One of Iceland's most prolifically creative musicians, composer/producer/multi-instrumentalist Jóhann Jóhannsson blurred the lines between genres — as well as the boundaries between his solo work, collaborations, and commissioned pieces — with an organic ease and generosity of spirit. The way he blended classical, electronic, and ambient music (along with hints of indie and metal) complemented his innate gift for storytelling and communicating emotions on works as intimate as his 2002 debut Englabörn and as ambitious as 2008's Fordlandia. Similarly, he gave solo albums such as 2016's Orphée as much narrative depth as his Oscar-nominated music for 2014's The Theory of Everything and 2015's Sicario. In turn, his compositions for smaller films like the 2011 documentary The Miner's Hymns were just as rich as any major motion picture score. Jóhannsson's untimely death in 2018 was a huge loss to music, especially since his final score, Mandy, proved he was still finding new ways of combining powerful moods and innovative sounds.
Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, Jóhannsson took piano and trombone lessons as a boy, and began making music in the late '80s. His early projects included the band Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, whose noisy brand of indie took inspiration from the Jesus and Mary Chain and won fans such as John Peel and Steve Albini. He became a fixture of Iceland's indie music scene thanks to his work as a guitarist and as a producer for acts such as Unun. In 1999, Jóhannsson founded the Kitchen Motors label and collective (which also included members of Sigur Rós, Múm, and Slowblow). That year also marked the formation of Apparat Organ Quartet, a group of four keyboardists and a drummer who issued a pair of albums (2002's self-titled album and 2010's Pólýfónía) of self-described "machine rock & roll."
These collaborative, genre-bending projects informed Jóhannsson's solo career, which launched with 2002's Englabörn. Based on the music he wrote for a play, its bittersweet miniatures paired a string quartet with percussion, keyboards, and electronics. It set the stage for more expansive works such as 2004's Virðulegu Forsetar, an ambient piece scored for brass, organ, keyboards, and electronics that was composed for and recorded in Reykjavik's Hallgrimskirkja Church. For the following year's Dis, Jóhannsson expanded on the pieces he wrote for the film of the same name and collaborated with friends that included members of Singapore Sling and Slowblow as well as Kitchen Motors' Hilmar Jensson and singer Ragnheidur Grondal, resulting in a work that combined Scandinavian indie with more traditional score elements.
Jóhannsson moved to 4AD for two of his most ambitious solo albums. The first installment of a planned trilogy of albums about technology and iconic American brands, 2006's IBM 1401, A User's Manual was inspired by the first computer brought to Iceland in 1964 and based on a recording of an IBM computer's electromagnetic emissions that his father — one of Iceland's first computer programmers — made on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. A string quartet version of the work was performed as the accompaniment to a dance piece by choreographer Erna Omarsdórtir at the 2002 Dansem Festival. The recorded version of IBM 1401, A User's Manual incorporated vocalizing, electronics, and a 60-piece orchestra along with the original recordings of the IBM computer. Jóhannsson followed it with 2008's Fordlandia, which used Henry Ford's failed rubber plant in Brazil and engineer/occultist Jack Parsons as inspiration for its soaring compositions. During this time, the composer's commissioned works included the music for the Icelandic TV series Svartir Englar and the 2007 film In the Arms of My Enemy. The soundtrack he composed for the animated film Varmints was sold as And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees, a limited-edition, tour-only release. The album was given a wider release the following year on Type Records.
Soundtrack work dominated Jóhannsson's schedule for most of the 2010s. In 2011, his music for Bill Morrison's documentary The Miner's Hymns combined electronics, a brass band, and pipe organ. The following year, he left Apparat Organ Quartet and issued Copenhagen Dreams, the score to Max Kestner's documentary about the Danish city. In 2013, he first collaborated with Denis Villeneuve, composing the music for the director's acclaimed thriller Prisoners. Jóhannsson achieved another level of success with his emotional score for 2014's Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, which won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. The following year, he was once again nominated for a Best Original Score Academy Award for Sicario, his second collaboration with Villeneuve. Jóhannsson worked with the director again on 2016's Arrival.
During this time, Jóhannsson directed and composed the music for the Antarctica documentary End of Summer, which also featured Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir and Lichens' Robert A.A. Lowe. He also premiered Drone Mass, a contemporary oratorio, at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in a 2015 performance that featured the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) and Roomful of Teeth. Jóhannsson reunited with Guðnadóttir for the BBC TV series Trapped, which won the Best Score award at the 2016 Edda Awards in his native Iceland. That year, the composer also signed with Deutsche Grammophon to release his solo projects. The first of these was Orphée, his first solo studio album in six years. Inspired by several versions of the Orpheus myth — including French director Jean Cocteau's film — as well as Jóhannsson's move to Berlin, Orphée arrived in September 2016. Around this time, he began work on the score to Villeneuve's Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049, but the director decided that the film needed something different musically and recruited Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to finish the score. Jóhannsson also wrote a score to Darren Aronofsky's 2017 film Mother! that went unused, but he was credited as a music and sound consultant. Shortly after the release of his score to James Marsh's sailing drama The Mercy in February 2018, Jóhannsson died in Berlin from heart failure at age 48. His final scores arrived later that year: Mary Magdalene, another collaboration with Guðnadóttir, appeared in March. The music to Panos Cosmatos' revenge film Mandy, which featured contributions from Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley and producer Randall Dunn, had been recorded at the time of Jóhannsson's death but was assembled into its final form by co-producers Pepijn Caudron and Yair Glotman for its September 2018 release. That year also saw the launch of the Jóhann Jóhannsson Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting music students with creators, scholarship grants, and music education programs. ~ Heather Phares