There’s something about the projects Jóhann Jóhannsson has signed on to, the distinctive artworks that he selected for his album releases and of course his approach and methodology to work within the boundaries of music… or the lack thereof. All of these things resonated deeply with me and the sonic world I live in. He kind of became my favourite living composer out there.
And then he died.
I still remember the morning of February 11th… my birthday, when I woke up to the news of his untimely death. It was kind of devastating then and I still find it hard to accept even these days, especially when I’m listening to one of his albums. There was just so much more for him to give to the world. So much left untouched. A unique voice was lost and I just can’t think of anyone living up to his legacy as of right now.
Following below is a by no means complete retrospective on Jóhann Jóhannsson.
2004 Virðulegu Forsetar
With his debut album Englabörn (#1) Jóhann Jóhannsson was off to a silent start. Its elegiac opener Odi Et Amo gives voice to a humanized computer being that mourns for love. Or hate. Or a state in between. Jóhannsson bookends the album with that track. And as tragic as it might seem, the same can now be said about his whole career. Because with the recent re-release of Englabörn & Variations (#2), just one month after his death, Odi Et Amo has sort of became a (self-written) requiem for the composer himself. Almost as if the dying technology he was so fond of, is now the one that remains mourning.
With his second album Virðulegu Forsetar (#3) Jóhannsson was stirring in the same waters as William Basinski’s famous Disintegration Loops. It is meandering, hypnotic and thoroughly fascinating. And quite recently I’ve had a particularly wonderful experience revolving around it…
Battered by a rough day, I retreated myself into bed and escaped the real world for a good hour. My escape route was Virðulegu Forsetar, which I had never heard before. But its musical effect caught me from the first beat. Nestled in a warm drone sound that vibrates in strange, soothing frequencies, Jóhann lets his brass ensemble come forth ever so briefly looping the same touching motive over and over again. Just like that, peaceful slumber had come over me in waves as I was drifting in and out of sleep in sync with the music.
Virðulegu forsetar is split into four parts and immediately opens with a cluster of notes for organ and brass. This recurring cluster is the album’s mainstay, ascending triumphantly from a bed of smouldering drones at varying intervals. As the music rolls onward, the quiet sections get longer, to the point where minutes will go by before the familiar phrase is heard again. I feel a near unwavering anticipation take hold during these low rumbling sections, knowing full well that those luminescent horns will soon cut through again like a beacon of light. (seedbank)
It was a mesmerizing experience that captured my whole body and put me into deep state of relaxation. I can not recommend this album enough and strongly advise everyone to give it a listen, preferably in bed while taking a nap.
2006 IBM 1401, A User’s Manual / The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black
2009 And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees
Many of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s releases look like they’re already using a custom cover, often times omitting official film poster art and instead coming with a sleeve design of their own, which makes them feel more like original albums rather than soundtracks. Thus many times, if you wouldn’t know it better, you’d never guess you’re listening to film music. It could just as well be an original composition of contemporary classical or ambient music.
And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees (#9 to #11) is one of those cases. For the longest time I’ve been listening to this score without knowing anything about the short film it was composed for (Studio AKA‘s Varmints). I’ve made up my own narrative and allowed the music to tell the story. In that case not particularly about rodents living in a city, but certainly about beauty, perishability and hope.
In his probably most personal work, IBM 1401: A User’s Manual (#5, #6), Jóhannsson paints a toned-down picture of a future that is already long gone. A dystopian world in which the dust of decades has settled upon old, obsolete machinery. And where the sound of the past is still echoing through empty hallways and pale landscapes.
IBM was composed around old recordings from his father, who was a maintenance engineer at IBM in the 1960s and experimented with electromagnetic waves and radio receivers. Jóhannsson declared it as an homage to him and described it as follows:
It’s about this nostalgia for old machines, this a sort of tecno-nostolgia in a way, and also a kind of respect for the ancient. If a piece of technology has become redundant, it doesn’t necessarily loose its worth.
With The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black the five-part symphony IBM ends on a particularly strong note. Even so strong that it led the label 4AD to release the track as a promo single in advance (#7). Surely a novelty in the world of electronic ambient music.
