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Jóhann Jóhannsson
Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jóhann Jóhannsson: A Tribute

Jóhann Jóhannsson
© Jónatan Grétarsson

In a poignant film tribute to Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson – On the trails of Jóhann Jóhannsson – made just after his sudden death in 2018, the artist’s father reveals how his son had showed an interest in music from as early as three years old: “I was playing in a brass band then and I used to take him with me to rehearsals and he sat there quietly…and when we came home he wanted us to put on a brass-band record and he stood in front of the sound equipment and conducted the music with my drumsticks.”

The tragic death of Jóhannsson on February 9th 2018, following a long career of creating emotive and groundbreaking music that touched listeners around the world, came as a shock not only to those who personally knew him – but also to those who knew and loved his music. The shock of his premature passing prompted public tributes from everyone from the Pet Shop Boys to Darren Aronofsky and Steve Jablonsky, with many pointing out how Jóhannsson was at the peak of his career and his creative powers when he passed away.

From his early experiments in his hometown of Reykjavik with the progressive Kitchen Motors label and his unique Apparat Organ Quartet project (formed in 1999), Jóhann slowly but surely carved out a distinctive global niche within the heady realms of classical and film music. His sharp musical erudition and natural curiosity led him constantly towards the discovery of new sounds, arrangements, collaborations and compositions.

His quest to create original and emotionally dynamic musical worlds can be easily attested to by tracing his solo album releases: the innocent beauty of his debut Englabörn (2002); the minimalist quietude of follow up Virdelgu Forestar (2004); the bolder, more enigmatic IBM 1401, AUser’s Manual – based on recordings from his father’s work as a computer technician at IBM; and the foreboding socio-political dystopias of Fordlandia.

Many of these records being inherently cinematic, it’s no surprise that the decade or so before his death saw Jóhann take more ambitious – and startlingly successful – leaps into the world of film music, starting with his music for the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything (2014), for which he won the Golden Globe for best original score and was also nominated for an Academy Award. This was followed by several more award-winning collaborations with Canadian auteur director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), among several others.

Indeed, Jóhann was so prolific that several of his projects were still unreleased at the time of his passing, including the Nicolas Cage thriller MandyThe Mercy, Mary Magdalene and Christopher Robin. On March 18th this year, another very special project will also be released by Deutsche Grammophon, who have already paid tribute to Johann’s immense legacy with 2019’s Retrospective 1 and 2020’s Retrospective II this previously unrecorded project is called Drone Mass.

Originally written as a contemporary oratorio for voices, strings, quartet and electronics, it was commissioned and premiered by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) who toured and recorded with Jóhann for around a decade, performing the work in places such as the U.S. and Poland. The brand new recordings were made in Copenhagen in collaboration with more of Jóhann’ long-term collaborators: Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, who worked on Orphée, Englabörn & Variations, Arrival and Last and First Men and more; vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (also Grammy Award winners), producer Francesco Donadello, and ACME Artistic Director Paul Hillier.

Informed by the so-called “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians”, part of the Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945, Drone Mass is a meditative and mysterious accomplishment, undulating between uplifting and unsettling moods and bringing together, in Jóhann’s own words, “a distillation of a lot of influences and obsessions”. Reminiscent of composers such as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, the recording feels not only minimal but often timeless, moving through disquieting, otherworldly sounds, ghostly vocals and weightless strings, and spectral echoes of Renaissance choral music.

It is yet another side of the naturally diverse, multi-talented visionary that we all still sorely miss.


Paul Sullivan

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Drone Mass cover
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