A Melancholy Never Far Away: An Interview with Jóhann Jóhannsson

PopMatters speaks with Jóhann Jóhannsson about his latest venture into music for cinema, his moody and melancholy score for the police thriller, McCanick.
Jóhann Jóhannsson
McCanick OST

Above image and inside press photo of Jóhann Jóhannsson from Johann Johnson.com

PopMatters speaks with Jóhann Jóhannsson about his latest venture into music for cinema, his moody and melancholy score for the police thriller, McCanick.

With names like Sigur Rós and Ólafur Arnalds to its credit, Iceland seems to have a magical ability to churn out musicians who possess a skill in crafting music so beautiful it takes your breath away. Works like Sigur Rós’ (parantheses) and Arnalds’ Eulogy for Evolution innovatively incorporate classical, ambient, and post-rock to a gorgeous effect. Every note practically drips with the natural beauty of the country. (parantheses) ebbs and flows to climactic moments that echo the raging waters of the ubiquitous Gulfoss volcano. Eulogy for Evolution paints mental images not unlike the wide, sunbathed valleys of green in the center of the country.

Along with these musicians stands Jóhann Jóhannsson, one of Iceland’s finest musical exports. His career is as full of innovative musical experimentation as his fellow countryfolk, and he hasn’t limited himself to one venue for musical exploration. From his numerous studio LPs to works for the theatre, Jóhannsson has amassed a discography that’s impressive both in its sheer numbers and in its aesthetic uniqueness. The word “minimalist” gets thrown around a great deal in discussion of his music—a label not uncommon amongst Icelandic musicians—but it’s not the minimalism of his music that’s notable; his ability to conjure up sparse soundscapes that resonate with the power of full-scale orchestras is.

Recently, Jóhannsson has shown himself to be something of a force in the realm of film music. Entering the American public eye in a noticeable way with Dennis Villenueve’s Prisoners, a grim meditation on the problem of evil, Jóhannsson showed a deft hand in creating a moody, contemplative score that adds to the film’s intensity without ever overasserting itself. Darker scores have become de rigeur in American cinema as of late, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ collaborations with David Fincher (The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) spearheading a trend in film music where tense, minor-key pulsations punctuated by stabs of electronics become the sonic norm. Jóhannsson is no small drop in this ocean; he in fact stands out by being even more understated than those composers. There are passages in Prisoners where his subtle score will sound just like background noise—which, of course, makes the moments when the music comes in strongly all the more powerful.

With McCanick, Jóhannsson’s latest work for cinema, things have been amped up a little bit. Unlike Prisoners, which gets a great deal of its heft from emotional rather than physical violence, the cop thriller McCanick features more overt physicality, reflected in pieces like “Chase-Subway.” There’s still plenty of room for beauty amidst the gloom, with the title cut marking one of Jóhannsson’s best themes for cinema he’s written yet. Prisoners still seems like a beacon signaling something greater yet to come; McCanick is making further good on that promise.

Jóhann Jóhannsson

Your musical career has spanned a broad variety of styles. Does film scoring come naturally to you, perhaps most naturally of all?

I started out writing music for theatre and contemporary dance, so there has always been a dramatic and narrative element in my music. My first album, Englabörn, was based on music originally written for the theatre. My solo albums like IBM 1401, a User’s Manual, and Fordlandia have also had narratives attached to them. There’s clearly something about my music that lends itself to being paired with images, so I guess this is the reason why filmmakers have sought out my music. Initially it was mainly licensed for film, but then I started to get commissions to write for the movies. I enjoy it very much and although the process is different to doing my solo albums, the writing itself is often not that different — it’s often very much in the same world.

Your music, along with much of the music that comes out of Iceland, is often (rightly) characterized as being uniquely beautiful. Do you find there’s something about the Icelandic music scene that contributes to the way you write music, be it for film or for other venues?

I think you are always influenced by your surroundings and where you grow up. Your environment is always one of the things that shape you and the music scene in Iceland was a very important factor in shaping me. But I think there are many other things that contribute to your growth and to how you evolve as an artist and I think environment is only one part of the overall picture.

How did you get involved in the film?

