Jóhann Jóhannsson: “I think its very important to keep a balance between my own work and film scoring.” Interview by Tony Mitchell

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Two recent projects by Berlin-based Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson relate to Australia – his music for Geelong-based Back to Back Theatre’s multi award-winning Ganesh versus the Third Reich, currently touring North America and Europe to great acclaim, and his soundtrack to French Canadian director Denis (Incendies) Villeneuve’s first Hollywood film, the nightmarish Prisoners starring Hugh Jackman in the role of a father whose daughter has been kidnapped.

As Johannsson tells me, “I was invited to be involved in a performance of Back to Back’s Democratic Set in Zurich, collaborating with Hildur Gudnadottir. Following this, Back to Back asked me to write a score for the Ganesh piece – using some existing music and some new music. I love their work and it was a really great collaboration. I had written a lot of theatre music in the past, so this was a good opportunity to get back into that world.”

Melbourne theatre critic Alison Croggon has described Back to Back, a disabled group of actors directed by Bruce Gladwin, as ‘the little theatre company from Geelong that could … [which]creates experiences that defeat description … our most important independent theatre company.’ The play, which challenges the notion of ‘freak porn,’ involves elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany to re-appropriate the swastika from Hitler, who targeted disabled people before Jews and homosexuals. A previous production by the group, the 2012 Food Court, which toured Europe and the USA, involved live performances by the Necks.

Jóhannsson continues, “it was a great opportunity for me to be able to work with Thomas Bloch on the Prisoners score – he is the world’s foremost Ondes [Martenot] virtuoso. He also played some Cristal Baschet – a kind of futuristic glass harmonica – which we layered with the Ondes. The Ondes has an amazingly fragile and expressive sound for an electronic instrument. It’s also monophonic, so it’s really interesting to layer it and create complex harmonies with it, Thomas and I created these chorales with it, which are all over the Prisoners score.”

The ondes martenot is an early electronic version of the theremin, most famously used by French composer Olivier Messiaen: “I’m a huge fan of Messiaen, his organ works especially and his work for the Ondes Martenot. His “Fête des belles eaux” for six Ondes Martenots has been a favourite of mine for ages.” Messiaen’s organ works are being featured in next years’ Sydney Festival, and the soundtrack to Prisoners has been released on vinyl through NTOV/Cobraside and on digital and CD through Watertower Music/Warners.

As Jóhannsson has said: “The score has a two-fold purpose: one is to serve as a kind of lyrical and poetic counterpoint to the horror of the events in the film. The other purpose is to keep a certain tension and sense of unease. So it’s two very contrasting elements. The strings and woodwinds provide the lyricism and beauty while the electronics provide the tension. The keyword throughout the writing was to avoid anything that sounded like thriller music, but to still convey a sense of tension, coupled with these moments of melancholy and delicate beauty.” Thomas Bloch has also collaborated with Daft Punk and Radiohead, and “the sound of these old instruments combined to create an organ-like sound – but with a very fragile, glassy texture. It allowed me to do very delicate things without being too sentimental.”

There is considerable tension and darkness in the predominantly low-frequency drones in the music: “My ideal is music where the electronic and the acoustic sounds blend seamlessly. I think the score – much like, but maybe even more than my previous work – combines my twin obsessions, which is writing for orchestra and creating electronic music’. After topping the box office in the USA, Prisoners has only just opened in Australia, and got a four-star rating in the Sydney Morning Herald, which found ‘a guttural, career-best performance from Jackman,’ in his first ‘straight’ dramatic role since 1999’s Erskineville Kings,’ declaring him ‘deserving another Oscar nomination,’ and striking ‘clear parallels between the film’s representation of torture and America’s treatment of terrorist suspects in custody’.

Fellow Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, a label-mate on the UK Touch Music, who has collaborated with Pan Sonic, Throbbing Gristle and Múm, and whose recorded work includes Mount A (2007) and Without Sinking (2010), also worked on Prisoners: “Hildur is an amazing musician and a good friend. We’re also studio neighbours in Berlin these days, which makes collaboration easy. ‘Tu non mi perderai mai’ (You’ll never lose me), was a track I wrote and which we performed together for the Touch anniversary album Touch 25. We’ve since collaborated many times, both live and in the studio. We just finished some music for a project called End of Summer.”

More recently Jóhannsson wrote the music for another Hollywood film, Josh C. Waller’s police action drama McCanick, starring David Morse and Cory Monteith, which received very negative reviews, with Variety calling the film ‘drably derivative’ and ‘infuriatingly improbable.’ The music consists of mainly piano and strings, with lots of brooding, rumbling bass, and stands up very well without the film. It was released on Milan Records in January 2014. His soundtrack for James Marsh’s film about Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane, The Theory of Everything, premiered at this year’s Toronto film festival, and drew special attention from critics, with Screen Daily calling it ‘sublime’, and Variety noting: ‘The effect is heightened by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, whose arpeggio-like repetitions and progressions at times evoke the compositions of Philip Glass, working in concert with Jinx Godfrey’s swiftly edited montages to lyrical and emotionally extravagant effect’. Other Hollywood films he has provided music for include Personal Effects (2009) and Wicker Park (2004).

