and this approach, plus the luxury of having a great deal of time to find the sound and the voice of the film has helped us in our endeavor to expand the palette of film music and to look for new horizons. Whether we have achieved that goal is for others to decide, but it is certainly what we’re trying our best to do. I think filmmakers seek me out because my sound is not the typical sound you hear in movies.

Director Denis Villeneuve

Given Denis’ utterly bleak world vision in “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” was it a pleasant surprise to score a film with hope for the human race, if with a big caveat here?

“Arrival” has a different tone than “Sicario” for example, but it is very much representative of Denis’ visual style and pace of storytelling, while remaining very compelling throughout. I have been waiting for an opportunity to score a science fiction film for a long time and it was a great pleasure to work with a script with such strong and bold ideas, a true piece of speculative fiction. And I knew that Denis would give it his own very special touch so it was a very exciting project to me from the start.

As you score Denis’ movies before he even begins shooting them, what kind of freedom did that give you to discover the sound of “Arrival?” Was this process of collaboration any different?

I began writing the music for “Arrival” almost as soon as we laid down the script. The concept art that Denis and Patrice were very generous to share with me was also a big source of inspiration. Denis and I discussed the score in only very general terms before I started. He likes to leave me alone to experiment in the beginning and I am free to generate a lot of material, which I then shape, and mold and present to him. Then there begins a back and forth process between Denis, myself and the editor, Joe Walker. Denis cuts without temp music, so I have to have a head start on him and have material ready for when they start editing. This requires time and a good rapport and communication between the three of us. I don’t accept many offers of scoring films, despite many very tempting offers from directors I’d love to work with for this reason: this approach requires time, so I can only do a certain number of films per year. Denis and I share certain sensibilities and tastes in music and has a good sense for where to place music and where not to do so, which is almost as important.

There’s a “2001”-feel to the score, and film in regards to encountering an unknown, all-powerful race. Were you inspired by Kubrick’s use of modern classical music, or for that matter the other “hard sci-fi” head trip movies and scores of the past?

I knew as soon as I read the script that voices would have to feature prominently in the score. And as I was using vocals, I tried to stay as far away from Gyorgy Ligeti as possible, as his vocal works are very much associated with “2001” and the monolith scene, a sign of alien intelligence (“2001” is one of my favorite films and I know it inside out). So in contrast to Ligeti, who used sustained cluster chords and micropolyphony, I’m using staccato polyrhythms, irregular and arrhythmic patterns of short notes which start small and are then layered to create a kind of cloud of short staccato polyrhythmic voices. I was also influenced by Stockhausen’s Stimmung and his use of overtones and harmonic singing and his aleatoric approach to performance. I worked with the vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, led by Paul Hillier and they have a great command of extended vocal techniques. But I also worked with singers from very different backgrounds, who have developed their own sound and use the same techniques but in their own very unique way. So there is a combination of trained and untrained but very unique voices in the score. The voices were kept mostly pure, i.e. not processed in any way, except for some pitch shifting. For the orchestral and choral writing I was also influenced by composers like Giacinto Scelsi, Michael Gordon, Georg Friedrich Haas, Gerard Grisey and Meredith Monk.

What kind of impetus does the idea of doing a “real” science fiction movie, let alone one about aliens, place on your scoring? Or does the genre itself give one a license to be surreal in a way more true-life movies can’t?

The ideas in the short story by Ted Chiang and the script itself are fascinating and struck a chord in me. It is a film about communication and language and how to find common ground with an intelligent species that shares no points of reference with us. But it is also about how language affects our perception of time and space. And how learning a different language might change that perception. This is an old hypothesis in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which I studied when I was at University, so the themes were right up my alley.

How did you want to strike a balance between the score and the sound effects of the alien vocalizations so each would be distinct?

There was a lot of communication between the music and sound design departments in this film, through Denis and Joe. They made sure I was constantly updated with the latest version of the sound design, and they also sent the music demos to the sound designers, so I was always aware of what they were doing and vice versa.

You’ve often taken music to its lowest, sonic registers. What is it about that utter bass vibe that attracts you, and how did you want to apply it to “Arrival?”

I like the extremes, so I often work with the lower end of the spectrum. It’s been a feature of my non-film work for ages, so it comes very naturally to me. Applying it to film came very naturally.

