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Remembering Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson: A Retrospective

Our retrospective of award-winning composer Jóhann Jóhannsson explores some of his most significant studio albums and soundtracks.

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Johann Johannsson photo
Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Photo: Deutsche Grammophon / Jonas Lindstroem.

Jóhann Jóhannsson (19 September 1969-9 February 2018), the award-winning Icelandic composer, musician and producer, would have celebrated his fiftieth birthday on 19 September 2019. He was known for his innovative blend of traditional classical and electronic elements with original, profound, and often melancholic results. He balanced his own work with scoring for films, television and theatre and became one of the most acclaimed film composers of the past decade. To celebrate Jóhann Jóhannsson’s legacy explore our retrospective featuring some of his most significant solo albums and soundtracks.

Listen to the best of Jóhann Jóhannsson on Apple Music and Spotify.

Remembering Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson: A Retrospective

Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson created an entirely new musical idiom by fusing together minimalist elements, traditional forms, symphonic expansiveness and both acoustic and electronic sounds. He ignored the barriers between classical and electronic music and was a pioneering figure on the contemporary music scene. Jóhann Jóhannsson was, in his own words, “obsessed with the texture of sound …and interested in minimal forms, with how to say things as simply as possible, how to distil things into their primal form.” He was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, on 19 September 1969 and played in various rock and pop bands, and was part of Iceland’s indie scene, before eventually deciding to focus on composing rather than performing.

One of the most acclaimed film composers of the past decade

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s debut album, Englabörn, released in 2002, revealed that he was already a master storyteller, a composer who could translate feelings and emotions into powerfully atmospheric soundscapes. Over the next 15 years he balanced his own work with scoring for films, television and theatre and became one of the most acclaimed film composers of the past decade. Variety observed, “He expanded our idea of what film music can be – inviting audiences to think, instead of telling them how to feel.” The New Yorker remarked, “His stirring use of silence and aching melodies are entrancing.”

Jóhann Jóhannsson – Retrospective I

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s legacy is celebrated with the anthology Retrospective I which contains seven albums featuring his earlier works Virðulegu ForsetarDis, And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees, The Miners’ Hymns, Copenhagen Dreams, Free The Mind and the previously unreleased soundtrack to the documentary White Black Boy. This revealing music portrait of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is accompanied by a hardcover book containing essays and a selection of photos providing further insights into his life and work.

Virðulegu Forsetar, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s second album, released in 2004, is an ambient piece composed for and recorded at the Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrimur’s church) in Reykjavik (Iceland). The recording will be re-released on vinyl on 27 September 2019. Jóhann Jóhannsson said, “I go through many different emotions listening to the piece, veering from intense joy to acute sadness. The central point is perhaps how a very simple thing can change by going through a very simple process – something about change and transformation and the inevitability of chaos.”

For the following year’s Dis Jóhannsson expanded the pieces he wrote for the Icelandic film of the same name and collaborated with an exceptional array of artists including members of the bands The Funerals, Singapore Sling, and singer Ragnheiður Gröndal, one of Iceland’s best-selling artists. Jóhannsson observed Dis, “Captures quite well the zeitgeist of early 21st century Reykjavik.”

And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees (2009) was written as an accompaniment to the animated film Varmints and blends the signature elements of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s compositional style, widescreen orchestration, beatific choirs and the most finely crafted electronic synth sounds, into a unique sound. Technology, hubris, overconsumption, and the environment all factor into Varmints’ tale of a little creature who must find a way to protect life as he knows it from an encroaching city.

The Miners’ Hymns (2011), a collaboration between composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and American filmmaker Bill Morrison, is a reflective response to Britain’s lost industrial past and the heritage of the mining communities of northeast England. Focusing on the Durham coalfield the film is structured around a series of activities including the hardship of pit work, the role of Trade Unions, the annual Miners’ Gala in Durham, and the pitched battles with police. Jóhannsson’s score was performed live by a 16-piece brass ensemble in Durham Cathedral, the setting for the film’s climax and many historic colliery galas.