I mention that I interviewed Iceland-based Australian musician Ben Frost, who Guðnadóttir has also collaborated with, and Bedroom Community label head Valgeir Sigurðsson for Cyclic Defrost in 2012, and given the proximity of musicians in Reykjavík, has he had any involvement with them? “I know them both and have worked with Valgeir as a mixer and engineer and Ben has worked on some projects of mine as well. They are both very good at what they do and great to work with. I don’t get to work as much as I’d like to in Iceland, although I take every opportunity I get to do so.”

As far as affinities with other Icelandic musicians go, Jóhansson shares an involvement in atmospheric orchestral film scores with polymath Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson – who has worked with Jane Campion, among others, and has had a long history as a musicians and composer in the Icelandic music scene, also working with Sigur Rós. He combines orchestral music and electronics in film music, as does Ólafur Arnalds, who has now also moved into film composition. Is this part of a zeitgeist, or does it go deeper? “I have a lot of affinity with Hilmar Örn, who is someone I admire as a musician and as an artist. ‘Composer’ is almost too small a word for Hilmar, he is a strong cultural figure in Iceland. I think he was an inspiration both for myself and other musicians like Sigur Rós who came up around the same time. Olafur came along much later and took the baton and has run with it, although I have to confess being unfamiliar with his music.” Arnalds has provided music for The Hunger Games (2012), won a Bafta award for the British TV series Broadchurch (2013), and scored the 2013 independent film Gimme Shelter, and the 2014 film Vonarstræti/Life in a Fishbowl, which was the highest earning film of 2014 in Iceland.

After playing in an indie rock group for ten years, Jóhannsson was also a founder member of the highly rated Apparat Organ Quartet in 1999: “Apparat Organ Quartet is still active, but I’m not a member anymore, for now at least. The band was formed to perform Steve Reich’s Four Organs and it has the same line-up as that piece requires: four electric organs and one percussionist/drummer. However, we quickly began writing our own stuff and the idea of performing the Reich piece was discarded in favour of original material. But the inspiration and influence from early minimalism remained. We recorded two albums together between 2001 and 2010 which I’m very proud of. Then I became too busy with my own stuff and I didn’t want to stand in the way of the band playing shows, so I stepped back.”

As well as writing music for numerous Icelandic theatre productions, Jóhannsson also formed the now-defunct musical think tank Kitchen Motors: “Kitchen Motors was very active between 1999 and 2004. It was a series of collaborative projects curated by myself, Kira Kira and Hilmar Jensson. The projects were very varied; we produced a chamber opera written by the group múm in collaboration with the author Sjon, we did live radio shows, concert-installations, a collaboration between a rock group (actually my band Apparat Organ Quartet) and a quartet of short wave radio operators – it was all about celebrating hybrid art forms and blending genres and disciplines. We were very focused and active doing this work for a few years and then we got more busy doing our own work, so Kitchen Motors stopped operating, but I think it had a real influence on how I work and how I approach collaborations etc.”

Erna Omarsdottir ‘IBM 401 A Users Manual’ from Article19 on Vimeo.

His interest in analogue music also led him into one of his most extraordinary pieces, IBM 401, A User’s Manual, a composition for dance choreographed and performed by Erna Ómarsdóttir and Johansson in Vienna in 2004 and released on CD in 2006. The music, played mainly on strings, contains spoken interludes in English from the computer’s instruction manual which seem to add to its beauty: “My father told me about some recordings from the early 1970’s of music he made on an early IBM computer, the IBM 1401. The way he did it was to place an AM radio next to the computer, which picked up electromagnetic waves coming from the core memory, which was badly shielded and thus emitted a steady sine wave-like tone, which could be modulated by programming the computer in a certain way. So certain instructions produced different tones and he came up with a way to organise this into a kind of primitive music sequencer. He spent evenings programming popular and classical melodies into this computer, which of course had no multimedia capabilities whatsoever – music was very far from its intended purpose which was mainly crunching numbers for large banks and universities. When the IBM 1041 was taken out of service in 1971, my father made a last recording of the music and the sounds of the machine in operation. When I listened to this recording, the piece kind of materialized out of the blue – I wrote it all in a 3-4 day frenzy of activity. The piece incorporates the recordings of the machine in operation as well as a fragment of one of the melodies, which I looped and wrote some overlapping string melodies in counterpoint to the loop. So it became a kind of requiem for this old, discarded, singing computer. This was written in 2001 but the piece was not recorded in its final version, as I didn’t have a label that could afford the recording costs with the string orchestra until I signed with 4AD.”

