Amidst the outpouring of grief following the untimely death of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson last week, a story from Ólafur Arnalds stands out. Jóhannsson had been working on the score for Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film Mother! for over a year. But after hearing his music played back with a rough cut of the picture, Jóhannsson convinced Aronofsky to ditch the music altogether, eventually replacing his 90-minute piece with mostly silence and abstract sound design. “It takes a real, selfless artist to do that,” Arnalds said. “To realise the piece is better without you.”
For most composers, removing your musical voice from a multimillion-dollar Hollywood film is tantamount to madness. But Jóhannsson wasn’t like the others. In an environment dominated by a small number of composers churning out identikit scores, he was uncompromising, unique and influential. It’s hard to understate how out of place he was in the commercial cinema industry—Jóhannsson was the kind of guy who skipped the Academy Awards, where he was nominated for his work on Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, to play at Unsound Festival.
Where much film music is prescriptive and emotionally literal, Jóhannsson’s scores displayed his uncanny ability to scrutinise a movie’s DNA. Sometimes it seemed like he knew the soul of the film better than the director themselves, evincing a sensitivity to a script’s needs that routinely went above and beyond the call of duty—indeed, his rigorous interrogations and penchant for abstraction may have cost him the score for Blade Runner 2049. Whatever the cost, he always tried to look into a picture’s core, to think through its implications to the ultimate conclusion. This wasn’t a sixth sense, but rather a dedication to hard work and process.
What follows is a short guide to Jóhannsson’s work. It isn’t definitive and doesn’t cover his entire career. But what it does highlight is the essential qualities of his artistic voice and the compositions that will continue to inspire and move artists and audiences for years to come.
READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE: Resident Advisor