Thursday, 3 November 2016

Do Composers Dream of Electric Keyboards? Jóhann Jóhannsson hits the sci-fi realm with Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

Twice Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is having a busy time. When we catch up with him in the Umbrian hills of Italy he is preparing for the release of a solo album – Orphée – a concert tour, the release of sci-fi drama Arrival and possibly the most anticipated movie sequel since Star Wars Episode 7 – Blade Runner 2049. If he’s phased by all of this activity, he’s not showing it.

There’s also another big, important film score that I can’t talk about right now which is happening over the same time period… it's going to be a very busy winter! [Since confirmed to be Darren Aronofsky's next untitled project]

Do you work best under this sort of pressure or do you like kicking back and doodling?

Well, I haven’t had time to sit and doodle for 25 years, so I don’t know if I can answer that question!

The latest trailer has dropped for Arrival, featuring a snippet of your score. It’s your third film with Denis Villeneuve (after Prisoners and Sicario) before you both start working on the Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049. It seems to have arrived with little fanfare. 

When I was scoring it, I didn’t feel that it was any less high profile than say Sicario. If anything, it’s a bigger film, I just think that the discussion surrounding Denis in the last year has been around Blade Runner, so this film has kind of been under the radar, so it has come as a surprise to many that it actually exists.

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

And of course many will be scrutinising this as an indication of what we can expect from Blade Runner 2049. Did the subject matter of the movie give you the opportunity to experiment in new sounds or textures?

Arrival is very unique. It’s a science fiction film that’s quite unlike any we’ve seen in a while. It’s very exciting, tense and suspenseful – so it’s very entertaining – but it’s also full of very interesting philosophical and metaphysical ideas. Like all great science fiction it makes you think about possibilities. This particular story is about the arrival of alien spacecraft on Earth and finding out their purpose here. Amy Adams plays the main protagonist, a linguist who is part of an elite team tasked with finding answers to this mystery, so she is tasked with trying to communicate with them.  

What was the dominant theme that you latched onto?

The film is about communication and language, so that immediately led me to using vocals on the score. The second idea was to use tape loops; I was intrigued by the circular way of working and thinking. For the vocals I worked with a number of different singers and vocal ensembles. Most notably I used Theatre of Voices, which is a prestigious classical and avant-garde vocal group, and several other singers from the worlds of both classical and alternative music who have carved their own sound. This included Robert Aiki, who also provided vocals for Sicario and someone who I collaborate with regularly. I also used the voice of the very eminent soloist Joan La Barbara, who is featured in one of the pieces. While vocals are a big part of the score, there is also a lot of orchestral writing and a lot of textural sonic experiments, but they are all very analogue in origin. There are almost no synthesisers on the score; it’s digitally processed, but it’s all from analogue sources.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind famously used music as means to make contact with aliens. Is this something you were keen to avoid, particularly John Williams’ popular score?

In Close Encounters that was an integral part of the story, but in Arrival it’s a very different story, so that was not an issue at any point.

Did you record the score in Hollywood, or in your current home, Berlin?

I recorded in many different countries. Theatre of Voices I recorded in Copenhagen and I did quite a lot recording in Berlin, London and the Czech Republic. I recorded in Iceland as well, so as is quite normal with my projects, I like to travel around to work with people face-to-face in in the studios where I can.

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

Arrival is your third film with Denis Villeneuve. Have you now developed a shorthand with your director where you can second-guess what he’s looking for?

This was an interesting case because I had already written a lot of music before he started filming. I’d done a lot of the vocals and tape experiments in the weeks when he was doing pre-production so I was able to send him a series of ideas at the beginning. He asked me to take a couple of those ideas and develop them further – one of these ideas then became one of the central motifs of the film, which Denis was listening to throughout the filming. He had my music in his head and his ears – he had the score while he was filming the movie.

How important is to be there from the very beginning. Do you want to be involved at script stage or are you more inspired when the footage starts coming through?

