Jóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson (Icelandic pronunciation: [ˈjouːhan ˈjouːhansɔn]; 19 September 1969 – 9 February 2018) was an Icelandic composer who wrote music for a wide array of media including theatre, dance, television, and films. His work is stylised by its blending of traditional orchestration with contemporary electronic elements.
|Birth name||Jóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson|
|Born||19 September 1969|
|Died||9 February 2018 48) (aged|
|Occupation(s)||Composer, producer, director|
Jóhann released solo albums from 2002 onward. In 2016, he signed with Deutsche Grammophon, through which he released his last solo album, Orphée. Some of his works in film include the original scores for Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, and James Marsh's The Theory of Everything. Jóhann was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score for both The Theory of Everything and Sicario, and won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score for the former. He was a music and sound consultant on Mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky in 2017. His scores for Mary Magdalene and Mandy were released posthumously.
His only directorial work, Last and First Men, premiered two years after his death at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival.
Early life and career
Jóhann was born on 19 September 1969 in Reykjavík, Iceland to Jóhann Gunnarsson, a maintenance engineer who worked for IBM, and Edda Thorkelsdóttir. He learned the piano and trombone from the age of 11, but had given them up during his teenage years. Jóhann attended Reykjavík University, where he studied languages and literature.
Jóhann started his musical career in the late 1980s in the proto-shoegaze influenced band Daisy Hill Puppy Farm who released a couple of EPs which were played by British DJ John Peel and received a fan letter from Steve Albini. He went on to work as a guitarist and producer playing in Icelandic indie rock bands, like Olympia, Unun and Ham. In 1999, Jóhann co-founded Kitchen Motors; a think tank, art organisation and music label that encouraged interdisciplinary collaborations between artists from punk, jazz, classical, metal and electronic music. His own sound arose out of these musical experimentations.
Jóhann's first solo album, Englabörn, was a suite based on the music written for the theatre piece of the same name. Jóhann approached the composition by recording string instruments and processing them through digital filters, which allowed him to deconstruct the recordings and reassemble them. The album combined holy minimalism, Satie, Purcell and Moondog with the electronic music of labels such as Mille Plateaux and Mego. Pitchfork gave Englabörn a score of 8.9, and described it as "exceptionally restrained, the piano moving like droplets off of slowly melting icicles, the violin breathing warmth from above. The hesitation of each breath and falling bead feels as though it were a Morton Feldman piece condensed to three minutes."
For Jóhann's second album Virðulegu Forsetar, an hour long ambient piece, he used an orchestra of 11 brass players, glockenspiel, piano and organ, with added bells and electronics, creating a sound that combined classical, ambient and experimental music.
IBM 1401, A User's Manual, Jóhann's fourth studio album, was released on 30 October 2006 on the 4AD label. It was inspired by his father, an IBM engineer and one of Iceland's first computer programmers, who used early hardware to compose melodies during his downtime at work. Jóhann used sounds produced from the electromagnetic emissions of the IBM 1401 as part of the composition.
In 2010, Jóhann collaborated with filmmaker Bill Morrison on The Miners' Hymns (2011), a film and accompanying composition for a brass band, pipe organ and electronics, based on coal-mining in County Durham. The film was noted for celebrating "social, cultural, and political aspects of the extinct industry, and the strong regional tradition of colliery brass bands". The overall piece was itself a tribute to the miners strikes which occurred in the area during the 1980s. The piece premiered live in Durham Cathedral in July 2010 and was released on CD and DVD in May 2011. The album was described by the BBC as "a gorgeous brass-based requiem for northeast England's former mining community". Writing in The Observer, Fiona Maddocks gave the London debut performance of the score at the Barbican five stars, writing, "The strange counterpoint between an Icelandic minimalist, an American filmmaker and a bitter episode in recent British history has resulted in a work as unclassifiable as it is unforgettable."
Jóhann had scored a number of works concurrent with his solo career through the 2000s including the Icelandic comedy Dis in 2004, TV series Svartir englar in 2007, and In the Arms of My Enemy in 2007. However it is his work with Denis Villeneuve for which he is best known. His first collaboration with Villeneuve was Prisoners in 2013. He subsequently worked on Villeneuve's films Sicario (2015), which was nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Score, and Arrival (2016). Jóhann joined Villeneuve once again to work on Blade Runner 2049, but at some point during production Villeneuve decided that the music needed a change in direction. In describing the artistic process for Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve stated that "the movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis. Jóhann and I decided that I will need to go in another direction." Villeneuve brought in Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to complete the project. Jóhann's work on James Marsh's The Theory of Everything won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score in 2015. His final works were for the films Mandy, The Mercy, and Mary Magdalene. In an interview following the release of Arrival, Jóhann commented on his process stating that "it's about putting yourself in a receptive state of mind where you react to inputs, and it can be from anywhere. It doesn't really matter if you're writing for film or if you're doing your own piece; you always have to put yourself into that space. He furthers: "There are practical parameters, of course, involved in writing film music rather than doing your own album, but I view them very much as the same body of work. And, for me, there are very clear lines for me between Englabörn to Arrival".
Prior to his death he had been hired to compose the score for Disney's Christopher Robin, but died before he had begun work on it.
Collaborations and other projects
In March 2015, Jóhann teamed up with ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) and the Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth to perform Drone Mass at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His list of collaborators included Tim Hecker, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Pan Sonic, CAN drummer Jaki Liebezeit, Marc Almond, Barry Adamson, and Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O))). In 1999, Jóhann founded the Apparat Organ Quartet, which has released two albums since 2002 with live performances in Europe, America and Japan.
