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Jóhann Jóhannsson's Uncanny New World

Originally published on Vice

In the last few years, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has demonstrated a marked savvy for the film score—and he’s been lauded accordingly. In 2014, his score for the film The Theory of Everything garnered him Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, winning him the latter. He was nominated for a second Oscar in 2015 for his score for Denis Villenueve’s Sicario, and on December 12, he was nominated for his second Golden Globe, this time for scoring Villenueve’s latest release, Arrival, a cerebral, more nuanced take on alien sci-fi.


Arrival is the third project on which Jóhannsson and Villenueve have joined forces—following Sicario and the 2013 thriller, Prisoners. In their two previous collaborations, Jóhannsson displayed a rare acumen for making music that functions as the film’s emotional infrastructure, going beyond the call to simply marry image with sound. He provides a soul, of sorts. A reliable touchstone that becomes indispensable to a film’s disposition. With the Arrival score, a decidedly new shade in his growing oeuvre, Jóhannsson has done that once again. 

Jóhannsson grew up listening to classical music and playing both piano and trombone, but he wasn’t interested in pursuing a formal, conservatory-bound education. Instead Jóhannsson studied linguistics and pursued music on his own accord, playing with noisy, minimalist shoegaze groups and developing a zest for the studio. “I was completely fascinated by the studio process and layering sounds and creating soundscapes out of layering massive squalls of sound,” he told me via phone from Berlin. “Layers of distorted guitar. Fuzz pedals. Filtered and EQ’d with masses of reverb and then stacking and sculpting them.”


By eschewing the rigors of academic study, Jóhannsson’s taste remained mutable and dynamic, open to inputs that extend back literally hundreds of years. Included on his post-1900 list of influences are such varied artists as Karlheinz Stockhausen, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Suicide, and Philip Glass. Traces of each of these songwriters can be heard in his unique and particularly salient voice as composer.


Jóhannsson’s distinct style first manifested on Englabörn, a 2002 record based on his music for a theater piece of the same name—“a dark, very disturbing play about domestic violence,” as he described it to me. “It was dealing with very ugly things—the worst in the nature of man. My reaction to it was to try to write the most beautiful music that I could.”


After positive responses from both critics and audiences, Jóhannsson expanded the music into a suite. He subtly reconfigured the score so that it could better serve as a standalone record. Piano, glockenspiel, celeste, organ, percussion, a string quartet, and electronics all figure into the music, which is soft, melancholic, and very beautiful, indeed. Englabörn is anchored by Jóhannsson’s deft use of space and colored by his variegated musical experiences. “This music was kind of a eureka moment for me,” he said. “Everything I’d been doing up until then seemed like it had led to that album and to that music.”


The composer’s approach to the standalone Englabörn doesn’t differ much from his approach to scoring film. “It’s about putting yourself in a receptive state of mind where you react to inputs, and it can be from anywhere. It doesn’t really matter if you’re writing for film or if you’re doing your own piece; you always have to put yourself into that space,” he told me. “There are practical parameters, of course, involved in writing film music rather than doing your own album, but I view them very much as the same body of work. And, for me, there are very clear lines for me between Englabörn to Arrival.”


Arrival certainly shares sonic hallmarks with Jóhannsson’s 2002 record. There are similarly emotive strings and a familiar staccato percussion, for instance, as well as a rich, contemplative character that suggests a robust gestation period; that is, it’s quite clear that Jóhannsson spent a lot of time distilling the story’s essence, enough to match—and even help define—its tenor.


The flourishing rapport between Jóhannsson and Villeneueve is at least partially responsible for the music’s potency. Villenueve grants Jóhannsson a lot of freedom to maintain his osmotic approach, so that even with a concept and visual framework in place, the composer can still put himself in a space, receive inputs, and then propose his own world of sound. “He likes things that are bold statements,” Jóhannsson said of the director. “Things that have an individuality and hopefully an originality. And I don’t make those claims for myself, but that’s what I strive to do.” I will make those claims for him since he will not. 


One of the reasons Jóhannsson’s sound worlds are so original and so essential to the narrative is Villeneuve’s willingness to include the composer very early in the filmmaking process. “He’s very generous with sending me material early on; in the case of Arrival, for example, I started recording the week they started shooting. One of the main themes was written during that first week, so Denis was immersed in that sound world and the distinctive sonic palette that distinguishes the Arrival score from the beginning.” With this approach, the score is not merely an auxiliary component to the film; it’s encoded in its very DNA. Jóhannsson’s score appears so integral to the ethos of the film precisely because it is the ethos of the film. 


Arrival is based on the 1998 short story, “Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang. The film begins when 12 non-descript, alien ships land at various locations around the earth, each hovering with otherworldly stillness just a few dozen feet off the ground. Inside of the ships are what humans call Heptapods (named for their seven appendages), which look like the love babies of an elephant/squid affair. Their movements are fluid and judicious, and their language is cryptic and non-linear. Cyclical inkblots ejected from their tentacles serve as the only clues to their alien grammar. 


Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is a linguist tasked by the US military to decode the language and, ultimately, discover why the Heptatods have come to earth. After weeks spent with the creatures, Banks pieces together a syntax and discovers that they have come to offer a “weapon.” Or could that be the word for tool? It’s impossible to know given the inchoate understanding of the language’s semantics. Linguists across the globe struggle to deduce the true interpretation, racing the short fuses of military officials and a frightened global populace.


This uncertainty furnishes the film’s underlying tone. Should we be curious or afraid of the Heptapods? Awestruck or terrified? Impressively, Jóhannsson captures the threshold that exists between these emotions and holds us there in perpetuity. His music skillfully mimics Arrival’s dilemma, constantly oscillating between terror and wonder, fear and curiosity, violence and trust—and often it embodies both at the same time.


“It was obvious that we needed to keep people in this space,” he told me. That space, though, is very narrow. Lean too much toward terror and it sounds like a horror film. Go too far in the other direction and emotional intrigue quickly dissipates. This created a notable challenge for the composer. “One of the scenes that was quite difficult to get right was the scene where they make the first meaningful contact (the one called “Hazmat” on the album). The challenge is to convey the uncanny. There’s fear and there’s a sense of stepping into the unknown, but there’s also awe and this sense that you’re in the presence of something greater than yourself… finding that balance was tricky.”


So how did he achieve that balance? Take “Hazmat” as an example. Pensive strings open the piece, wavering and becoming ever more unstable. When they’re about to break, though, a resounding bass cleaves them and provides low-end support. The strings’ vibratos then diverge from uniformity in arrythmic dance. Everything strobes. As the instruments teeter and sway, Jóhannsson introduces a number of new timbres, each more alien than the last: distorted glissandos, ominous static, and, eventually, the voice of experimental vocalist, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (aka Lichens), which arises from the abyss in tandem with the strings. Jóhannsson achieves balance because his music is dynamic. It breathes. It matures and then suffers setbacks—just like we do.


“A lot of the things that people think are bass synthesizers are actually Robert Lowe singing a line with layers and then those layers are slowed down. So it’s very human,” Jóhannsson explained. “There’s very little synthesized sound in the Arrival score. There are a couple of synthesized beats in there, but 99% of the sounds in there are acoustic in origin and either played or sung by a musician or a singer and recorded in a room.”


After recording the musicians, Jóhannsson used the studio to sculpt his sound—as he’s been doing now for nearly two decades. Percussive clicks are layered on top of one another in a rhythmically ambiguous mélange. Alien brass swells amidst the skittering vocal blips. “The sounds and the palette and the instruments that I wanted to use and the colors came to me very quickly after reading the script and seeing some of the concept art and immersing myself inside the story,” he said. “It was very clear, for example, that the human voice would be a very important part of the score.”


Jóhannsson used his knowledge of linguistics to outline the human voice’s role, composing it in such a way that it resembles the prosody of speech. “For me the linguistic aspect was something that interested me very much,” he told me. “Using the voice as a textural instrument…I wanted to use those basic building blocks of language as the basis of the score. There are no actual words being sung; they’re syllables. There’s this stuttering quality. A hesitation. Almost like there’s a language being formed.”


The Heptapods’ gift for humanity, in fact, is their non-linear language, a tongue that, when learned, allows speakers to experience time in a non-linear way. Humans, though, can’t agree whether or not to trust them—many countries are still convinced that the aliens have brought a weapon. Nationalism, power, and scaremongering inevitably become central plot devices, as per real life, and uncertainty leads nations to the brink of world war. It’s hard to imagine a more germane time for a film that’s about the struggle to communicate and understand each other on a global scale… 


Science fiction, at its best, provides a fantastic lens into the shape of our culture. It acts as commentary not only for where we are, but also for where we’re going. Arrival does this, and Jóhannsson’s score facilitates. The soul he’s contributed to this film is exceptionally human and, as such, exceptionally relatable. He’s created a language that we can all speak, that of a deep-seated desire to trust in something in a world where trust is hard to come by. “[Arrival] relates with people’s concerns today where there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world,” Jóhannsson said. “Our systems seem to be falling apart everywhere.” 


At any moment, both in the movie and in the world we watch it in, it feels as though we could tip either into sharper clarity or into the chaos of an ever growing delusion. In Arrival, the implications that hang in the balance are of apocalyptic proportion. So, too, are they in our own non-fiction world. There will always be uncertainty, especially during tectonic cultural moments and their aftermath, so we must be vigilant in our attempts to better understand one another. Sometimes we just have to trust that the person across from us is good simply because they are human, and that is enough.

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