New Music Friday: Jóhann Jóhannsson on Orphée

By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications  •  September 16, 2016

The mythic Greek figure Orpheus was a master musician, capable of charming all living creatures with his lyre. Of course he was most famous for his attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld, which failed when he looked back at her against the gods' instructions. As you can imagine, the Orpheus myth is fertile ground for musical interpretation. Creators as varied as Monteverdi, Stravinsky, Anaïs Mitchell, Andrew Bird and the Arcade Fire have written music inspired by Orpheus's exploits.

For his first solo album in six years, Icelandic ASCAP composer Jóhann Jóhannsson dipped into the Orphic waters, and came back with Orphée. Jóhannsson has focused on film music for the last few years, earning acclaim (including a Golden Globe and the 2015 ASCAP Composers' Choice: Film Score of the Year award) for his scores to The Theory of Everything, Sicario and Prisoners. The music on Orphée is vintage Jóhannsson, built of simple harmonies and spacious ambience, etched into memory by strings, piano, organ, electronics and a choir on the unforgettable final track. Fans of Jóhannsson's film work will find much to love in the solemn cinematic quality of the album; but even the uninitiated will be bewitched by its indescribable beauty.

We rang Jóhannsson in a castle in Umbria, Italy, to ask him about the genesis of Orphée and his upcoming film projects.

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So many composers and writers and poets and artists have interpreted the Orpheus story over the centuries. What does the myth mean to you, both personally and as a music creator?

I feel like using gardening metaphors when I'm talking about this album ::laughs:: because it really feels like a little garden that I've been tending to for many years, and that is finally blooming now, or bearing fruit now. I started writing this album about six years ago. It started with this little ecosystem of ideas that I was kind of nurturing and tending to over a period of some time, and I always felt that it could turn into something, into an album or some kind of piece. They were all related in some way, and they all had this kind of ascending, or upward-thrusting harmonic momentum. 

At one point I wanted to put text to one of the ideas and to create a vocal piece. I looked into [Ovid’s] Metamorphoses and his retelling of the Orpheus myth, and it's a story that has always had some kind of resonance with me. It had a connection both to the mood of the music and because an album like that, when you're working with material over such a long time, becomes almost like a diary. Every year I did some work on it. I recorded a little bit of a string quartet, a little bit of piano, some pipe organ, some choir. Every year I added a little bit to it so it became like a diary over a long period of change and transition, a period of moving to a different country, to witnessing the end of a relationship and the beginning of new relationships.

The myth really concerns themes of death and rebirth and memory and mutability, love and art, and the relationship between the artist and beauty. It's also a myth that is very much about crossing thresholds, about going through portals and going through doors. And so it's also in a way about transgression. And it's about the artist's duty to transgress, in a way. Because that's what Orpheus does. He defies the gods’ interdiction to turn back and look back at his beloved when he is bringing her back from Hades. 

I’m so taken by that idea of the necessity of transgression. On a day-to-day basis, do you feel like you as a composer are committing some kind of transgression? Where is the transgression in the art that you do?

I think that the essence of being an artist is to break rules. You have to learn rules, and you have to break them, because if you make art only by the rules, then you make very boring art. ::laughs:: It's also a general spirit of... reaching into the essence of the night, in a way. And I'm very attracted to artists that are extreme in some way. I am not very extreme in my life. But I'm very attracted to art that works with extremes, and works with limits, that transgresses limits and transcends limits and crosses borders and has a certain boldness.

I think there's very little interesting in art that is not transgressive in some way. And I don't think that's a very revolutionary thing to say. In many ways, that is one of the attractions of the Orpheus myth: it's a myth about a song, in a way. It's a story about a story. And it's also about memory, this idea that beauty is fleeting. That artistic inspiration is fleeting and kind of amorphous. And that it can fade and disappear just by looking back, you know? Just by turning your head. An idea appears and it disappears and you have to be ready to catch it. It's also about ephemerality, if that's a word.  

Well music is by its nature ephemeral. The second after you hear a note, that note has already begun to decay. And our sense of the structure of a piece requires that we remember what came before it. Music requires memory.