For this one I wasn’t actually on set for reasons of scheduling. For Prisoners and Sicario I was on set and I really enjoyed that because the landscapes inspired me. But this film is more studio-based so it didn’t feel so important to get to the set. It’s very inspiring when you start seeing the footage but in this case the script got me thinking immediately, especially seeing some of the concept art. I got a strong idea of the mood right from the beginning. The fine detail always evolves throughout the process of creating the film, which comes from a really close collaboration between Denis, myself and Joe Walker the editor. There are some films where you come in during the last two months when the film is almost finished, but Denis likes to work in this organic way where every part of the film comes together at the same time. I love writing film music. I don’t prefer THIS method to any other method, but it helps you be bolder and more adventurous in the way you use music, to take risks and experiment with new approaches.

Bold and adventurous. That feels like a good segue into Blade Runner 2049. Congratulations on being assigned the enviable gig – were you the choice from the outset? 

Thank you. Denis told me at the beginning that he wanted me on board, but obviously it had to go through more people than normal to make the decision. It helped that it’s the same producers [Broderick Johnson and Andrew A. Kosove] that I worked with on Prisoners so it felt like a natural thing to keep the same team. Denis is as director who likes to create a strong team that he can rely on, so he likes to work again and again with the same editor, cinematographer and composer to create a working relationship that is lets creativity flow.

What is your relationship with the original movie?

For many people of my generation Blade Runner was a really seminal film. When I first saw it as a teenager I was entranced by it. I was a fan of the works of Philip K Dick, and read his the original book Do Androids of Electric Sheep? Over the years I have watched it and re-watched it – the various director’s cuts and the various amendments and changes that Ridley Scott had made to the film.

As you’ve grown older, have your thoughts changed about the movie?

No, I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best science fiction films ever made.  

The movie currently has a release date of October 6 2017, which is just over a year away. Does that timing feel about right, or is there never enough time? 

There are many film scores composed in much shorter a time than a year, so it’s actually a privilege and a luxury to have so much time to work on it. Of course I am doing other projects as well – it’s not my only project. I’m releasing a solo album in September called Orphée and there are concert tours and other projects.

[Orphée is Johann’s first album for Deutsche Grammophon, his new label, and is a meditation on beauty and the process of creation. It traces a path from darkness into light, inspired by the various re-tellings of the ancient tale of the poet Orpheus, from Ovid’s to Jean Cocteau’s.]

In October you’re touring North America and then December it’s Europe, before returning to the States in the spring. When performing live is it gratifying to get the instant reaction from the audience? 

Oh sure. I haven’t don’t a lot of touring in a while but that’s really where I come from. This is my origin as an artist. I started as an album artist that makes records and tours, and then film music was something that I gravitated toward as a result of film-makers listening to my solo work, so it’s kind of getting back to my roots in that sense – which I’ve never really abandoned. I’ve been working on this record (Orphée) for six years and even if the last four or five have publicly seemed like the bulk of my work was film-related, I have actually been writing a lot of non-film music as well. A lot of that music is will come out in the next couple of years. My aim is to keep a balance between the two – the film music and my own music – and the ideal balance is 50/50.

Will those coming along to your gigs get that same mix of soundtrack to non-soundtrack? 

The tour will focus on the solo album, with one or two pieces from films but it will definitely have a heavy focus on Orphée.

I can’t let you go without talking about your Oscar nominations, first for The Theory of Everything and then this year for Sicario. While I’m disappointed that your stunning score for Sicario didn’t win, I guess being in the same company as John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Thomas Newman does make a win more difficult?

Thank you. It’s a tremendous honour to be included in their company as my co-nominees, and that was enough for me. That was a tremendous and great pleasure and I was very pleased that this particular work was nominated and given this amount of attention and recognition. It’s a very individual score and I felt like it was a bold move on Denis’ part to encourage me to go in this direction and I’m very glad that the film-making community acknowledged that and gave us the support to continue in in our sonic explorations. It’s also testament to how Denis and Joe work and how to use music in film. It’s quite sparsely used – it’s not wall-to-wall music – so I was very pleased that our work was recognised in this way. 

For details of Jóhann’s upcoming tour dates (North America and Europe) visit

The score to Arrival is released in November 2016 by Deutsche Grammophon.

The full interview appeared in Film Score Monthly Online. Subscribe for the industry's premier resource on film music.

Jóhann is at London's Barbican on 9 December 2016.

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