Also on 4AD was his 2008 release Fordlândia, inspired by the failure of Henry Ford’s eponymous Brazilian rubber plant established in the Amazon in the 1920s, ‘and his dreams of creating an idealized American town in the middle of the jungle complete with white picket fences, hamburgers and alcohol prohibition’. The project failed because Ford spent more time on the village than on the rubber plantation, and he eventually lost 20 million.

The 14 minute title track was recorded “with a 50 piece string orchestra in Prague, after recording it first with my regular band in Iceland, in a faster version similar to how we play the song live. It worked in concert, but failed to come alive when recorded so I decided to drastically change it and re-arrange the piece for a large orchestra. I recorded some pipe organ and the low frequency guitars towards the end in a cavernous church in Drammen, Norway. The ending is a 5 minute long continuous ritardando (gradual slowing in tempo), quite possibly the longest one ever on record, should anyone care…”

Jóhannsson then moved to Copenhagen, where he completed a number of film scores: the stunning 80 minute ‘city symphony’ Dreams in Copenhagen by Max Kestner (2010), the soundtrack of which was released on NTOV in 2012, with music for string quartet, clarinet, celeste, keyboards and electronics, The Good Life, a documentary by Eva Mulvad (2011), White Black Boy by Camilla Magid (2012), about Albino African children in Tanzania, and another documentary, Free The Mind by Phie Ambo(2012), about the benefits of meditation, and Professor Richard Davidson, one of the world’s leading researchers of the human brain.

The Miners Hymns, a silent documentary film by US director Bill Morrison, premiered in a concert performance by Jóhannsson on electronics with the NASUWT Riverside Brass Band at the Durham International Festival in the UK in 2010, and subsequently toured the UK in 2014 in commemoration of the anniversary of the 1984 British miners strike, while the film, with Jóhannsson’s soundtrack, has also played in Amsterdam and the USA. The concert version is now being performed at the 2014 Iceland Airwaves Festival, a year after Olaf Arnalds’ And Now I Am Winter had a triumphant homecoming orchestral performance: “It’s a great pleasure for me to perform the piece in Iceland four years after its premiere in Durham Cathedral. The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra gave me the opportunity to write a special version of the piece for a full orchestra. The original version was for brass band, pipe organ and electronics. Later, I adapted the piece for smaller venues and replaced the organ with a string quartet which made the piece a bit more emotive than the pipe organ version. As the Eldborg concert hall in Reykjavik does not have a pipe organ, I thought it would be interesting for this symphonic rendering to orchestrate the string section and woodwinds as they if were a bit like a substitute for the organ, so the individual sections start to sound a bit like stops on the organ console. What interested me was the idea of making a kind of requiem for a lost industry and for the human aspect of this. It was also a challenge for both Bill Morrison and I, as foreigners, to work with a foreign culture and history where the wounds are still quite raw. In the North of England, there was a brass band in every village. The brass bands were the soundtrack to the coal miners’ lives, from cradle to grave. Even after the industry became extinct, the brass bands still remained. I was interested in working with this heritage of brass music and it for me it was important to work with local players. We worked with the NASUWT Riverside Band, which has origins in the Pelton Fell Colliery band which was formed in 1870, so they represent 140 years of history.”

The recent UK film Pride, an account of the Gay and Lesbians Support the Miners group’s involvement with the inhabitants of a Welsh mining village, also shows the amount of emotion the 1984 miners’ strike is still capable of generating. Jóhannsson’s almost slow-motion, rather funereal music totally complements the archival historic footage of miners in the north east of England and powerfully evokes the end of an important era. As the Guardian commented at the premiere: ‘Morrison and Jóhannsson may be strangers to the region, but it takes an outsider’s eye to realise that 1984 was the closest the country has come to a second civil war’. The Morning Star went further: ‘Each of the sequences, like seams of coal, lays down veins of meaning about work, history, struggle and celebration. You will not see a more beautiful, moving and truthful memorial to the industrial working class.’ And Fiona Maddocks wrote in the Observer, on seeing a performance at the Barbican in London, after having been unimpressed by the sound recording: ‘As a lesson in the power of film music, seeing The Miners’ Hymns was basic and startling … When film and music ended, the silence was long and heartfelt’. The final track, ‘The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World’, most of which is filmed inside Durham cathedral, is especially powerful.

Having spent a great deal of his time recently on film compositions, Jóhannsson is in danger of being swallowed up by film commissions, but is determined to keep his head above water: “I think its very important to keep a balance between my own work and film scoring. Although there is a lot of film work, I’m also focusing a lot on my own work this year and there will be 2-3 new projects presented in the coming months that I’ve been working on these past years. I’m getting less and less interested in the album/tour paradigm and am searching for new ways of presenting my ideas and some of these will become manifest in the coming months.”

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About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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