Conversations with Composers: Jóhann Jóhannsson

Johann Johannson.

Composer: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Current project: On tour – Yoshi’s, San Francisco, Sept. 13; Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever, Los Angeles, Sept. 15; three February dates with brass bands
Film: “Prisoners,” starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, out Sept. 20
Management: SpectreVision

After working on more than a dozen films, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson makes his first step into a major film with the Warner Bros release “Prisoners” from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve.

The orchestral score was recorded in London at AIR Studios and, in France, Johannsson record Thomas Bloch playing the Cristal Baschet, an instrument similar to a glass harmonica, and the Thermin-like Ondes Martenot. In Berlin, he recorded two days of drones. He then traveled to Los Angeles to mix the recordings at Remote Control Studios in Santa Monica, Calif.

“It’s how I do most of my work whether its film score or not,” says Johannsson, who moved to Copenhagen from Rekjavik about seven years ago. “It always involves the layers of live recordings, whether it’s orchestra or a band or solo instrument, with electronics and more soundscape-y elements which can come from various sources.

“I’m more used to working on low budget films in Europe so this is my first big budget project really. In purely practical terms, we were provided with resources to realize things.”

Following the mixing session, Johannsson began a tour, performing scores and music from his solo albums, booking different string quartets in each city. Her plays piano and electronics.

What was the starting point for the score of “Prisoners”?
It started with me sending Denys some existing music of mine that I felt, in some way, could provide a template or inspiration. I sent it based on the script and he picked up on a couple of pieces from the playlist I sent him. He listened to one piece over and over, an unreleased piece of music, that gave me an indication of the kind of direction we could go. After I got a rough cut, I started writing and sending ideas and we quickly arrived at two themes that became the backbone of the score.

The Cristal Baschet seems to be catching on film composers. Why did you use it here?
I’ve always loved that sound and I’ve followed the work of Thomas Bloch for a while and wanted to work with him. I think it has this pure translucence, a very pure and delicate sound that seems to have some qualities that echo the innocence and purity of these girls who are abducted (in the film). We very early on established that the music would be a counterpoint to the film. It’s a very dark film; it’s quite brutal and violent. We decided that the music would not be like that. It would counter the ugliness of the action, be beautiful and have a lyrical and melancholy quality that is more of an additional layer of meaning. I don’t think music should say what is already on the screen. Music shouldn’t restate what’s already there.

On your current tour, you’re performing film and solo material. Could you explain February’s tour a little?
Miners Hymns was a project commissioned by Forma, the arts production company in London. They basically put me together with (filmmaker) Bill Morrison with the idea of making an audiovisual piece with live music that touched and worked with the coal mining tradition of the northeast of England. The coal mining culture is very connected to brass music. Every coal-mining village had a brass band of miners -- it was the soundtrack of their lives from cradle to grave. We spent a lot of time researching in Yorkshire, in and around Durham, kind of the spiritual center of that culture. I fell for the hymns both from the church and some secular. One was composed by a miner, a wordless hymn to commemorate an accident in the 1930s where 200 miners died. It’s beautiful. It’s called popularly ‘The Miner’s Hymn’ and I took that name (for the work). We debuted it in Durham cathedral, a 1,000 year old cathedral, and we’ve played it a couple of times in Europe and are now doing a short tour of the U.S.

It seems remote, both stylistically and in terms of geography. What was the attraction of the project?
I’m an old brass player, the trombone was my first instrument. I know that culture quite well and I wanted to take that and put in my own idiom, create brass music that hopefully is new for the 21st century. The music sounds more Icelandic than British. It’s more about the spirit. I didn’t want to make a pastiche.

How do you define “sounding Icelandic”?
Everyone is somehow influenced by where you grow up. My themes are not particularly Icelandic –- (works) about miners, an old computer, a rubber factory in the Amazon jungle –- so it’s not so much about geography. Even though I haven’t lived in Iceland for seven years, there’s a heartbeat that comes from there. Iceland is a very creative place to live and work. It’s hard to say what it is that promotes that.

This is part of a bi-weekly series on composers working in film and television.

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