It was whilst studying languages and literature at university in Reykjavík, that Jóhann Jóhannsson’s musical career began. He was just eighteen when he joined his first indie rock band in 1987. Over the next few years, Jóhann Jóhannsson played with several indie rock bands in Reykjavík’s vibrant and thriving music scene. Little did Jóhann Jóhannsson realise that this was the start of a long and successful musical career.

Eventually, Jóhann Jóhannsson would become known worldwide as a composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer. This didn’t happen overnight. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson was twenty-seven when he wrote the music to Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s play Margrét Mikla. This was a breakthrough for Jóhann Jóhannsson. He would go on to write the music for film, television, theatre and dance. This included the television program Corpus Camera in 1999. The same year, Jóhann Jóhannsson cofounded a think tank in 1999.

Thirty year old Jóhann Jóhannsson was one of the cofounders of the Kitchen Motors think tank. It was a both an arts organisation and record label. Kitchen Motors also encouraged artists from different disciplines to collaborate. This meant jazz and classical musicians could collaborate with electronic and even punk musicians. For Jóhann Jóhannsson these musical experiments would influence his future career.

As the new millennia dawned, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s career began to take. Between 2000 and 2002, he wrote eleven soundtracks. This included everything from feature films to television programs and plays to contemporary dance. It was one of the busiest periods of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s career. Despite this, he found time to release his debut album Englabörn in 2002.

This was the start of another chapter of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s career. He was working on a variety of different projects. One of the them, was writing and recording the soundtrack to Tim Shore’s short film Keepsake. It was released in Britain in 2003, and was the first project Jóhann Jóhannsson worked on outside of his native Iceland. For Jóhann Jóhannsson this was an important project.

Following Keepsake, Jóhann Jóhannsson managed to juggle his solo career while writing for film, television, theatre and dance. He released his sophomore album Virðulegu Forsetar in 2004. After this, Jóhann Jóhannsson began working on what was another first for him.

He had never before written and recorded a soundtrack album. Dí­s which was released in May 2005 was a first. This may have been the first, but wasn’t the last soundtrack album Jóhann Jóhannsson would write and record. Not when his star was in the ascendancy.

That was the case with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s solo career. After just two solo albums, he was signed to British independent label, 4AD. They released Jóhann Jóhannsson third album BM 1401, A User’s Manual in September 2006. It was lauded as an innovative album from what critics were calling a rising star of Icelandic music. Little did the critics realise that Jóhann Jóhannsson had spent seven years working long and hard to establish himself in his native Iceland. This was beginning to pay off as his music found an audience outside of Iceland.

Still though, the majority of the music Jóhann Jóhannsson was composing for film, television, theatre and dance was for being used within Iceland. That would change during 2008.

Jóhann Jóhannsson had written the score to Marc Craste’s short film Varmints. It was released in 2008, and was well received by critics and cultural commentators. So much so, that later in 2008, Varmints won the award for the Best Original Score at the Rhode International Film Festival and  Sapporo Short Film International Film Festival. Buoyed by this success, Jóhann Jóhannsson scheduled the release of his new album for the autumn 2008.

On 31st October 2008, Jóhann Jóhannsson released Fordlandia. This was meant to be the second part in a trilogy about he technology and industrial archeology. Just like the first instalment, A User’s Manual, Fordlandia was released to critical acclaim. For Jóhann Jóhannsson this was the perfect way to round off what had been one of the most successful years of his career.

After the success of Fordlandia, Jóhann Jóhannsson decided to release an album of music that featured on the award winning short film Varmints. This became And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees. It was released on the 11th December 2009, and is captivating, beautiful and haunting fusion of electronics and orchestral music. For Jóhann Jóhannsson the Varmints would open doors to other soundtrack work. 

Before that, Jóhann Jóhannsson returned with a new solo album, The Miners’ Hymns on the 15th September 2011. The album had been recorded in Durham Cathedral, England and accompanied American filmmaker Bill Morrison’s film The Miners’ Hymns. This wasn’t the only film Jóhann Jóhannsson was working on.

Jóhann Jóhannsson had been busy on a variety of projects. He continued to juggle a myriad of disparate projects. Many of them came to fruition during 2012, with one bringing another award the way of Jóhann Jóhannsson.

During 2012, several films featuring a soundtrack that was written, recorded and produced by Jóhann Jóhannsson were released. This included Free The Mind and Copenhagen Dreams. Jóhann Jóhannsson was responsible for the soundtrack to a quartet of feature films, including So Yong Kim’s For Ellen, Phie Ambo’s Free The Mind, Camilla Magid’s White Black Bo and Lou Ye’s Mystery. It was Mystery that won Jóhann Jóhannsson the award for the Best Original Score at Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival Awards. 2012 had been one of the most productive and successful years of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s career. 

