Jóhann Jóhannsson - Biography

Born in Iceland, Jóhann Jóhannsson (1969–2018) was an award-winning composer, musician and producer. Often blending electronics with classical orchestrations, his work bears the diverse influences of the Baroque, Minimalism, and drone-based and electro-acoustic music. In 2015 Jóhann won the Golden Globe and received Oscar®, BAFTA, Grammy® and Critics’ Choice nominations for his score for The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s biographical drama based on the life of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. In 2016 Jóhann was again nominated for Oscar®, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice awards, this time for the best original score for director Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Sicario. 2016 also saw the release of Arrival, Villeneuve’s film about linguists deciphering alien signs made by extraterrestrial beings and once again Jóhann’s score was nominated for Grammy®, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. The last film soundtrack he wrote was for The Mercy, James Marsh’s biopic of yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, and was released on 2 February 2018.

Jóhannsson began studying piano and trombone at the age of eleven in his native Reykjavík. He abandoned formal musical training while at high school and, after studying literature and languages at university, he spent ten years writing music for and playing in indie rock bands, using guitars to compose feedback-drenched pieces and sculpt complex multi-layered soundscapes. By manipulating the resonances of acoustic instruments with digital processing, Jóhannsson created music that integrated acoustic and electronic sounds into something strikingly individual and new.

His first solo album, Englabörn, was released in 2002 on the British Touch label. Its contents reveal influences spanning everything from Erik Satie, Bernard Herrmann, Purcell and Moondog to the electronic music issued by labels such as Mille Plateaux and Mego. Later works include Virđulegu Forsetar (2004), scored for brass ensemble, electronic drones and percussion, and the orchestral albums Fordlândia (2008) and IBM 1401 – A User’s Manual (2006), the latter inspired by the sounds of electromagnetic emissions from the first of IBM’s pioneering mainframe computers. In 2010 Jóhannsson collaborated with the American avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison on The Miners’ Hymns, a lyrical and reflective response to Britain’s lost industrial past and the heritage of the mining communities of Northeast England. The film’s accompanying score, conceived for live performance and also released as a soundtrack album, combines brass band, pipe organ and electronics. In 2015, Drone Mass, Jóhann’s piece for a string quartet, electronics and vocal ensemble was premiered at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

In addition to his scores for Hollywood, Jóhann also created soundtracks for several acclaimed works of world cinema and for documentary films, including Lou Ye’s Mystery, János Szász’s The Notebook and Max Kestner’s Dreams in Copenhagen. In 2015 he completed his first short film as director, End of Summer, which charts a slow, hypnotic journey across the austere landscapes of the remote island of South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula, its onscreen images accompanied by a haunting soundtrack score. Jóhann premiered another ambitious directorial project at Manchester International Festival in 2017 – Last and First Men, in which a text based on Olaf Stapledon’s sci-fi novel and read by Tilda Swinton is juxtaposed with startling footage of a futuristic yet decaying monumental landscape, shot by Sturla Brandth Grřvlen in the former Yugoslavia, and with Jóhann’s own symphonic soundtrack.

As an orchestral, chamber and theatre composer, he wrote works for, among others, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Bang on a Can, Theatre of Voices, Det Norske Teatret and the Icelandic National Theatre.

He made his Deutsche Grammophon debut with the release of his first studio album in six years, Orphée, in September 2016. Orphée was inspired by a range of readings of the Orpheus myth and draws on a varied sonic palette, both acoustic and electronic, to explore the boundaries between darkness and light. It contemplates impermanence, memory and the elusive nature of beauty, ultimately celebrating art and its power of renewal. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson died in Berlin on 9 February 2018, at the age of 48.

2/2018