It does, yeah. It's a time-based art form. It's based on duration, and it ends. I guess there is music that doesn't end. ::laughs:: But most music does, and then it only lives in memory. Whether it's physical memory of the human brain cell or the digital memory of the computer, which is just as fleeting as the human brain cell as we can see. We have hard disks that are only four or five years old and they're already breaking down. And we're losing data that is only four or five years old – it seems like all our culture is becoming more and more ephemeral. Digital culture vanishes much more quickly.

And yeah, that's something that's very much a part of this story as well, this idea of the intangibility, and how you take an idea and you give it form. That was really the journey of this album. But in the process of that, it also lost its original idea that the album was based on. Those ideas are gone forever. They're on some hard disk from six years ago that I will never be able to retrieve. 

A lot of your work that's not for film has some kind of story behind it, a context. Like your album Fordlandia was about a rubber plant built by Henry Ford in the middle of the Amazon back in the 1920s. Is it important to you that your listeners understand these non-musical origins of your music? 

I put some effort into putting those thoughts into words, and then it's up to the listener whether she seeks these things out. That's becoming increasingly difficult with the way that music is presented these days. There's no extra information. When you listen to Spotify, you only see the title of the song and the performer and there's no information about the artist. It's only if you have the actual album cover and the liner notes that you are able to access these ideas. But for me, it's not so important whether people listen to the music as pure music, without connection to these ideas that make them take a certain form in my own mind. I do think that it deepens the experience if you get to know the stories behind the album. But that's true of anything. The more effort you put into something, the more you get out of it. But this is something that is up to the listener. I put these things out there and it's up to the listener whether they are interested in these additional layers or not.

You mentioned that over the past six years that you had been focusing on film, you did a little bit of work on Orphée every year. How would you say that your film scoring impacted what we hear on the album?

I’ve been writing film scores for 15 years, but it's really only since Prisoners, which was in 2013, that my film career became a larger part of my life. So this album Orphée has its origins in the time before I really started putting this intense energy and focus into film music. I came to film music through my solo work, and it's because filmmakers sought me out as a composer after hearing my solo work that I'm writing film music. Filmmakers started approaching me to first license music from my albums, then to compose original music for their films. So the film music and the solo work have always been linked. But Orphée has much more in common with Fordlandia than with [my score for] Sicario, for example. Although there are parts of Sicario that could easily be on Orphée

Is it refreshing to be the director of your own projects, after several years of collaborating with others?

Collaboration is always a part of what I do. On Orphée, I'm of course the composer and I play the piano and the keyboards, but I'm collaborating with string players and orchestras and vocalists. And when I work with a director, it's like I'm working with a musician. There's no difference really. Obviously when you're working for film, you're working within the context of work that is a combination of different art forms, whereas a solo album is basically music. But for me, it's always all about collaboration.

I think I've been really lucky with the directors that I've worked with. I've worked with directors that give me a certain freedom, a certain trust in what I do and in my instincts. But this trust is also reciprocal. Especially with someone like [Prisoners/Sicario/Arrival director] Denis Villeneuve, there is a trust that develops over time so that the creation of the score becomes very much a collaboration. I feel it's more interesting for me to be a part of the creation of the film from the beginning. With Denis, he usually involves me in the very early stages of the film, and during pre-production I read the script, we talk about the music and we talk about the moods and about the themes and ideas and I tend to start writing almost immediately. Very often there is music already coming to me while he is filming. In the case in Arrival, one of the main themes was written before they started filming, and I was making some 16-track tape loop experiments in Berlin using piano and voice – very analog, very lo-fi drone experiments. From these sessions there were two or three tracks that emerged which I sent to Denis and he responded very strongly to one of those pieces, and he asked me to develop it further and make a five-minute version of it. He was listening to that track all throughout the filming of the movie, and this particular piece became one of the signature motifs of the score.

Around the same time as Arrival, you were also working on The Mercy, directed by James Marsh who you worked with on The Theory of Everything. Can you tell me a little bit about the score to The Mercy?

