Berlin-based, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson has been releasing records of, by turns, meditative, monolithic and immersive beauty since the turn of the millennium, navigating a fertile corridor between electronica, symphonic art music and modern chamber composition. Also a noted cross-genre collaborator, working with everyone from Marc Almond to the Hafler Trio, latterly he has become an in-demand writer of film scores and recently won a Golden Globe Award for his orchestral soundtrack to James Marsh’s all-conquering Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. Despite all the accolades, Jóhannson, like so many Icelandic artists, remains a remarkably grounded individual, still in thrall to music that eschews easy genre classification. “I don’t know if you can call anything ‘classical music’ anymore,” he tells Will Stokes.
“It’s a bit of a cliché, but I do think the work is its own reward,” muses Jóhann Jóhannsson about his 2015 Golden Globe for Best Original Score. Having composed the music for The Theory Of Everything, he has found himself on the receiving end of somewhat unprecedented critical acclaim, including nominations for both a BAFTA and an Academy Award. “I get more joy from the work itself than any kind of public recognition,” he reiterates. “I think it’s great for the film and the people behind it that the work is getting recognised. I do realise that it´s an honour to be nominated for these big awards, and they do have a significant impact on how your work is perceived, but to me, personally, the awards and nominations don’t matter that much.”
As confident, even blasé, as that statement may seem, Jóhannsson is far from complacent; he sees himself as a working composer, and his oeuvre stands up with or without the imprimatur of Hollywood. As it was, the score for The Theory Of Everything demanded a marriage of his instinctive compositional inclinations with an intense and unique collaborative sensitivity. “The needs of the film are what’s important,” he explains. “When I’m working on a film, I’m a filmmaker. I’ve worked on films where the director has asked me for ten-minute drones for the entire film – and I love that way of working, but every score is different. A big part of the job is to figure out what the film needs, and that trumps any notions of my ego as a composer.”
Space (in both senses of the word) has a key role in The Theory Of Everything. Jóhannsson counts Russian composer Eduard Artemyev, most notable for his work with cult director Andrei Tarkovsky on films like Stalker and Solaris, among his influences when it comes to composing for the screen. “In Stalker it’s mostly ambient music – very sound design-like – very ahead of its time. Those are some of my favourite films, and they barely have a score! I really love that.” Particularly epiphanic episodes in The Theory Of Everything, in which Stephen Hawking is faced with the “wonderment and mystery of the universe,” as Jóhannsson dubs it, exemplify the dissemination of a central harmonic theme in the score that we might expect to appear much more predictably than it does. “I think one of the keys to it is to keep the music restrained – to have a strong emotional thread running through it but not to go overboard,” the composer explains. “We were adamant that we needed that restraint.” Hawking’s journey toward an understanding of himself and his personal relationships is conveyed with just as much significance as his pioneering journey toward a greater understanding of the universe. “It’s a film about an astrophysicist,” says Jóhannsson, “but it’s mainly a film about relationships.”
A film about relationships The Theory Of Everything may be (based, as it is, on the memoirs of Hawking’s first wife, Jane), but Jóhannsson and Marsh were careful not to sentimentalise. “It’s something I always have to be aware of, because I write music that speaks to the emotions,” says Jóhannsson. “I like music that grabs you, or has this direct emotional connection; but it’s a very fine line between that and manipulating people. When [the music] feels layered too thickly, I often think that’s a case of the director or the composer not trusting the material, as if they feel that the scene is not delivering the emotional impact that it’s supposed to, and then they turn to the composer to, you know, add to that. But in the case of The Theory Of Everything, the performances are so strong that the emotion is already there. I don’t think you should say with music what’s already said with the performances.”
This sensitive, self-controlled approach must quickly become the modus operandi when creating a film about the presence of a great mind in a failing body. It is this paradoxical relationship between the opposing trajectories of Stephen Hawking’s soaring academic work and his deteriorating physical condition that provides the foundation for The Theory Of Everything, with the two intersecting in a portrait of Hawking fervently scribbling groundbreaking equations on a blackboard and discovering how difficult it has become to hold the chalk.