It wasn’t going to be easy to surpass the success of 2012. That was despite Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack to Prisoners receiving praise and plaudits during 2013. However, when Jóhann Jóhannsson was asked to write, record and produce the soundtrack to The Theory of Everything, that proved to be a game-changer.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack to The Theory of Everything was nominated for some of the most prestigious awards. This included an Academy Award for Best Original Score, BAFTA Award for Best Film Music and Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. The other award The Theory of Everything was nominated for during 2014 was the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. That was the award that Jóhann Jóhannsson won. Suddenly, he his name was all over the televisions and press. Everyone seemed to know the name Jóhann Jóhannsson. It was a far cry from when he was playing in indie rock bands during his university days in Reykjavík.

After his success with the soundtrack to The Theory of Everything,Jóhann Jóhannsson returned in 2015 with  another soundtrack. Sicario was released on the 18th September 2015 and soon, was being nominated for some of the most prestigious awards. This included the Academy Award for Best Original Score and the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. Alas, this time, Jóhann Jóhannsson was out of luck. Despite this he released a new album later in 2015.

Jóhann Jóhannsson released his new album End of Summer in December 2015. It was a collaboration with Hildur Guðnadóttir and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe that documented Jóhann Jóhannsson’s journey to the Antarctic Peninsula. During that journey, he discovered tranquil scenery and watched how the landscape changed with the seasons. On his return home, Jóhann Jóhannsson sculpted an album of soundscapes that documented what had been a truly memorable and life affirming journey and experience. They became End Of Summer, the latest addition to his burgeoning discography.

The next addition was the soundtrack to the psychological science fiction film Arrival. It was premiered at the Vienna Film Festival on September the 1st 2016. Just over two months later, Arrival was released on the 11th of November 2016. Since then, it’s been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. By then, Jóhann Jóhannsson had released a new solo album Orphée on Deutsche Grammophon.

On Orphée, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s attention turns to the beauty and the process of creation. Orphée features Jóhann Jóhannsson tracing a path from darkness into light. Inspiration for Orphée comes from the opéra bouffe Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). It was written by Ludovic Halévy, and later, revised by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux. The score was written by Jacques Offenbach and became the first full length operetta. Its first performance came in 1858. Since then, this ancient and famous tale has been retold countess times. 

Everyone from Ovid’s to Jean Cocteau have told the story of the legendary Greek musician, poet and prophet Orpheus. His story is one of death, rebirth, change and the transient nature of memory. For some, the story of Orpheus is also one about artistic creation, and the elusive nature of beauty. Especially beauty’s relationship with an artist. Another part of the story of  Orpheus is when he’s about to leave the underworld, he turns back to rescue his wife Eurydice. This lead to the theory that art is created through transgression. That has been the case with many artists, including Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Throughout his long and illustrious career, Jóhann Jóhannsson has not been afraid to transgress musical rules and norms. This is something many musicians are afraid to do. Especially those without a formal musical education. They’re unsure when it’s possible to break musical rules. Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is a talented multi-instrumentalist does, and has been since releasing his debut album. 

Ever since, Jóhann Jóhannsson has transgressed musical rules. This includes combining disparate musical genres, including some that aren’t natural bedfellows. A good example of this was BM 1401, A User’s Manual where Jóhann Jóhannsson combined a sixty-piece string quartet with electronics alongside the original tape recordings of IBM’s singing computer. The result was what was without doubt, a truly ambitious  and groundbreaking album. Since then, Jóhann Jóhannsson has contemned to release ambitious albums. Orphée is no different.

Indeed, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s decision to put the story of Orpheus to music was an ambitious one. He was starting from square one, and had to compose the fifteen tracks that covered all the subjects examined within the story of Orpheus. Then Jóhann Jóhannsson had to find the right musicians to help him tell the story that became Orphée.

To do that, Jóhann Jóhannsson brought onboard the Theatre Of Voices choir, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, The Lyndhurst Orchestra and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. Jóhann Jóhannsson played electric organ, piano, pipe organ and electronics. With the personnel in place, work began on Orphée.

Recording took place at several places. The Lyndhurst Orchestra  recorded their parts at the Air Lyndhurst Hall in London. Other sessions took place at the Sct. Lukas Kirke, Copenhagen and Danmarks Radio Studios, where Jóhann Jóhannsson had recorded Arrival. Eventually, Orphée was completed and became the latest addition to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s burgeoning discography.

It was also one of the highlights of Orphée discography. The Icelandic composer had surpassed previous solo albums. It found Jóhann Jóhannsson at his most creative. Just like an artist, dug deep into his pallet. However, Jóhann Jóhannsson pallet includes an array of disparate sounds. Throughout Orphée, he deployed everything from a cello and choir to an array of strings. This ranged from a quartet to an orchestra. However, where Jóhann Jóhannsson differed from many of his contemporaries, is he used effectively a myriad of a electronics. They become part of a truly captivating album.