A Work of Art
2005 Ashes and Snow
2012 Copenhagen Dreams
Artwork has always been a strong factor in Jóhannsson’s work as he deliberately chose the people to work with on his albums (more on that later!). I’d like to highlight two examples that have brought the art of making artwork from the digital to the analog world.
First, I would like to mention the ongoing art installation called Ashes and Snow (#11, #12), for which Jóhannsson has composed a piece for an accompanying short film called Blackrain.
But it’s especially Copenhagen Dreams (#13 to #20) that deserves extra recognition. The regular album came with artwork featuring a moody screencap directly from the film. The limited tour edition however, was something entirely different.
It was in mid-2012 when Jóhann approached Rasmus Koch Studio and commissioned a special tour CD. This edition, limited to 150 pieces and personally numbered and signed by Jóhann, was the result of extremely fortuitous circumstances. Please allow me to render the origin story as it was told by the original producers:
The idea to make a special tour edition was born out of necessity, after the print of the regular album release went wrong. The initial cover had been produced at a low cost printer abroad, but the print didn’t turn out as expected and couldn’t be used. There was no time for a reprint – the musicians where just about to go on tour and needed the CDs. Therefore, a quick and cheap alternative solution was needed, and we decided to make a small special edition by hand.
First step was a simple uncoated sleeve, with only little text, printed digitally. We then applied colour by using a rubber roll – mixing it on a glass plate and then rolling directly on the pre-printed sleeves. The blending of colours on the glass plate changed constantly, and the print marks from the roll turned out differently every time. In this way, each cover had a unique colour print.
Music Needs No Explanation
2011 The Miner’s Hymns
2012 Free The Mind / For Ellen
2014 McCanick / I Am Here / The Theory of Everything
2015 End of Summer
The first music I’ve heard from Jóhann Jóhannsson was his Golden Globe winning score for The Theory of Everything (#25 to #27). In hindsight it was the most unusual thing, considering how derivative it is from his remaining body of work. It is sweet, but not too much. It’s delicate and a little bit buoyant. And it’s always on the verge of falling head over heels into melancholia. It’s almost as if Jóhannsson took the chance to win over mainstream audiences by giving them what they need and expect, while subconsciously luring them over into his very own sonic realms.
If you want to know more about the score, I highly recommend you to listen to a December 2014 interview on the SoundCast in which…
Christopher Coleman talks with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson about Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominated score for The Theory of Everything. Jóhannsson shares his reaction to finding out about his Golden Globe nomination, his thoughts on some of the other scores nominated, his involvement in the production of the soundtrack and how the voicebox voiceover of Stephen Hawking effected the score.
2016 Arrival / Orphée
Possibly the best, but certainly the most successful of Jóhannsson’s works originated from his team-up with Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve. Their collaboration led to a trio of scores, which allowed Jóhannsson to really show off his skills.
He explored the darkest corners of our minds with his sinister thriller score for Prisoners (#32 to #34). And if that wasn’t enough already, Sicario (#35) unleashed a musical monster that floored us with its sheer brutality. The triumphant – and sadly final – culmination followed just one year later with an otherworldly score for Arrival (#36) that sounded so very different from anything else, one was led to believe it came right from the same unknown spaces as the aliens in the movie.
After his highly deserved Oscar nomination for Sicario in 2015, which Jóhannsson probably only lost due to Maestro Ennio Morricone’s long-overdue, first original score Oscar, controversies arose the year after.
Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences demonstrated their incredible narrow-mindedness by declaring Jóhannsson’s score ineligible for an award, according to, as they say, “director Denis Villeneuve’s inclusion of the Max Richter piece On the Nature of Daylight at several pivotal moments in the film and thus influencing the voters ability to judge Jóhannsson’s score on its own”.
I have been asking myself quite often what Villeneuve must have felt about his own decision to use that Max Richter piece in the film, especially now, after Jóhann’s untimely death. He unknowingly robbed him of his biggest chance to win an Oscar. Because it would have been supposedly easy for Jóhannsson to come up with a similarly rooted piece of music to open and close the film. My only consolation is that Jóhannsson obviously didn’t seem to care for these kind of awards all too much, as he refrained from participating in the 2016 ceremony and instead preferred to perform live at the Chevron Festival in Perth, Australia.
