Jóhann Jóhannsson: the late Icelandic composer who made loss sublime

Best known for his film scores, Jóhannsson’s earlier electronic and classical work confronted existential horror

Despite its regular use during inspiring moments on nature documentaries, Jóhann Jóhannsson never made music that’s particularly easy listening on its own – and Lord, it’s tough listening to him now.

After hearing of his death, I found my notes from when I saw him in London at the Barbican in 2012: “He makes music for endings, shut-down mines, obsolete mainframe computers and failed utopias ... the notes fade away, the stories have already finished, everything ends.”

And it’s true, in a literal sense. Those references were to his albums The Miners’ Hymns (2011), IBM 1401: A User’s Manual (2006), and Fordlandia (2008) respectively, each one a requiem for human endeavour been and gone. The latter was influenced by Henry Ford’s failed rubber plant in Brazil. It’s also true figuratively. Almost all Jóhannsson’s music has a constant theme of loss and disappearance that, even when his composition is seemingly at its simplest or sweetest, gives it abyssal depths that feel like they could consume you if you listen too deeply.

Jóhann Jóhannsson: The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black - video

Put on any of those albums now, or indeed the film scores he’s latterly become famous for, and – as director Aaron Moorhead said of The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black from IBM 1401 – it’s “like he wrote his own requiem”.

Not that Jóhannsson is just about elegaic post-classical soundscapes, far from it. Even as he was making those albums, he was performing righteous gigs with the Apparat Organ Quartet – think the Fall play Kraftwerk – and there was plenty before that.

He’d been on the disreputable side of Iceland’s music scene, and his first released music was the buzzing, rackety Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division-indebted sound of his band Daisy Hill Puppy Farm in 1988, with the sleaze-rock band HAM operating concurrently into the mid-90s and becoming somewhat legendary in the country.

He would continue playing keyboards and offering studio skills to Icelandic bands through the 90s. His synthpop band Lhooq had a brief flash of success in 1998, after which he found himself producing an excellent album for Marc Almond. A lot of this music is a lot of fun, but in all of it, you can hear swathes of darkness.

Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Jóhann Jóhannsson, not just a film composer but a forerunner of the neoclassical movement. Photograph: Jónatan Grétarsson/DG

Even in AOQ, the band that seemed like a pressure release once he’d built a reputation as a serious composer, there’s that sense of loss and slipping away. Their music was all about archaic keyboards that they literally sourced from junkyards and recycling plants, getting their last run around the paddock and threatening to fail at any moment. The end approaching.

It was Jóhannsson’s orchestral work that was the making of him, though, and the place where the magic really resides. His solo albums from 2001, uniting classical instruments and electronica, started exciting the global underground, but it was 2006’s IBM 1401 where it all came together.

Building heart-stirring themes for a string section around the hums and whirrs of superannuated computer equipment – as well as deadpan spoken readings from the computer’s user manual – he took what could easily have been one kooky art project among many into sublime realms.

It probably should have been obvious from this album that Jóhannsson had the creative ambition to become a major film composer: indeed, listening to it now, as with many of his 2000s albums, it’s easy to start dreaming up movies to go with the soundtrack. But at the time it stood alone as a beautiful self-contained work, and still stands as a great achievement aside from its pivotal position in his trajectory as an artist.

Jóhann Jóhannsson discusses his score to Arrival - video

It purifies the sense of the foolishness of human endeavour as we teeter constantly on the edge of meaninglessness. It’s Ozymandias, Ecclesiastes, in musical form.

Jóhannsson has been appreciated more recently not only as a film composer, but as a forerunner of the post-classical or neoclassical movement, which has turned the likes of Nils Frahm into stars. He didn’t seem shy of the association, and rightly so.

For all that this has led us to a lot of bland minimalist piano and orchestra pieces designed for nothing but “relaxation” playlists, it’s also led to a place for orchestral composers who are neither reacting against nor pastiching the classical tradition, but for better and worse creating their own spaces.

Jóhannsson has been the epitome of the composer who understood how to incorporate guitar and underground electronica, to reach mass audiences, to not kowtow to the classical establishment, yet never to compromise in the way that many clumsy attempts at fusion can. The comparison between him and Hans Zimmer, who usurped him as Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack composer, is stark indeed.

Despite the undeniable darkness and existential horror in his work, Jóhannsson was a complex musician, and the beauty that surrounds that darkness is important. Arrival, after all, is overwhelmingly a film about hope, and his soundtrack reflected that.

The 2012 tour that I saw – with fellow post-classical luminaries Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka – was called Transcendentalists. When I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto for the Guardian, immediately after singing Jóhannsson’s praises, he said of his own compositions, “[Recently] I have a longing for violin or organ. Is it too simple to say those sustaining sounds symbolise immortality?”

These sustaining sounds are, of course, at the heart of Jóhannsson’s work. And, if not immortality or transcendence in a metaphysical sense, his work is at least about the persistence of memory. IBM 1401 won’t bring old mainframe computers back from landfill any more than Fordlandia will restore the attempted utopia or The Miners’ Hymns will reopen old mines, but they do bear witness to them and honour the human endeavour that went into them, even as they acknowledge, in those chasmic musical spaces, the permanence of death and disappearance.

It’s an immense loss to have a musician and composer at the height of his powers die so young. We’ll never know how great the collaborations that Sakamoto wanted to happen could have been, beyond the tantalisingly great remix that Jóhannsson did for him last year. We may never hear Jóhannsson’s rejected Blade Runner 2049 score, and we’ll certainly never have the decades of great work that he undoubtedly still had in him. The loss is total.

But if we can get anything from his work, it’s that loss can be beautiful, and that in appreciating that, we can preserve something terrifyingly fragile but intensely human, and very, very important.

Contributor

Joe Muggs

The GuardianTramp

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