Jóhann Jóhannsson is best known as a film composer. More recently, he may be best known as the future composer of the sequel to Blade Runner. His film work ranges from the melodic and pleasant (The Theory of Everything) to the suspenseful (Sicario) to the just plain epic in scope (The Miner’s Hymn). He is skilled in this craft.
He first appeared as a solo artist though, composing mostly minimal, sometimes electronic music that could be described as post-classical or modern-classical. Occasionally, he crossed into the pop world — his album Dis is quite a fun listen — but he has mostly kept his feet firmly planted in the very serious world of classical.
Orphée is the first album by Jóhannsson not associated with a film since 2009’s Fordlandia, and from the opening track, “Flight from the City”, it shows itself as a work to be heard on its own terms. Starting with a repeating, muscular piano riff, it seems to be fitting for the soundtrack to a film at first, but after three minutes of repetition, it becomes clear: this album is a workout in restraint, not a workout in representing what’s on the screen. Three minutes later, after “Flight from the City” has finally ended, the listener has two choices: move on because this album is too boring for their ears, or dedicate themselves to live in this barren world for nearly an hour.
Barren is an apt word here. After “Flight from the City”, each track seems to be a miniature focusing on similar themes. It’s as if Jóhannsson picked a few notes and rhythms, threw them into a box, shook it up, and composed whatever fell out. More specifically, the album as a whole shows multiple approaches to making a minimal composition. “The Drowned World” is a bell and horn showcase that sounds like a glacial version of something off of Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the film Koyaanisqatsi. “A Deal With Chaos” is a two-minute cello solo that moves at an even slower pace. “A Pile of Dust” is well-named because this drone of a song is about as substantial as a pile of dust, able to be blown away by the tiniest of gusts. Elsewhere, we hear organ drones (“Fragment I”), chamber arrangements (“A Sparrow Alighted Upon Our Shoulder”), experiments with noise (“Fragment II”), and Erik Satie-like piano compositions (“Good Morning, Midnight”). These descriptions are not meant to be denigrating. Many listeners enjoy a good drone on occasion, including myself.
The biggest departure comes in the closer, “Orphic Hymn”, where a choir performs a poem as arranged by Jóhannsson, and it’s strikingly beautiful in spots. When the singer hits the impossibly high notes throughout, it’s easily the high point of the album. It gives reason to hope that Jóhannsson will weave choral arrangements throughout his future compositions.
Jóhannsson has stated that Orphée is inspired by the myth of Orpheus. This is peculiar because a myth seems to call out for an epic soundtrack. This album is not epic, it is stark in its simplicity. Each note it noticeable, each melody calls for attention, and it’s also beautiful at times.