Pro-tip: If you find yourself having a particularly good day, take a moment and think about what Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ultimately unsuccesful gig for Blade Runner 2049 may sound like. And if that isn’t enough to make you feel sad, just continue to ponder over the endless possibilities he would’ve had on the next Denis Villeneuve’s film Dune… sigh!
Jóhann’s 2016 solo album Orphée (#37 to #39) is not exactly part of the string of collaborations he’s had with Denis Villeneuve, but it quite obviously came from the same well of inspiration, as it is sort-of a sister work to Arrival – which was released just two months later.
Orphée is a record about farewells and thus a morbid harbinger of things to come.
While researching for this blog post I stumbled upon the website of Anders Ladegaard, a Danish visual & auditive artist. Browsing through his website, I’ve learned that he was the artwork designer behind the Jóhann Jóhannsson albums Englabörn, Orphée, Arrival, Sicario, Free the Mind, McCanick, Prisoners and The Theory of Everything. As if that wasn’t amazing enough, I was equally impressed by his album covers, particularly the elegant font design. So I mustered all my courage and asked Anders for an interview and luckily, he agreed immediately. I’m eternally grateful and honored to be able to share it with you now.
How did you end up making so many artworks for Johann Johannsson?
I did a lot of animation and artwork on a danish documentary called “Free The Mind”. Jóhann ended up doing the score for it, and that’s how we met. In a dark screening cinema in Copenhagen. I think we immediately felt some kind of mutual aestethic connection. Some months after the premiere Jóhann called me to ask if he could use the poster I did for the film, as the front cover for the release of the soundtrack. Not long after, his career really took off, and I was lucky and fortunate that he kept using me for the artwork. I think I actually ended up doing the major part of all his soundtrack releases.
Did you work with him personally and if so what was it like?
Personally. And it was just really really great. It was hard work, sometimes very hard, but always meaningful. We spend a lot of time trying out different ideas and concepts. And Jóhann was really dedicated to that part. But when we had kind of locked in on the concept, he always let me do my thing. So there was a great responsibility that came with the creative freedom.
What we really agreed on, and probably why we ended up doing so much work together, was that we were there to serve the story. Not to show off. Everything that didn’t serve the story, got cut out. That goes for Jóhanns music, and the same for my approach to graphic design.
This is also what I deeply miss now. That feeling, that we got to return to our secret little room every once a while, to play together and come up with ideas. It was a really special thing to work for and with Jóhann. One of a kind.
How long do you normally work on a record cover and is it a very cooperative process or do you cook up concepts and designs all alone behind closed doors?
Hmm it depends. But usually it spans over a month, where we go back and forth over concepts. I usually get briefed. Then I close the doors, work the hell out of it, and come up with a few different directions. In most cases we decide on one or two, and then spend some time working back and forth on that. And then I finish it up by myself. So I can get all the nitty gritty parts in :)
How did you accomplish that incredible still for the front cover of Sicario?
Oh thank you. I’m really happy about that myself. From the very beginning a wanted to have that kind of desert/sand/dry heat feeling in the artwork. And get it to express the violence and drama of the film, and of course Jóhanns music. I didn’t really look at any of the other artwork from the movie, I just went in that direction. So I played around with a lot of different textures to try to gain the right look and feel. And it ended up being some footage I have of smoke on a black background, that did the trick. And then a ton of overlays with that. The studio send me a lot of stills with Emily Blunt, and I chose the one that ended up on the front cover. To me it was the strongest, and the one that could blend in with the rest of the artwork. I actually spend a lot of time hand painting the highlights on her face, and in her eyes, so it would stand out from all the dust and smoke. And at the same time bring out some of the vulnerability I think her face expresses.
Fun fact: In South-japan they actually used my artwork for the official blu-ray release, instead of the initial artwork, because they liked it better.