Throughout Orphée, Jóhann Jóhannsson showcases his inventiveness and ability to innovate. He constantly pushes musical boundaries, and occasionally moves beyond these boundaries. The result is an ambitious genre-melting album. Partly, that’s because of the way the album is structured. Harmonic and melodic elements appear, disappear and reappear. That is the case throughout Orphée. Despite this, each of the fifteen tracks has a timeless quality. They’re also all very different

Throughout Orphée, the music constantly changes. On Flight From The City, the music is thoughtful and ruminative, inviting introspection. It’s a similar case on Song For Europe, where Jóhann Jóhannsson’s inventiveness shines through. Buried amidst the swathes of mournful strings is a sample of speech. They work well together as the stings combine drama, sadness and beauty. This isn’t the last time that Jóhann Jóhannsson uses samples of sound effects.

A sample of water is effectively on The Drowned World. It’s just one of numerous layers of music that are combined to creature a mesmeric, melodic and cinematic soundscape. Then on A Deal With Chaos, a speech sample is combined with a cello and  electronics. Remembering Miles Davis’ famous maxim, Jóhann Jóhannsson neither fears space nor silence. When all that’s left is a crackling electronics, it’s adds an element of drama. This less is more approach has been used effectively throughout Jóhann Jóhannsson’s solo career.

A Pile Of Dust has a dark, dramatic and cinematic sound as the arrangement builds and becomes ethereal and elegiac. Suddenly, the track is transformed and beauty shines through. There’s a similar beauty and sense of hope on A Sparrow Alighted Upon Our Shoulder as the strings sweep. This soon changes.

Fragment I which features a pipe organ, has a much more thoughtful and reflective sound on Fragment I. The mood changes again On By The Roes, And By The Hinds Of The Field. Strings and a piano combine, before Jóhann Jóhannsson deploys effects and electronics. Suddenly, it sounds as if the rain is tumbling down. Soon, the pastoral sound and ethereal beauty returns. However, things change.

The Radiant City is an emotional roller coaster. There’s a sense of sadness and melancholy as Jóhann Jóhannsson plays the piano. He adds to this what sounds like washes of synths and a couple of samples. Together, they add an atmospheric hue. It’s a similar case with Fragment II as the arrangement builds. So does the drama, as the track reaches a crescendo. Similarly, the arrangement to  The Burning Mountain drones and builds before meandering melodically along. Sometimes, there’s a futuristic sound, which provides a contrast to the traditional sound of the pipe organ. Again, this is another example of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s inventiveness which is omnipresent throughout Orphée.

De Luce Et Umbra has a wonderfully wistful, string-drenched. They tug at the heartstrings add a sense of sadness. Despite this, beauty also shines through. Strings are to the fore on Good Morning, Midnight, which has a thoughtful, melancholy and slightly futuristic sound. This is a result of Jóhann Jóhannsson electronics. He never overuses them, Instead, they’re used sparingly which proves effective. The strings have been put to good use throughout Orphée. That’s the case on Good Night, Day where swathes of strings probe and create a wistful, ruminative backdrop. Not for the first time, it has a cinematic sound and invites reflection. However, Orphic Hymn which close  Orphée, is very different to everything that’s gone before. Its ethereal sound is truly beautiful, and would be difficult to surpass. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson ensures that Orphée ends on a high. However, it’s been an almost flawless album, where Jóhann Jóhannsson combines elements of classical and electronic music with ambient, avant-garde, Baroque and minimalism. Other influences includes the music of Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone and Michael Nyman. Then there’s the music of classical composers like  Shostakovich and Prokofiev. All these influences can be heard throughout Orphée. 

The music on Orphée ranges from melodic and mesmeric, to atmospheric, beautiful, ethereal and elegiac. Other times, there’s a degree of darkness and drama. Sometimes, there’s a sense of melancholia and sadness on Orphée. It’s an emotional roller coaster to cherish and treasure. That’s even for people with no interest in classical music. There’s much more to Orphée than classical music. Orphée is a genre-melting album that’s the finest album of his fourteen year solo career. 

Indeed, Orphée is a career defining album from Jóhann Jóhannsson, as he makes his debut on Deutsche Grammophon. Maybe this is the start of a new and exciting chapter in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s career. He’s now one of Icelandic music’s most successful composers, musicians and producers. Jóhann Jóhannsson also creates music that’s ambitious, inventive and innovative. That’s the case throughout Orphée, which is a career defining album from Jóhann Jóhannsson.











1 Comment

  1. IBM 1401 is my favourite of his. Its just so utterly sublime.

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