It is with a heavy heart that I write this blog for you all today. It has recently been announced that Icelandic composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson has passed away, age 48. He was perhaps best-known for his original film soundtrack for the 2016 blockbuster, The Theory of Everything. As well as film soundtracks, Jóhannsson also worked on solo albums, and other exciting collaborations. This multi award-winning composer offered so much to the contemporary classical music world, so this blog is in honour of his memory and music – R.I.P.
After studying Languages and Literature at university, Jóhannsson began playing guitar in Icelandic Indie-Rock bands. This lasted for a short time before he began being seriously interested in creating minimalist music, and ambient structures for classical instruments. Jóhannsson worked for many years on creating a sound world where both electronic and acoustic sounds could blend naturally. Experimental collaborations are what Jóhannsson thrived from, and his compositional style developed also.
Jóhannsson has worked with musicians such as the ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), Marc Almond, Tim Hecker, and Pan Sonic. His style is incredibly versatile, and his projects have spanned across theatre, dance, cinema, and concert hall. Jóhannsson’s style is a unique blend of electronic and classical forms, which draws heavily on the principles of minimalism. However, in saying this, it is also hard to push Jóhannsson’s music into one genre box, as it never properly settles into any pre-defined genre, making it that little bit more exciting.
Today, Jóhannsson is perhaps best-known for his last few years in the music industry, as a film score composer. His scores for both The Theory of Everything (2014), and Sicario (2015) were nominated and won prestigious awards. As well as his highly acclaimed film scores, Jóhannsson’s discography is full of incredible music, that is both experimental, yet accessible for all. Between 2002-2016, Jóhannsson released 8 solo albums, with the latest being Orphée, which has become particularly popular. The focus on this blog is on the piece Flight From the City, which can be found on Orphée.
It came as a welcome surprise, that after focusing on film scores for so long, that Jóhannsson returned to composing his own solo music again. Released in September 2016, Orphée takes inspiration from the various tales of the Greek prophet, Orpheus. The album deals with musings on changes in the world, destruction and creation, and the motion of life. Jóhannsson explains further:
“Orphée is, for me, about changes: about moving to a new city, leaving behind an old life in Copenhagen, and building a new one in Berlin – about the death of old relationships, and the birth of new ones. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I was drawn to the Orpheus myth, which is fundamentally about change, mutability, death, rebirth, the elusive nature of beauty, and its sometimes thorny relation to the artist. The album, my first solo record for six years, is an oblique reflection on personal change.”
The six-year gap that Jóhannsson took to before releasing another album, was also spent slowly composing and developing the music that is now on Orphée:
“I spent a lot of time shaping these ideas into different versions and variations. They slowly mutated over a long gestation period of several years, and were transformed and transfigured into the individual pieces on the album.”
Flight from the City is the first track on the album, and is perhaps my personal favourite. The principle idea of this work is to allow the listener to self-explore themselves, to find inner peace. A simple piano melody, with a slowly-built up string accompaniment, nods its head towards minimalism, and composers such as Glass and Reich. Jóhannsson further comments that:
“Making Orphée has been a true labour of love, one that has been a part of my life for six years, and yet the music always remained fresh – it was constantly in a state of flux and renewal.”
This principle can certainly be applied to Flight From the City, with the music pushing you forwards, and yet, you remain within a stillness, watching the world go by. The addition of electronic bell sounds, also adds to the otherworldly atmosphere that Jóhannsson is going for. This composition allows you to remove yourself from the overwhelming world, just for six minutes, but it is a powerful tool for one to find some real inner peace.
From darkness to light, Orphée has a mesmerizing sonic palette, that is showcased through every track on the album. Such a wide scope of Jóhannsson’s talents is shown on the album, with Flight From the City showing the minimalist influences of his compositional style. To grasp a real true sense of the kind of composer Jóhannsson is, I urge you to listen to the album in its entirety.
As aforementioned, Jóhannsson sadly passed away in February 2018, at just age 48. This blog is in honour of his life, music, and the legacy he has left behind. May his music live on for many generations to come.