Your art for Orphée especially is very captivating, featuring a strange but stark front cover, that encourages you to take a closer look and observe it in detail. You did visually what Johann’s music does audibly. What was the thought process behind it and how was it conceived technically?
As I’m saying further down, we did a lot of experimenting. After some time I narrowed it down to two directions. One was to create a visual representation or interpretation of being in a room from where you can hear Jóhanns music being played in the other room. Something like if you’re in bed with a fever, the ambience of the room has a special feel to it. Everything seems distant, and the air has texture (or at least that’s how it is for me). That was one direction I worked in.
The other, which we decided on, was to create a journey. From a chaotic, energetic core and out into space, where everything is silent and weightless. Where you can see the whole sphere that encapsulates the core, and still feel the echo of the thundering center. From some other experiments I had done prior to Orphée, I had found a good way of combining radial gradients and different textures, to create something that kind of looked like a planet or a sphere but wasn’t exactly. Which gives it the mystery, and bit of eeriness to it. I also handpainted the edge of the sphere, and it’s halo, to add to it’s organic feel.
When I had done the sphere, I wanted something to erupt from it, or fly through it, in order to obtain motion and time. I didn’t want it to feel static, and in order to let the viewer know about the violent core I imagined, I had to send something through it. So after some different tests, we ended up with the “rocket” (or whatever it is). I molded it from a picture of a bullet, and then spend quite some time on the small highlight you can see on the tip of it. It wasn’t that easy to get the right balance so it wouldn’t take all the attention but at the same time help make the shape clear, and give the feeling that it had just broken through surface of the sphere. The explosion was made from footage of smoke, and hand painting. Again, at bit of a balancing act, because it needed to have the right size to give the impression of a lot of energy being released, and at the same time I didn’t want it to “reveal” the size of the planet, if the sphere was interpreted as that. I wanted to be undefinable.
Afterwards I actually did some animations based on the artwork, that we used as teasers for the album. Worked out really well.
Have you had any artistic instructions coming from the studio regarding your minimalistic artwork for Arrival? And did you get any reactions from the producers?
The concept of the Arrival artwork was very much conceived by Jóhann. He had a clear idea about the minimalistic look from the beginning. So I kind of “just” made his vision come through. We actually tried out a lot of different things to make sure we went in the right direction. But his gut feeling he was right from the beginning.
The first cover art I’ve seen from you was Prisoners and it resonated with me immediately. I loved the ‘non-soundtrack’ aesthetics. What can you tell us about it?
That’s so nice to hear. And I’m very happy describe it as being “non-soundtrack”, because that’s how I see it as well. I was send a bunch of stills from the film that I could choose from, and the one that made it for the front cover immediately caught my eye. Jóhann and I had talked about the film and his soundtrack, and that he wanted me to give it a bit of a nordic touch, referring to some other projects I’ve made in the past. So with that in mind, as well as all the wall drawings that appear in the film, I came up with the title design. And together with the front cover image I chose, it kind of made the concept for the rest of the artwork. It went quite smooth with the studio as well.
I figure it’s not always easy to work with copyrighted material, probably provided by a film studio from overseas. Do you face a lot of guidelines and boundaries when you tackle big film scores like these?
Since most of the albums I’ve done have been released on Jóhanns labels, we’ve kind of gone under the radar. We’ve had access to the same material, but really not that many restrictions designwise. I of course had to sign a lot of legal documents basically saying that they would rip my head off if I leaked any material, ha ha. Which I of course haven’t. So it’s been fine.
Artistically speaking how much freedom is there in your job as a designer?
A lot. But it’s something I’ve gained over the years, through a lot of hard work, hard
decisions, and some luck, I guess. I’m kind of at a place now, where I’m mainly contacted by people and companies that want me to do the job, and my style and approach to design. But there’s definitely been some tough choices, and some ties that I had to cut along the way.
What was the hardest piece you had to accomplish and why?
I wouldn’t really call it hard because we were progressing all the time. But i took a lot of work, thoughts and effort, ‘cause we really wanted to get it right. And there were so many directions to go in, because Jóhanns music has so many facets to it.
