Iceland's Johann Johannsson was a brilliant composer, whose forceful and emotionally powerful blending of electronics with classical orchestrations allied to an incredible drive and sense of creative integrity, led to him rising to become one of the most influential contemporary composers both as a standalone artist and film soundtrack composer. A longtime friend of ours, life was tragically cut short in February 2018, whilst at the peak of his powers.
Born in 1969, Johannsson began studying piano and trombone at the age of eleven in his native Reykjavik. He abandoned formal musical training while at high school and, after studying literature and languages at university, spent ten years writing music for and playing in indie rock bandsin Iceland's flourishing music scene, using guitars to compose feedback-drenched pieces and sculpt complex multi-layered soundscapes. Creating music that integrated acoustic and electronic sounds into something strikingly individual and new, Johann began writing music for the theatre in the 1990's and in this medium developed the style he was most known for. He wrote music for several productions with the respected company Hafnafjardarleikhusid, including the play 'Englaborn'. The score for that play - which combined the influence of Baroque music, Erik Satie, Bernard Herrmann, Moondog and the electronic music of labels like Mille Plateaux and Mego - was released in 2002 on the respected British label Touch.
Written for string quartet, percussion and electronics, 'Englaborn' was re-released in 2007 by 4AD, by which time its combination of classical instrumentation and subtle electronics had proven influential. Johann's second album, 'Virthulegu Forsetar' (Touch 2004) featured brass ensemble, pipe organ, electronic drones and percussion. Both releases met substantial critical acclaim, whilst his third album, 'IBM 1401 - A User's Manual' (2006), was his most ambitiously orchestrated composition to date involving a 60-piece string orchestra. 'Fordlandia', was released in November 2008 also on 4AD, and was voted best classical album of 2008 at the Icelandic Music Awards. In April 2010 the Type label released 'And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees', an album of Johann's award-winning music for Marc Craste's animated film 'Varmints'.
Although mostly instrumental, Johann's work often involved complex narratives, which deal with our relationship with the world of machines and decaying and obsolete technology. His music often incorporates found recordings, such as his use of reel-to-reel recordings of a decommissioned 1960's IBM mainframe in the piece 'IBM 1401 - a User's Manual'.
'Fordlandia' was another orchestral album combining complex narrative themes with a sound that expands upon his earlier work while also exploring new ground. It combines romantic minimalist string writing influenced by Gorecki and Arvo Part and baroque-influenced counterpoint with elements derived from Krautrock, post-rock, glitch electronics and Icelandic folk music.
Johann signed to FatCat's orchestral imprint 130701 in 2010 and his debut for the label - the beautiful, brass and church organ soundtrack to acclaimed US director Bill Morrison's found-footage silent documentary 'The Miners' Hymns' - was released in May 2011. Intended to be the first of three albums for us, it ended up being the only album on the imprint, although he also contributed two tracks to the 'Transcendentalists' EP. In 2015, Johann signed to Deutsche Gramophon and the following year released his final solo album, 'Orphee'
Johann was founding member of Kitchen Motors - an art organization that curated events, commissioned works and released records and was been an influential part of the art and music scenes in Iceland during the early '00s. Members of mum, Sigur Ros, Aniima and many others were all affiliated with Kitchen Motors and participated in their projects. Johann's many side projects include the all-analog Apparat Organ Quartet and the electronic "supergroup" Evil Madness.
Johann was also an award-winning film composer with many international feature film credits to his name, including 'The Good Life' (Eva Mulvad, DK 2010), 'Dreams in Copenhagen' (Max Kestner, DK 2009), 'Varmints' (Marc Craste UK 2008) and 'By Day and By Night' (MX 2009). In 2015, his score to James Marsh's 'The Theory of Everything' saw the composer win a Golden Globe award and be nominated for an Oscar. the following year, Johann received another Oscar nomination plus a BAFTA nomination for his score to Denis Villeneuve's 'Sicario'. In 2017 he was once again nominated for both BAFTA, Grammy and Golden Globes for his soundtrack to Denis Villeneuve's 'Arrival'. He won Composer of the Year at the World Soundtrack Awards in both 2017 and 2018.
A prolific collaborator, Johann worked and performed with artists such as Marc Almond, Barry Adamson, Pan Sonic, The Hafler Trio, Jaki Liebezeit, Laetitia Sadier, David Tibet, Baby Dee, Larsen and many more. He was also an accomplished composer for contemporary dance and theatre.
Tragically, Johann died at his home in Berlin on 9 February 2018, at the age of just 48. He will be sorely missed.