I invite Jóhannsson to consider the link between the use of synthesised voices in some of his earlier works and the fact that a synthetic ‘voice box’ becomes the only means of communication for The Theory Of Everything’s key protagonist. “There was, of course, no question about using any electronic voices in the score,” he clarifies, “but there are sequences where I’m writing around his electronic voice, very much so, and that was a lot of fun. It was really interesting to work in that way, and I think maybe that was in the back of James’ mind when he decided to work with me: that I had connected synthesised, computerised voices with strings and orchestra before.”
“I’m interested in how people commemorate the past, and how the past affects the future – how we deal with remembrance – and this applies to family, relationships, industrial cultures… It’s almost like ‘industrial archaeology’, you could say.”
Indeed, the marriage of electronic and orchestral sounds has become the calling card of Jóhannsson’s compositions, from his debut standalone release, 2002’s Englabörn, to 2008’s ambitious and, yes, cinematic Fordlandia. “That’s something that deeply interests me: bringing together and juxtaposing acoustic and electronic sounds. I mean, that’s a very wide term for it, and a lot of people work with electronic and acoustic sounds together, but I’m very interested in a specific aspect of that. Maybe a piece that really crystallises that is ‘Odi Et Amo’ [from Englabörn], which is a very simply orchestrated piece: it’s just a string quartet, piano and electronic voice, but it’s a strong juxtaposition and is kind of startling. I’m always trying to make things like that work – slightly startling juxtapositions that are evocative in some way. I guess it’s like old metaphysical poetry, in a way: you put two contrasting things together and create a third thing, that is not a sum of its parts but like a star or a beautiful thing on its own. And this is, in a way, the essence of surrealism as well. I’ve very rarely made purely acoustic pieces. The Theory Of Everything score is actually one of my more acoustic pieces.”
Jóhannsson’s IBM 1401, A User’s Manual album, from 2006, also springs to mind here. The record unites the monophonic tones of the now-defunct IBM computer model 1401 with lush orchestral backing, and was to be Jóhannsson’s first full-length release on the 4AD label. The work is simple in principle yet deep in impact; resembling a kind of digitized version of Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in its marriage of humble, seemingly functionless sounds with the melodic and harmonic generosity of the composer’s imagination. “It works on many levels: it’s recordings my [mainframe computer operator] father programmed on the IBM 1401 in the late ’60s, so it has this family aspect in there as well.”
Such notions of heritage and remembrance play lead roles across Jóhannsson’s oeuvre – as much in performance as in theme. In 2010 the composer collaborated with filmmaker Bill Morrison to create The Miners’ Hymns, a scored, silent film of carefully sequenced, century-spanning archival footage of North Eastern English mining communities. “It is kind of a requiem for a lost industry, says Jóhannsson, “and you could say that IBM is a requiem for an old computer… I’m interested in how people commemorate the past, and how the past affects the future – how we deal with remembrance – and this applies to family, relationships, industrial cultures… It’s almost like ‘industrial archaeology’, you could say.”
It is certainly Jóhannsson’s combination of ‘industrial archaeology’ with an astute awareness of contemporary musical trends that helps sculpt his trademark sensibility, as well as nullify the temptation to pigeon-hole him as a ‘contemporary classical’ musician, something he’s eager to avoid. “I’m just as influenced by electronic and experimental music and post-rock,” he admits. “That’s kind of the scene I grew out of… the indie, shoe-gaze, post-rock hybrids that were all happening in the ’90s; I was playing in various bands, playing guitar and making noisy guitar music. Going back further, some of my crucial records are by Suicide, The Stooges, the Velvet Underground… Growing up in the ’80s, I was also hugely influenced by The Jesus and Mary Chain, and the whole scene that grew out of that with bands like My Bloody Valentine and Loop creating very sort of wall-of-sound guitar textures… these distorted, kind of feedback ‘symphonies’. Some of the first things I did in music were like that – I had a guitar, some amps and distortion pedals and was just layering that into a four-track: these ten minute-long drone collages. I love creating that kind of almost ambient music, with guitars and distortion… I think you can hear some of that influence, for example, in The Miners’ Hymns. I was also hugely influenced by the electronic music of the late ’90s and early 2000s – [labels] like Milles Plateaux and Warp and people like The Hafler Trio. So my influences are just as much from those places as they are from classical music.”