Yes, that's a very different film and a very different director, equally brilliant in my opinion and equally strong. It's my second film with James, and our two collaborations have been very enjoyable, but his films are different. In the case of The Mercy, I joined that project much later than for Arrival. It was in the editing stage that I joined that project, and so it was a very different way of working. But it's also a very interesting film in the way that it juxtaposes different voices and different moods and goes from a pastoral, almost a traditional kind of Englishness, this sort of 1960s heritage feel of this British seaside town, which is scored in a certain way and then the story takes a very dark turn and so the music takes a very dark turn as well. It's a strange and very compelling mixture of moods. I'm very proud of it, and I'm really looking forward to getting reactions from people to that film. 

I have to ask about the sequel to Blade Runner, another movie that you're working on with Denis Villeneuve. The Vangelis score for the original is such a classic, of both film music and electronic music. Was it an inspiration for your music for the sequel? 

It’s really too early to tell, because we've only just started. Blade Runner is a film that I saw in its original release. I'm old enough to have seen it when it first came out, and I was absolutely floored by it. I've also been fascinated with Philip K. Dick's work. I'd read the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? before I saw the film, and I was also a huge fan of science fiction and a huge fan of Philip K. Dick. So it was a big thing for me. 

And likewise Vangelis, especially in my early development as a composer, was quite an influence on my work and I have enormous respect for him as a composer and for his achievements. What I admire about him is his sense of monumentalism, and his use of space. And I think that's something my music has to a certain degree as well, this sense of space, the use of silences, of rooms and ambiences. “Rooms” meaning reverb and echo. And I think I learned that to a great extent from Vangelis and from Blade Runner.

The sound design of the original Blade Runner is amazing – like this scene where Rachael is having this conversation in the Tyrell Corporation and they're all speaking in this gigantic room and there's this enormous echo on their voices. The echo is really long. And it's such a strong memory, that scene – you know, that use of echo – and I think that impacted very much how I used reverb on their voices, on my IBM 1401: A User’s Manual album for example. IBM 1401 is a sort of homage to Blade Runner in some ways. This idea of the machine doing something human-like, these ideas of the man-machine, and what is human and what is machine, and where do these borders of humanity lie, which are becoming ever more important as technology advances. These are areas that interest me enormously. So yeah, Blade Runner is obviously a dream project and I couldn't be happier about being a part of it. I feel very thankful to Denis and to the producers for trusting me with that very delicate job.  

A lot of your work for different media engages similar themes, and some similar aesthetic choices. When you look back at everything you've done over the past 15 years, do you see it as part of one big gestalt? Or do you differentiate it all?

I do personally see a continuity in my work. I put a lot of heart into what projects I take on, and the projects I take on have to interest me, they have to be challenging to me intellectually and artistically. So, I think automatically, they always include something that is within my purview, and within my areas of interest. I like to think of both my film work and my solo work as having a continuity. Even though there is definitely a spectrum. The Theory of Everything is on one side of the spectrum, and something like End of Summer or Sicario is on the other side of the spectrum. And I think Arrival is much more on the Sicario side, and then there's something like Orphée, which is somewhere in between. But for me, they're all related. In my mind there's always a reason behind every artistic decision. 

In the last few years of getting major award nominations and – hopefully – larger budgets to work with, what's one important lesson you’ve learned about the film industry, and how a composer should interact with it?

I think it's a lesson that I learned very early on working on small films in Denmark and in Iceland, and it's to choose projects that interest you and that you feel you could contribute to. And choose to work with people that you like and that you respect and that you feel you have something in common with. Those are really the only two rules that I apply when I'm thinking about taking on a project.

You've been an ASCAP member for a couple years now. Can you talk about what ASCAP has meant to your career? 

We - my manager Tim Husom and myself - made the decision to switch to ASCAP based on relationships we had with the great people that work at ASCAP. It's a very enthusiastic, very welcoming and very nurturing group of people. We felt really strongly that the people that work at ASCAP had a passion for music, had a passion for what they do and that they are people we can reach out to and that are for us...This is something that we deeply appreciate in our relationship with ASCAP. 

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Orphée was released on September 16th on Deutsche Grammophon. Click here to purchase it.

Read more about Orphée at Jóhann Jóhannsson’s website, here.