Jóhann Jóhannsson, Oscar-Nominated Composer, Dies at 48

Jónatan Grétarsson
Johann Johannsson

Academy Award-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away Friday (Feb. 9) in Berlin. The Golden Globe-winner was 48. His manager confirmed his death, the cause of which is unknown. 

Jóhannsson was one of the most innovative contemporary composers working today, often melding electronic instrumentation with classical orchestration. 

In 2015, Jóhannsson won the Golden Globe and received Oscar, BAFTA and Grammy nominations for his critically acclaimed score for The Theory of Everything. In 2016, he was nominated for Oscar and BAFTA awards for his score for director Denis Villeneuve’s film Sicario. That year also saw the release of Arrival, another collaboration with Villeneuve, for which Jóhannsson received Golden Globe, BAFTA and Grammy nominations. He most recently collaborated with director Darren Aronofsky on mother!.

Jóhannsson also wrote the score for Mandy, the Nicolas Cage-starring horror film, which drew rave reviews at Sundance, as well as Garth Davis's new film, Mary Magdalene, out later this year.His score for James Marsh’s new film, The Mercy, which combined newly written and existing pieces from Jóhannsson’s catalog was released on Deutsche Grammophone Feb. 2. 

Jóhannsson’s method was to challenge himself by writing the most difficult cue first. “This is quite often the case, at least for me,” he told me in an interview for The Hollywood Reporter after receiving the Oscar nod for his dark, pulsating score for Sicario. “I tend to try to start with the most difficult scene or the more significant scenes in the film to try to get things started.”

Jóhannsson drew influences from legendary composers such as John Williams and Ennio Morricone. In the same THR interview, Jóhannsson praised his fellow nominee (and ultimate winner) Morricone for leading the way with his innovative approach. “He was working with the studio as an instrument and with electronics and avant garde improvisors,” said Jóhannsson, who did the same. “I’m a huge fan of the way he combines his effortless sense of melody with a sense of experimentation.” 

In addition to his film scores, Jóhannsson had a career as a solo musician and composed music for theater, dance and television. His first solo album, Englabörn, was released in 2002. Later works include Virðulegu Forsetar (2004), Fordlândia (2008), IBM 1401 -- A User’s Manual (2006), The Miners’ Hymns (2010) and Orphée (2016). In 2015, Drone Mass, Jóhannsson’s piece for a string quartet, electronics and vocal ensemble, premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In a statement, Jóhannsson’s manager, Tim Husom said, “Today, I lost my friend who was one of the most talented musicians and intelligent people I knew.  We came a long way together.”

The Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency, which represented Jóhannsson added, “We are deeply saddened by the sudden loss of our client and dear friend Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose great talent, humility and kindness enriched our lives immeasurably. His music has inspired many new generations of filmmakers and composers. He will be so greatly missed by his Gorfaine/Schwartz family as well as the entire film music community.”

Jóhannsson, who was set to perform at Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona in May, is survived by his parents, sisters and daughter.