Given the unknown of encountering aliens, were you careful not to stray too far into horror music territory?

Yes, I was conscious of that – the music had to provide tension and a sense of awe and a degree of fear, but also of fascination, which is very distinct from the idea of “scary music”.

When your mission is to create a truly unique score, how important is it to give the audience some harmonic idea they can grasp onto, to not get musically “strange” for its own sake?

I don’t use an idea unless it at some point makes my hair stand on end and gives me a sense that it merges with the images and adds something to them. I think there are quite a few memorable musical statements in the score, even though they are not “melodies” in the traditional sense.

In that sense, did you want the audience to put as much work into deciphering the score, and film, as much as Louise has to in her effort to communicate with the aliens? And how did you want the score to evolve with each step she makes in being able to “talk” with them?

I didn’t want to create a score that is hard to listen to or difficult – far from it, I wanted to write something that evokes the strangeness, the otherness and the sense of awe that an encounter with an intelligent alien species might evoke. However, “Arrival” is a subtle score and although my music is often put together using quite simple elements, there are subtleties in there and layers upon layers and relationships between cues that often don’t become apparent at first listen. Which is good, I think – it keeps the listener interested and intrigued and it fits the atmosphere of the film – which is the primary purpose of the music of course.

You’ll next be teaming with Denis for the “Blade Runner” sequel. What’s that kind of responsibility like to follow in the shadow of an iconic score, especially given that you have a style distinctly apart from Vangelis’?

I’m a great admirer of Vangelis and listened to him a lot back in the day and I think he was an influence, especially in the very early part of my musical upbringing. I think we share an affinity for strong and distinct statements and an ability to create atmosphere. I also share with him an interest in placing sound in a space and in creating music that is epic while somehow remaining subtle. One of the many composers I learned some of these qualities from is Vangelis. Everyone who is working on this film is very aware of the legacy of the first “Blade Runner”, so I think everyone on the film feels this huge challenge of creating a film that exists in the world of “Blade Runner,” but is still its own thing.

Do you think you, along with such composers as Max Richter and Mica Levi are riding a vanguard of bringing “art” music to the multiplex with the studio exposure of “Arrival?”

I just write music that I think is interesting and keeps me challenged and makes me feel something. I’m a very visceral composer – I like music that affects the listener emotionally, whether it’s in a tense, disturbing way or a more emotional and emotive way. I just released a solo album on Deutsche Gramophon, “Orphée”, which is quite different in tone to “Arrival,” much quieter, emotional and very personal – but there are threads that bind these works together if you analyze them closely enough. I’m lucky enough to work with directors who encourage me to be bold, individual and to experiment. I think hiring the composer early in the process, like you hire the DP or the editor or the costume designer and giving them time to work and experiment and try new things is very important. If the composer is hired early, and can compose while or even before the film is shot, you can start editing immediately to original music instead of temp music, so the new music can grow organically with the film as its being shot and edited – this is an approach that has worked very well for my collaborations with Denis.

Would you like to get back into the more traditionally emotional scores like “The Theory of Everything?” And could you ever imagine yourself scoring a pure popcorn movie at that?

I love writing melodies and given the right project I would love to do that. My score for James Marsh “The Mercy”, which comes out next year, is more melodic, but it also grows darker as it goes along.

If you were only able to communicate in music or “words,” which would it be? And on that note, do you think that music is the ultimate universal language?

As long as an exoplanet has an atmosphere and things can be made to vibrate so that the air moves and be perceived by ear-like organs as sounds, then there will probably be a form of music on said planet, provided the beings in question have evolved to the level of producing and appreciating these movements of air as music. But intelligent life might also exist in conditions that do not allow this physical phenomenon to occur, so music might not be perceived at all by beings existing in such conditions. So it is difficult to say if music is the universal language. It unites us sometimes here on Earth and we desperately need something to unite us, so let’s consider ourselves lucky to at least have that!

“Arrival” arrives in theaters on November 10th, with Johann Johannsson’s score available on Deutsche Gramophone Records HERE

Buy “Orphée” HERE

Buy “Prisoners” HERE

Visit Johan Johannsson’s website HERE

Johann Johannson photographs by Jónatan Grétarsson

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