I first became aware of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s gorgeous music via his solo albums, including Englabörn (2002), Virðulegu Forsetar (2004), and IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (2006). While you could file it under “Modern Classical,” there was an experimental aspect to Jóhannsson’s music — e.g., IBM 1401’s computerized themes and sounds — that made it far more interesting and novel than that label might otherwise suggest.
At the same time, any sense of experimentation never came at the cost of the music’s emotional effect. There are passages on Virðulegu Forsetar and IBM 1401, A User’s Manual that are deeply poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful.
It was only a matter of time before Jóhannsson became an in-demand composer for film soundtracks. Though he composed numerous soundtracks in his too-brief career, he is perhaps best known for his collaborations with filmmaker Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016). (Jóhannsson was also the original choice for Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, but left the project and was replaced by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.)
Jóhannsson’s score for Arrival is particularly breathtaking. In creating a soundtrack for a movie about first contact with a mysterious alien species, and which focuses heavily on the power of language, Jóhannsson augmented his usual string arrangements with abstract vocalizations and ominous drones. The result is a truly otherworldly experience, one that held me spellbound when I watched the movie in the theatre.
As I wrote in my favorite songs from 2016, “the more you listen to [Jóhannsson’s score], the more you realize it’s just as vital to Arrival’s brilliance as Amy Adams’ measured performance, Denis Villeneuve’s meditative direction, and Bradford Young’s gorgeous cinematography.”
Jóhannsson brought so much emotion and elegance to his music, and by extension, the movies he scored. He will be missed. As Jeffrey Overstreet wrote in his tribute, “I’ll welcome his haunting of my headphones, my moviegoing, and my imagination for many years to come.”