Jóhann Jóhannsson

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.[2]

Jóhann Jóhannsson
Background information
Birth nameJóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson[1]
Born(1969-09-19)19 September 1969
Reykjavík, Iceland
Died9 February 2018(2018-02-09) (aged 48)
Berlin, Germany
Occupation(s)Composer, producer, director
Years active1987–2018
  • Deutsche Grammophon
  • 4AD
  • Touch
  • 12 Tónar
Associated acts
  • Apparat Organ Quartet
  • Evil Madness

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.[1] He learned the piano and trombone from the age of 11, but had given them up during his teenage years.[1] Jóhann attended Reykjavík University, where he studied languages and literature.[1]

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.[3] He went on to work as a guitarist and producer playing in Icelandic indie rock bands, like Olympia, Unun and Ham.[4] In 1999, Jóhann co-founded Kitchen Motors;[4] 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.[3]

Solo works

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."[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

Fordlandia, Jóhann's sixth full-length studio album, was released in November 2008 via 4AD, and was thematically influenced by the failure of Henry Ford's Brazilian rubber plant Fordlândia.[8]

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".[9] 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".[10] 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."[11]

Film work

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.[12] His first collaboration with Villeneuve was Prisoners in 2013.[12] He subsequently worked on Villeneuve's films Sicario (2015), which was nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Score, and Arrival (2016).[12] 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.[13] 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.[12] Jóhann's work on James Marsh's The Theory of Everything won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score in 2015.[12] His final works were for the films Mandy, The Mercy, and Mary Magdalene.[12] 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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]

Personal life

Jóhann left Reykjavík in the early 2000s, living in Copenhagen before settling in Kreuzberg, Berlin.[17] He had a daughter, Karolina Jóhannsdóttir, who lives in Copenhagen.[1][18]


Jóhann died in Berlin on 9 February 2018 at the age of 48.[1] German toxicology reports indicated that a lethal combination of cocaine and flu medication was the likely cause of his death.[19]


Solo albums

Film score albums


  • "The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black" (2006, 4AD)

Feature films

Short films

  • Keepsake by Tim Shore (United Kingdom, 2003)[30]
  • Varmints by Marc Craste (United Kingdom, 2008)[31]
  • Junk Love by Nikolaj Feifer (DK, 2011)[32]
  • End of Summer by Jóhann Jóhannsson (2015)[16]




  • 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)[16]
  • Pabbastrákur by Hávar Sigurjónsson (2003, Icelandic National Theatre)[16]
  • Jón Gabríel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen (2004, Icelandic National Theatre)[16]
  • Dínamít by Birgir Sigurðsson (2005, Icelandic National Theatre)[16]
  • 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)[16]

Contemporary dance

  • IBM 1401, a User's Manual with Erna Ómarsdóttir (2002)[16]
  • Mysteries of Love with Erna Ómarsdóttir (2005)[16]

See also


  1. Codrea-Rado, Anna (12 February 2018). "Johann Johannsson, Award-Winning Movie Composer, Dies at 48". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 14 February 2018.
  2. "Jóhann Jóhannsson, Oscar-Nominated Composer, Dies at 48". Billboard.com. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  3. "History Of Jóhann: The Composer's Path Through The Reykjavík Scene". Grapevine.is. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  4. Blais-Billie, Braudie; Minsker, Evan (10 February 2018). "Jóhann Jóhannsson Dead at 48". PitchFork.
  5. "Jóhann Jóhann: Englabörn Album Review | Pitchfork". pitchfork.com. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  6. "Virðulegu Forsetar". Johannjohannson.com. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  7. "Jóhann Jóhannsson : IBM 1401, A User's Manual". www.ausersmanual.org. Archived from the original on 16 October 2016. Retrieved 19 October 2016. 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.
  8. "Fordlandia". Allmusic.com. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  9. DOMH. "FatCat Records". FatCat Records. Archived from the original on 20 October 2016. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  10. Grady, Spencer. "BBC – Music – Review of Jóhann Jóhannsson – The Miners' Hymns". Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  11. Maddocks, Fiona (15 March 2014). "The Miners' Hymns review – a rich seam of music and mine". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  12. "Arrival composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has died at the age of 48". Verge.com. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  13. http://thefourohfive.com. "We Finally Know Why Jóhann Jóhannson Parted Ways with 'Blade Runner: 2049'". The 405. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  14. Roxborough, Scott (14 February 2018). "Johann Johannsson's Death Leaves Friends Shocked, Questions Unanswered". The Hollywood Reporter. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  15. "Johann Johannsson-"Drone Mass" - Met Museum World Premiere". Popmatters.com. Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  16. "Projects - Jóhann Jóhannsson". Johannjohannsson.com. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  17. Brimmers, Julian (10 January 2017). "Soundtrack Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson on Arrival, Sicario and The Theory of Everything". Red Bull Music Academy. Retrieved 12 February 2020.
  18. Brimmers, Julian (11 February 2018). "Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson dies". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 12 February 2020.
  19. Burlingame, Jon (13 September 2018). "The Music of 'Mandy': How Johann Johannsson Melded Horror With Heavy Metal". Variety. Retrieved 12 February 2020.
  20. "Jóhann Jóhannsson". AllMusic. Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  21. "Jóhann Jóhannsson: Orphée Album Review | Pitchfork". pitchfork.com. Retrieved 21 October 2016.
  22. "Jóhann Jóhannsson's debut album Englabörn receives posthumous reissue with new remixes". factmag.com. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  23. "Projects - Jóhann Jóhannsson". JohannJohannson.com. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  24. "How Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Helped Change the Genre Cinema Soundscape". Variety.com. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  25. "Johann Johannsson". Allmovie.com. Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  26. "FREE THE MIND". Danishdocumentary.com. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  27. "White Black Boy". Fonik.dk. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  28. "Johann Johannsson Death - Hollywood Reporter". Retrieved 27 February 2018.
  29. "The Shadow Play - Jonas Colstrup". jonascolstrup.com. Retrieved 3 September 2019.
  30. "Keepsake". Britishcouncil.org. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  31. "STUDIO AKA: VARMINTS". Studioaka.oco,uk. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  32. "Junk Love -Filmagasinet Ekko". ekkofilm.dk. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  33. "ERRÓ - norður -suður- austur- vestur". kvikmyndavefurinn.is. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  34. "'Trapped' score wins Eddan Award". JohannJohannsson.com. Archived from the original on 12 February 2018. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  35. "Award-Winning Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Dead at 48". Vulture.com. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
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