- Englabörn (2002, Touch)
- Virðulegu Forsetar (2004, Touch)
- IBM 1401, A User's Manual (2006, 12 Tónar, 4AD)
- Englabörn (re-issue) (2007, 4AD)
- Fordlandia (2008, 4AD)
- And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees (2009, 12 Tónar, NTOV)
- End of Summer (2015, Sonic Pieces) – in collaboration with Hildur Guðnadóttir & Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe
- Orphée (2016, Deutsche Grammophon)
- Englabörn & Variations (2018, Deutsche Grammophon) (Englabörn reissue)
- 12 Conversations With Thilo Heinzmann (2019, Deutsche Grammophon)
Film score albums
- Dís (2004, 12 Tónar, in Iceland; 2005, The Worker's Institute, in the US)
- Personal Effects (2009, Deutsche Grammophon)
- The Miners' Hymns (2011, 12 Tónar, FatCat)
- Free The Mind (2012, NTOV)
- Copenhagen Dreams (2012, 12 Tónar)
- Prisoners (2013, WaterTower Music)
- McCanick by John C. Waller (2014, Milan Records)
- I Am Here (with B.J. Nilsen) (2014, Ash International)
- The Theory of Everything (2014, Back Lot Music)
- Sicario (2015, Varèse Sarabande)
- Arrival (2016, Deutsche Grammophon)
- The Mercy (2018, Deutsche Grammophon)
- Mary Magdalene (2018, Milan Records)
- Mandy (2018, Lakeshore/Invada)
- Last And First Men (2020, Deutsche Grammophon)
- "The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black" (2006, 4AD)
- Íslenski draumurinn by Róbert Ingi Douglas (Iceland, 2000)
- Óskabörn þjóðarinnar by Jóhann Sigmarsson (Iceland, 2000)
- A Man Like Me by Róbert Ingi Douglas (Iceland, 2002)
- Dís by Silja Hauksdóttir (Iceland, 2004)
- Blóðbönd AKA Thicker than Water by Árni Óli Ásgeirsson (Iceland, 2006)
- Personal Effects by David Hollander (US, 2008)
- By Day and by Night by Alejandro Molina (MX, 2010)
- Dreams in Copenhagen by Max Kestner (DK, 2010)
- The Miners' Hymns by Bill Morrison (UK, 2011)
- The Good Life by Eva Mulvad (DK, 2011)
- For Ellen by So Yong Kim (US, 2012)
- Free the Mind by Phie Ambo (DK, Documentary 2012)
- White Black Boy by Camilla Magid (DK, Documentary 2012)
- Mystery by Lou Ye (CN, 2012)
- McCanick by John C. Waller (US, 2013)
- Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve (US, 2013)
- I Am Here (with BJNilsen) by Anders Morgenthaler (DK, 2014)
- The Theory of Everything by James Marsh (UK, 2014)
- Sicario by Denis Villeneuve (US, 2015)
- Lovesong by So Yong Kim (US, 2016)
- Arrival by Denis Villeneuve (US, 2016)
- Mother! by Darren Aronofsky (US, 2017, unused)
- Blade Runner 2049 by Denis Villeneuve (US, 2017, unused)
- Mandy by Panos Cosmatos (US, 2018)
- The Mercy by James Marsh (UK, 2018)
- Mary Magdalene by Garth Davis (UK-US, 2018) With Hildur Gudnádottir
- Christopher Robin by Marc Forster (UK-US, 2018, incomplete at time of death)
- The Shadow Play by Lou Ye (CN, 2018) With Jonas Colstrup
- Corpus Camera (Iceland, 1999, Stöð 2)
- Leyndardómar Íslenskra Skrímsla (Iceland, 2000, Sjónvarpið)
- Erró- Norður, suður, austur, vestur (Iceland, 2000, Stöð 2)
- Svartir Englar (Iceland, 2007)
- Trapped (Iceland, 2015) with Hildur Gudnadóttir and Rutger Hoedemaekers
- The OA (USA, 2016)
- The Handmaid's Tale "Faithful" (USA 2017)
- Ashes and Snow (Gregory Colbert, 2002)
- Margrét Mikla by Kristín Ómarsdóttir (1996, Icelandic Take-away Theatre)
- Vitleysingarnir by Ólafur Haukur Símonarsson (2000, Hafnarfjördur Theater)
- Fireface by Marius Von Mayerberg (2000, RÚV)
- Englabörn by Hávar Sigurjónsson (2001, Hafnarfjördur Theater)
- Kryddlegin Hjörtu by Laura Esquivel (2002, Borgarleikhús)
- Viktoría og Georg by Ólafur Haukur Símonarsson (2002, Icelandic National Theatre)
- Pabbastrákur by Hávar Sigurjónsson (2003, Icelandic National Theatre)
- Jón Gabríel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen (2004, Icelandic National Theatre)
- Dínamít by Birgir Sigurðsson (2005, Icelandic National Theatre)
- Døden i Teben by Sophocles/Jon Fosse (2008, Det Norske Teatret)
- Ganesh versus the Third Reich by Back to Back Theatre (2011, Back to Back Theatre)
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Inspired by a recording of an IBM mainframe computer which Jóhann's father, Jóhann Gunnarsson, made on a reel-to-reel tape machine more than 30 years ago, the piece was originally written to be performed by a string quartet as the accompaniment to a dance piece by the choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir. For the album version, Jóhann rewrote the entire score, and it was recorded by a sixty-piece string orchestra. He also added a new final section and incorporated electronics alongside those original tape recordings of the singing computer.
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