Doubtless, the bridging of genre gaps in this way is rooted to a vibrant and varied artistic community. Having relocated to Berlin little more than a year ago, Jóhannsson describes how conducive the city has been to his creativity and output. “I’ve been coming to Berlin for years and staying here for months at a time to work. I have a lot of friends here – it’s a great place to work as a musician. There are a lot of composers here: Max Richter and I meet now and again and have played together a couple of times; my neighbour here in the studio is Dustin O’Halloran who’s a very good friend of mine; Hildur Guðnadóttir is just next door and plays the cello on almost everything I do. We all work with each other a lot. We listen to each other’s work and share ideas and comments. It’s very supportive, and it’s nice to be surrounded by like-minded people. It creates a nice energy.”
No stranger to such a community dynamic, Jóhannsson played a key role in the establishment of Reykjavík-based collective-cum-record label Kitchen Motors in 1999, along with fellow Icelanders Hilmar Jensson and Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir, aka Kira Kira. Specialising in collaborations and limited-time performances, Kitchen Motors can count some of the most reputable names in modern Icelandic music among its acquaintances. “Kitchen Motors started, really, because we felt that there was something missing in Icelandic music. There wasn’t really a forum for a certain experimental approach to music. There were a lot of people doing interesting things in their bedrooms or in their rehearsal spaces, and we wanted to bring them together and create a space where exciting things could happen. A good way to do that, we felt, was to create these collaborations, bringing together people from different backgrounds and different genres and disciplines, so we approached people from the jazz-influenced scenes, from electronic scenes, from classical music, and we set up a series of concerts. We didn’t have any funding so it was basically done under our own steam, but the year after we got some funding to do a longer series for a whole year: one event a month. We were able to have bigger ideas – for example when we asked múm to collaborate with Sjón [Icelandic poet and writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson] on an opera: they wrote this forty minute chamber opera for two singers, with them playing the music.”
Alongside facilitating one-time creative alliances, Kitchen Motors also gave way to enduring projects – not least the Apperat Organ Quartet, which Jóhannsson first established as a collaboration during the collective’s infancy within. “I had this idea of bringing together four electric organists, using old discarded electric organs and repurposing them– re-customising them for our purposes. The original idea was not to write original music but to perform a piece by Steve Reich called Four Organs, a piece he wrote in the early ’70s for four Farfisa organists and a percussionist. It’s really amazing, and because it’s performed on these old Farfisa organs, in 1999 people hadn’t really played that piece since the early ’70s. So I wanted to get together four organists to perform this piece, but then we started making our own music, and eventually the idea of performing the Reich piece was abandoned. We did quite a lot of touring, especially around 2003 and 2004, but Apperat was kind of a side project, with everyone doing other things. I had to leave the band a couple of years ago because I was just too busy with my own stuff.”
2006 saw the release of Kitchen Motors Family Album (Fjölskyldualbúm Tilraunaeldhússins), an anniversary compilation of obscure or previously unreleased material, including recordings by a young Jón Þór Birgisson [frontman in Sigur Rós] under the pseudonym Frakkur, Kira Kira and múm, as well as Jóhann Jóhannsson himself; concluding with the surreal, mock-nationalistic ‘Kitchen Motors Anthem’, belted out by the Family itself.
“That was the idea of Kitchen Motors – just creating our dream collaborations and these fantasy projects, but it was certainly confined to a specific period,” says Jóhannsson. “By 2004, we were doing less and less – we were busier with our own things. I do think it was hugely important for my own development as an artist, but it’s not the sort of thing that you can sustain endlessly. I learned a lot from it, and you get a lot of energy from working with such a diverse and interesting group of people, you know, and it just created a kind of energy that was very inspiring and interesting. It has sustained all of us for a long time. It was kind of an institution for a while, but then you have to move on, and let other people take over. Soon it’s time to focus on your own work.”
Focused the composer has indeed remained, and with a freshly garnered set of accolades propelling him into a whole new sphere of appreciation, the trajectory of Johann Jóhannsson’s career appears to have no immediate apex. In addition to completing his latest film score, for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, the composer recently premiered a major new work, Drone Mass, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “There will be a non-soundtrack record released this year too, most probably,” the composer hints with typical modesty. “I’m working on a few things…”