For both Prisoners and McCanick, I was approached by the filmmakers who wanted to collaborate with me on their projects.

What was your starting point for writing the score to McCanick?

I wanted to use a small orchestra, but I knew that electronics would play a large part as well. The orchestral sound I wanted was on the one hand quite cold and textural, using extended techniques such as bowing with the wood of the bow instead of the horsehair and hitting the strings with the back of the bow. On the other hand there were some more intimate, emotional scenes which required a warmer, more expressive sound. The electronics were mostly created from processed and slowed down orchestra and solo cello recordings.

The film is a police drama with thriller elements, so there were car chase scenes and gun chases that needed to be scored, which is something I hadn’t really attempted before. The car chases ended up being very percussive, but using the orchestra as a percussion instrument, the string players beating on the strings with the backs of their bows. The music also needed to underscore the emotional arc of David Morse’s character and his descent into obsession and the slow breakdown of his life. So there was a need for a strong emotional theme that only appears towards the end, which underscores McCanick’s relationship to the object of his obsession and resignation to his fate.

Correspondingly, what was your first impression of the film?

What attracted me to the project was that this was a strong story with great performances, and I really liked the filmmakers and their approach to working.

What input, if any, did the director have on the tone or shape of the music?

Filmmaking is always a collaborative process, so having a good working relationship and a good dialogue with the director is very important. We started out by speaking about the thrust and tone of the score and the choice of instrumentation. I tend to get hired because the filmmakers like what I do, so there’s usually not that much conflict about the direction.

When you score a film—and perhaps this experience differs on the film itself—do you have an overarching vision of how the music will unfold, or do you approach it on a scene-by-scene basis? Perhaps a bit of both?

I usually have a gut feeling for how the score will unfold, but there is usually a process of finding the voice of the film. So there is a trial and error period where you try different ideas and see where they take you. It also depends on where in the process I start working, if the film is already edited (which is where I started McCanick) or if I’m hired before the filming starts, as was the case with Prisoners. In the latter case I had the chance to establish the musical palette of the film quite early on, which is often very beneficial, I think.

Both McCanick and Prisoners, your most recent works, have been dark and atmospheric. Were these just coincidences, or is this a style you feel particularly keen on?

I think it comes quite naturally! On the other hand, I’m writing a score right now which has a lot of light and optimism to it – but the melancholy is never far away.

Both of those films are also pretty bleak; do you feel as a composer your job is to enhance the bleakness, or to in some way mitigate it? Pieces like “McCanick,” for example, have a tenderness that seems to me softens the heavier aspects of the cinema.

In Prisoners, the role of the music was to create tension, but also to create a kind of poetic and lyrical counterpoint to the horror of the events depicted in the film. It’s important that the music does not repeat what is being communicated by the images – then you run the risk of saying the same thing twice. So while the action is terrifying and horrific, the music has this beauty and fragility and lyricism which, in a strange way, amplifies the effect the film has on you. McCanick has aspects of this as well, especially towards the end, which is the most emotionally gut-wrenching moment in the film.

In films with scenes of violence, there’s often an expectation that those violent scenes have fast-paced, loud music, but even in those moments in McCanick’s score where the pace picks up, it doesn’t feel forced or generic. Do you find it easy or difficult to resist the urge to go overboard in terms of volume and dynamics?

The chase scene is a cinema staple and has its own set of clichés, both visual and musical. I tried to find my own way of approaching this and hopefully I managed to do something new and fresh. I wanted to keep the sense of dislocation and breakdown of McCanick’s emotional state throughout these scenes, so while the music propels the action forward, it also speaks to the state of mind of the character in some way.

The increase in ambient scores that rely less on the traditional orchestra setup has been remarkable in recent years; McCanick, however, I feel, balances them both. Did this come naturally to you, or was there a tension in writing for, say, strings on the one hand and the textural pieces like “Staircase” on the other?

I really enjoy working with this balance. I think Prisoners has the same kind of balance between the orchestral and the electronic and drone elements. This is something I’ve been doing since I started making records – all my albums are about integrating and balancing processed, electronic sounds with orchestral or acoustic instruments. So this comes very naturally to me.