And what would you say is your favourite one?
I don’t really have a favorite.
Since you’re also a musician, would you say that JJ has had any influence in your work?
More his approach to creativity I think. Jóhann was a very great artist. I learned a lot from the times we spend together in person. Talking about all sorts of stuff. Especially the last time we hung out, it became very clear to me how untainted he was as an artist. Not from the projects he had done, but the ones he had turned down, because they didn’t feel right to him. He was a man of great integrity, and I really try to aspire to that, in all my work.
What’s your favourite musical piece from Johann?
Flight From The City from Orphée
What was the last soundtrack you’ve listened to extensively?
Of Jóhann’s, it’s Theory of Everything. But I actually listen to all of his soundtracks occasionally.
Apart from that, I just listened to Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ soundtrack for The Proposition. I keep returning to it. It’s amazing.
What are you passionate about besides your work?
My family :)
Any exciting projects up for you on the horizon you can talk about?
I’ve just finished the album artwork for a famous danish artist called Peter Sommer, which I’m very proud of. A bit like with Jóhanns’ Orphée, we tried out a lot of things before we settled on the final concept. I think it turned out really great.
Apart from that I’m working on a sequel to a digital children’s book I released last year. I’m writing, illustrating and composing the music for it, as I did with the first one. It’s a very time consuming project, but luckily I’ve got some funding from the Danish Film Institute. Hopefully it’ll be released sometime next year.
In 2019 I’ll spend a good amount of time as a part of a team that is to build up an entire new museum/exploratorium in Denmark. Can’t really tell a lot about it yet, since we’ve just started, but I’m super excited about it. Especially because the task at hand is to create a concept that can tie the architecture, the sound design and the visuals, which I’ll be in charge of, together around the stories, the museum wishes to tell.
How can people contact you and get in touch with you?
Pay a visit to my website, www.andersladegaard.dk, there’s a lot of different stuff that I’ve done over the years and my email address.
Thank you Anders for taking the time! And also of course for providing all the work-in-progress material, which is absolutely fascinating to see. You offered a glimpse of what it means to work creatively in professional terms and I can’t value it enough.
It was really fun to do. Nice to take a walk down memory lane.
Here and Now…
2018 The Mercy / Mary Magdalene / Mandy
We’re slowly but surely coming to the end as we arrive at a scrapped soundtrack work for Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (#40 to #44). This unused film score has yet to be released to the public, but I still wanted to put out at least a few custom covers as part of this sprawling blog post. Take it as one last homage from my side. I’ve incorporated the original handwriting of David Chang that was used on the poster and disassembled it into single characters and recomposed the album credits at the bottom of the cover art (#40, #41). To grasp the full details of original artist James Jean’s illustrations, I’ve uploaded both custom covers in original resolution as well. It’s just breathtaking!
It’s hard to believe that Panos Cosmatos’ horror film Mandy (#47 to #50) is destined to be the very last time that we get to hear new, unreleased music from the late iclandic composer. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve heard the score numerous times and cannot rid myself of the feeling that Mandy is in parts what we were about to get for Blade Runner 2049. At some times the musical similarities are glaring. And even if I’m dead wrong, after listening to it, I’m completely baffled that this composer was supposedly uncapable of writing the BR2049 score.
Mandy is absolutely insane and I was torn between cheering and lamenting the fact that Jóhannsson showed off yet another entirely new side of his seemingly ever-growing bouquet of musical styles. But there’s hope that his legacy will live on as a major inspiration for many young composers to come.
I want to close with a quote from Ólafur Arnalds, musician, and friend of Jóhann. He beautifully summarises and conveys the many unique qualities Jóhann had within his lifetime.
My favorite Jóhann story is when he had spent a year writing the score for Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother” and at some point realised that the film was better with no music at all. He proceeded to convince Darren to delete everything. It takes a real, selfless artist to do that. To realise the piece is better without you.
The most important part of creating art is the process, and Jóhann seemed to understand process. The score needed to be written first in order to realise that it was redundant. So in my view, Mother still has a score by Jóhann. The score is just silence… deafening, genius silence.