Jóhann Jóhannsson presents Orphée

Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-, BAFTA- and Grammy-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s first album for Deutsche Grammophon is a meditation on beauty and the process of creation.

Orphée 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. A many-layered story about death, rebirth, change and the ephemeral nature of memory, the myth can also be read as a metaphor for artistic creation, dealing with the elusive nature of beauty and its relationship to the artist, as well as the idea that art is created through transgression – by the poet defying the gods who have forbidden him to turn back towards his beloved as he leaves the Underworld.

Orphée’s sonic palette is varied, combining acoustic instruments both solo and in ensemble with electronics and the mesmeric sounds of shortwave radio “numbers stations”. It draws on many facets of his previous albums, incorporating music for solo cello, organ, string quartet, string orchestra and unaccompanied voices.

Orphée shows the full range of the Icelandic composer’s remarkable invention and uncanny feeling for atmosphere. The music of the entire album is tied together structurally by recurring harmonic and melodic elements, yet each track sounds fresh, evocative and unique. Orphée reconciles ambitious orchestral and vocal writing with influences ranging from the Baroque to minimalism and electronic music. Also influenced by film composers Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone and Michael Nyman (all prolific writers, like Jóhann himself, of concert music as well as film scores), Jóhannsson is a contemporary exponent of a tradition that was shaped by composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Walton or Korngold.

Orphée is for me about changes: about moving to a new city, leaving behind an old life in Copenhagen and building a new one in Berlin – about the death of old relationships and the birth of new ones,” explains Jóhann. “Perhaps this is one of the reasons I was drawn to the Orpheus myth, which is fundamentally about change, mutability, death, rebirth, the elusive nature of beauty and its sometimes thorny relation to the artist. This album, my first solo record for six years, is an oblique reflection on personal change.”

Orphée is a haunting and atmospheric musical journey, crowned by the sublime Orphic Hymn – a setting of Ovid’s text performed by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices. The album is a reflection on change, memory, beauty and art, and ultimately celebrates the latter’s power of renewal, while acknowledging the dark paths along which it can lead the artist. “Making Orphée has been a true labour of love, one that has been a part of my life for six years, and yet the music always remained fresh – it was constantly in a state of flux and renewal,” its composer concludes.

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Deutsche Grammophon signs Oscar-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson

Subtle contrasts and complex transformations are central to the multi-layered soundworlds of Jóhann Jóhannsson. The visionary Icelandic composer’s art defies easy categorisation. It readily crosses and blurs the defining lines of genres as diverse as Minimalism, Neo-classicism, electro-acoustic, ambient and drone-based music, post-rock and contemporary classical. Deutsche Grammophon is pleased to announce the signing of an exclusive recording contract with Jóhannsson, a move which will bring even more variety to the musical range of its artist roster.

Jóhannsson’s opportunity to join the yellow label arose while he was writing pieces for various forces, from string quartet to large ensemble with electronics. “This new relationship makes a perfect marriage for the compositions I have created over the past five years,” he observes. “In that time I have only released film scores but have been working on many other personal projects. I wanted to find a partner who could bring this new material to the public. I’m looking forward to the release of my first studio album for six years and to collaborating on other substantial projects with DG in future.”

Deutsche Grammophon’s President, Clemens Trautmann, welcomes the addition of Jóhann Jóhannsson to the label’s expanding stable of contemporary composers and genre-crossing musicians. “Jóhann’s is a compelling voice, one of the most distinctive and imaginative to emerge in recent years,” he notes. “His work speaks directly to people while remaining enigmatic; it touches deep emotions and draws listeners into new relationships with the world around them. We are delighted to be working with him.”

A glance at Jóhannsson’s catalogue instantly reveals his recent output’s wide range. This January the composer’s music for Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s crime thriller Sicario secured him a second successive Oscar nomination, following last year’s nod for his acclaimed soundtrack to James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass, meanwhile, for vocal ensemble, instruments and electronics, attracted worldwide attention to its premiere last March at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is currently finishing the score for Villeneuve’s latest film, Story of Your Life, based on Ted Chiang’s eponymous sci-fi short story, and developing ideas for new concert works.

“I’m interested in art that crosses borders and attempts to transcend genres,” he observes. “I believe that is the only way to create something new, not to get bogged down in categories or labels. Film scoring and writing for theatre have always been central to what I do, created alongside my studio albums and other projects. These two areas of work are closely interconnected and in constant dialogue. There’s a lot of overlap and shared elements between them, and they feed on each other in so many ways.”

In addition to the film projects that have filled his diary since 2009, Jóhann Jóhannsson has found time and space to compose works for ensemble and electronics. These will form the core of his Deutsche Grammophon debut album. Their gradual evolution was informed by Jóhannsson’s move from Copenhagen to Berlin, the establishment of new friendships there and the strengthening of existing creative collaborations, not least those explored in a shared Berlin studio space with cellist and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir and composer and pianist Dustin O’Halloran. His new pieces, he notes, were a “labour of love”; they also encompass autobiographical elements, albeit fleeting and imprecise in nature – he is more concerned with creating atmosphere than evoking details from his life.

“Berlin is a wonderful melting-pot for creativity today, where you can meet an endless flow of people with rich ideas,” says Jóhannsson. “I first came here in the early 1990s, fell in love with the city and have returned many times since. I am able to work here with an inspiring and often stimulating group of artists. When you work on a series of compositions over many years, of course they become a reflection of who you are at any given point. My new album for Deutsche Grammophon will in part be a record of changes in my life, of personal transformation and recollections. In an oblique sense, it will be like a diary of the past five years for me.” 

L-R: Dr. Clemens Trautmann (President Deutsche Grammophon), Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ute Fesquet (Vice President Artists & Repertoire Deutsche Grammophon), Christian Badzura (Executive Producer Deutsche Grammophon)
© Stefan Hoederath