Copenhagen Dreams (2012) is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s tribute to the Denmark capital, in which he was living at the time, for an abstract documentary from director Max Kestner. Jóhannsson described his approach to the documentary as follows, “The tone of Kestner’s film constantly shifts from the mundane to the lyrical, from the technocratic jargon of architects to the everyday banter of commuters and coffee house guests, from dry factual inventories to poetic meditations. I tried to reflect this in the music and to make the music the poetic voice of the city, so the music becomes a character of its own which binds the various levels of the film together.” 

Free The Mind (2012) was written for a documentary about a group of veterans from the war in Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who undergo treatment involving yoga and meditation overseen by the world-renowned psychiatrist, Richard Davidson. Through the film we experience what meditation does to human beings and investigate if, by using other methods than taking medicine, we can lead less stressful and happier lives.

A special inclusion in Retrospective I is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s previously unreleased score for White Black Boy composed for a documentary about a Tanzanian boy with albinism who is taken away from his parents and sent to boarding school in order to be kept safe from witch doctors who would otherwise target his body parts and blood.

Jóhann Jóhannsson – Retrospective II

Retrospective II, released in 2020, will feature more recent Jóhann Jóhannsson film soundtracks including The Theory Of Everything (2015)Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), The Mercy (2018), and the solo albums Englabörn (2002) & Variations (2008) and Orphée (2016).

Jóhann Jóhannsson won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for his soundtrack for the Stephen Hawking biopic, directed by James Marsh, The Theory Of Everything. The assumption would be that the music for a biopic about a legendary physicist whose becomes paralysed with ALS would be tragic but Jóhannsson said, “There is a sense of hope and joyfulness that reflects Stephen Hawking’s life and his attitude toward it. His life is full of wonder and amazement for the universe. It’s a zest for life and it was important that the music reflect that.”

Jóhannsson received a second Oscar nomination for his score for the drug-cartel thriller Sicario, his second collaboration with Denis Villeneuve. He explained the score, “has this kind of brooding brutality to it. Denis and I wanted the music to be like violence almost, to have this intense, insistent, relentless quality.”

The science fiction thriller Arrival, also also directed by Villeneuve, follows a linguist enlisted by the US Army to discover why aliens have arrived on Earth and focuses on how humans could communicate with aliens. Jóhannsson featured the human voice prominently in the score and worked with various singers and vocal ensembles including the renowned Theatre of Voices.

The Mercy, directed by James Marsh, tells the true story of the disastrous attempt by amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst to sail alone around the world. Jóhannsson’s compelling soundtrack complements the different sides of Donald Crowhurst (played by Oscar-winner Colin Firth) and combines original pieces with works from the composer’s catalogue including tracks from Orphée, Englabörn, Free The Mind, and Copenhagen Dreams.

Englabörn & Variations is a double album featuring a remastered version of Jóhannsson’s critically-acclaimed debut album, which revealed he was already a master storyteller, and reworks by internationally acclaimed artists including legendary Ryūichi Sakamoto, Hildur Guðnadóttir, A Winged Victory for the Sullen (featuring Dustin O’ Halloran), Theater of Voices and Alex Somers and Víkingur Olafsson.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final studio album Orphée, inspired by the Orpheus myth, was named one of Rolling Stone’s Best Avant Albums of 2016. He explained the album was made, “during a period when I was moving from one city to another – I was moving from Copenhagen to Berlin and leaving an old life behind and starting a new one. Seeing old relationships die and new relationships begin. It was a period of transition for me as well, so that aspect of the myth is something that connected in a strong way to me as well. It’s difficult to change your life and you make some difficult decisions. The album became kind of a diary of this period of transition.”

The power of his music will live on.

Retrospective I, the first part of a career-spanning Jóhann Jóhannsson anthology, is out now and can be bought here.

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