My ideal music is where the electronic and the acoustic sounds blend seamlessly.

Born in Reykjavík and based in Berlin, Jóhann Jóhannsson is a modern classical composer whose art encompasses minimalism (for strings and piano), acoustic or electronic drone-based music, orchestral scores and choir music. A cinematic composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music is always concerned with a particular narrative, eco parables, history or myths. Loosely based on the story of Orpheus and on the various readings of the myth over the years, Orphée was released on the Deutsche Grammophon record label in September 2016 last.

Jóhann Jóhannsson-Orphée (2016)
Jóhann Jóhannsson – Orphée (2016)

Since his début in 2002, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music has been closely associated with several shorts, documentaries, independent and mainstream cinema. His score for James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything (2014) earned him an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe award for best original score. Since 2013, the musician has struck a very interesting partnership with Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, scoring three of his last full-length features – Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016).

An ambient drone-based, orchestral and electronic score, the Arrival soundtrack also relies on wordless vocals and piano loops to punctuate the eerie science fiction narrative. The score was released in November 2016 also on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Jóhann Jóhannsson has been pencilled in to score the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 (to be directed by Denis Villeneuve too) set for release in October 2017.

An aspiring filmmaker himself, The End of Summer (2014) saw the composer go behind the camera and embark on a fascinating project in Antarctica. Entirely shot on black and white Super 8 film, the 28mn documentary captures the gradual seasonal changes in the barren landscapes of the Southern hemisphere. Composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson and featuring field recordings, cello (Hildur Guðnadóttir), vocals and electronics (Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe), The End of Summer soundtrack was released on the Sonic Pieces label in December 2015.

As well as that, although his 2011 project The Miners’ Hymns is considered as his last solo album to date, it remains a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison and an original score for the eponymous film.

Initiated as far back as 2009, Orphée slowly morphed into a fully-fledged album. The thematic background to the album probably came about when the musician started looking for a vocal piece and came across Ovid’s Metamorphoses and his retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in Book X and XI. Featuring Ovid’s words, the closing track of the album “Orphic Hymn” was set to music by the composer in collaboration with Paul Hillier and The Theatre of Voices vocal ensemble.

In Orphée (1950), French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s version of the myth transposed to Second World War France, the main character Orphée (Jean Marais) keeps listening to random number sequences and morse code on a car radio which he interprets as meaningful poetry. The coded radio messages were broadcast from the BBC studios in London between 1940 and 1944 as a way to communicate with the French resistance.

The practice continued on during the cold war and even to this day, several number stations keep broadcasting their cryptic messages over shortwave radio stations around the world. The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations by the Irdial-Discs record label released a four CD set of such recordings in 1997 (augmented to 5 CDs in 2013).

I have used some of these voices as an echo to these coded transmissions that are coming from somewhere … from the underworld I suppose.

Dealing with the process of change, transformation, death and rebirth and the memory of the dead, Orphée is a lush sonic tapestry featuring several orchestral ensembles like the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) – Clarice Jensen (cello), Yuki Numata Resnick (violin), Tarn Travers (violin), Ben Russell (viola) – the Dirac Quartet or the Air Lyndhurst String Orchestra. The cello of Hildur Guðnadóttir also leads several pieces.

Constantly “flowing upwards” in the words of the composer, the music on the album is based on consistent ascending harmonic ideas beautifully expressing the narrative theme of Orpheus. Also appearing in Book XI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is Morpheus. The Greek god of dreams seems to inspire most of the dreamlike and sometimes surreal aesthetic pervading the entire album both from a musical and visual point of view. Slowly overwhelming the listener into a quiet trance, Orphée is a bewitching record.