Thursday, January 10, 2019


I've a sneaky feeling this possibly unfamiliar name may mean more to the cinephiles out there than to the musos. I'd like to hope I'm wrong, but if you have been to the cinema over the past few years I am sure you will have heard some of his work, probably the most well-known being his soundtracks for sc-fi film 'Arrival' or the Stephen Hawking biopic 'The Theory of Everything'. But he was much more than a composer for films, even if that is where the bigger money lies, as other neo-classical composers like Max Richter and Olafur Arnalds have discovered.

What even is Neo-classical? Or indeed Contemporary Classical? Or even Classictronica as I prefer to call it, the indie mindset progeny of New Age and Ambient, fusing (often) elements of orchestral music with electronica? Here's a good, if a little already outdated article from UK newspaper, the Guardian.

Johannson had a what turns out to be a relatively typical start to his musical career. For Iceland, at least. Iceland, a tiny country of around a third of a million population, has been pushing way above it's weight for the past few decades, in a steady production of premier musicians across a vast gamut of genres. Go look! It seems every other person on the island is in a band. Well, Johannson, like fellow Icelander Arnalds, started off in rock bands, initially the brash postpunk of Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, via proto-(death?)metal with Ham, to the synth pop confectionary of Lhooq. And these are only the better known ones, his finger also in a number of other pies, such as Kitchen Motors, his think tank to bring together collaborations between all schools of musical theory, extending further developments already in his practice. Recognition outside his home was beginning to take place, and in 2001 he was the producer of the Marc Almond (of Soft Cell) album, 'Stranger Things', co-writing much of the material and playing most of the instruments.

                                                           Losing Hand/Lhooq

But it is his solo work for which his legacy will be best remembered. Often citing inspiration and building themes based upon arcane and/or doomed enterprises, two of his early works were 'IBM 1401: A Users Manual' (2006), using the actual instruction pamphlet for this early computer system as his source material and the electromagnetic emissions as sound sources, and 'Fordlandia' (2008), a suite developed around Henry Ford and his failed Brazilian rubber manufacturing enterprise. In each of these, and his other work, ambient noise mixes with the orchestral, found sound and spoken word with electronic. Stand alone pieces, unfolding over a perceived sonic narrative, clearly it was only a short step to soundtracking other art forms, stage, television and ultimately film.

                              Fordlandia: Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device

Working often with film director Denis Villeneuve, he was prolific up until the time of his death, picking up a number of nominations and awards. Runner-up for an Academy Award in 2015 with 'The Theory of Everything', for which  he had to make do with a Golden Globe, he was again a runner-up in the following year, with 'Arrival'. Keenly anticipated, certainly by myself, had been his planned score for Bladerunner sequel, 'Bladerunner 2049', but Villeneuve eventually went with the more bombastic gloss of Hans Zimmer.

Sadly, Johannson was found dead, at 48, in a Berlin hotel room, in February of last year, apparently the accidental effect of mixing recreational cocaine with prescribed medication. In death too this emerging talent was seeming to echo his rockstar credential.

Before I send you down the big river, here's a clip from one of my favourites, 'Orphée', an almost orthodox classical composition from 2016. This is the opening sequence. The video apart, there is no film it accompanies. Close your eyes: make the images in your own mind.

                                                         Orphée: Flight From the City

Get here.

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