meet the icelandic composer working on the 'blade runner' sequel
We sit down for an exclusive chat with Jóhann Jóhannsson to talk about the pressure and honor of following in Vangelis’ footsteps on the most anticipated sci-fi film of the decade.
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has spent the last decade rising to prominence as one of the world's foremost film composers. Having made a name with his own solo work; cinematic, minimal constructions of electronic drone, analogue experimentation, and neo-classical arrangements, it was inevitable that Jóhannsson would eventually meld the grace and grandeur of his sound with the moving image. In 2013 Jóhannsson found himself forming a close creative partnership with director Denis Villeneuve, scoring Villeneuve's thriller Prisoners. The duo worked again on Arrival and Sicario to great effect, and now Jóhannsson has been revealed as composer for their most ambitious project to date: the long anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott's sci fi classic Blade Runner.
For many artists this would be enough to fill a whole interview — not Jóhannsson. He's also preparing for the release of his first solo album in six years, Orphee, a rumination on the Orpheus myth that sees the composer tackling the themes of transition and transgression. In conversation, it turns out that scoring an iconic sci-fi sequel is just one of the projects the tirelessly inventive Jóhannsson has in the pipeline.
You've just made your first solo album for some time, and this after countless collaborations — from film scores to joint artistic projects. How different is it to work without having someone to bounce ideas off?
This is my first solo album in about six years, or more — my last solo album proper was Fordlandia in 2008. In the last few years I've mostly been releasing my film scores, but I've been doing my own work on the side — about 50/50 between writing scores and doing my own work. For me it's not such a huge difference. The difference is that when you're working on a film score you already have a framework and a context, a story and parameters that are working constraints — although I tend to join my film projects fairly early on in the process, so I'm part of the creativity from the beginning. With Denis Villeneuve, who I've made three films with, I start working at the script stage.
With my own work, it's more difficult and time consuming. You start with a blank canvas and have to create your own context and your own form. That's one of the hardest parts of putting together an album — finding that concept, that unifying idea. Especially as I write mostly in instrumental music, the idea of having a central concept that unifies the music is very important to me.
And what is that concept?
It started as a series of harmonic progressions that all had this ascending thrust to them, they all seemed to be ever flowing upwards. So I had this little eco-system of ideas that didn't seem to find its form for a long time — I wrote the first ideas in 2009 and recorded little bits here and there, recording strings in new York, some soloists in Iceland, just bits and pieces here and there, and slowly the idea of connecting it to the myth of Orpheus came together. It was actually the last tune on the album, "The Orphic Hymn," that provided the shape I wanted. It's an a capella vocal piece — many of my albums have one vocal piece on them, it seems to be a theme. On this one, when I was looking for the text — as I like to work with existing texts, I don't like to write lyrics — I looked to Ovid and his re-telling of the Orpheus myth, and his telling of the poet descending into the underworld to retrieve his dead lover, his attempt to cheat death, and the idea that he transgresses the orders of the Gods by looking back when he leaves Hades. It has a lot of interesting connotations for the relationship between the artists, beauty and power. It can be a thorny relationship. It's full of metaphor, and it's a story that has been inspiring artists much greater than myself for centuries.
You mentioned Denis Villeneuve early on — and I know that he's got you on board to soundtrack the sequel to Blade Runner he's directing — have you come in as early on the production as you have with your other collaborations with him?
The film is being shot still, but I've started work on the music — I've been working on it since June, but I'm working on a couple of other projects as well, it's not my constant occupation. But I'm slowly gathering together material and ideas, and also following how the film is developing, how it's looking. This is what I always do with Denis; I'm always very inspired by his images, by the pace and rhythm of his images and scenes. But I also tend to send him things very early on — I've already sent him a couple of musical ideas for them to use on set to help prepare the actors.
So the music shapes the film to a degree?
We also did that on Arrival, which is coming out in November and to a degree on Sicario. The music was always there while they were shooting. On Arrival I wrote the main theme before Denis started shooting. I was working on these analogue tape loop techniques: recording voices and string instruments and creating these very organic drones, layering endless layers of sound. It's a very old technique, it was used by The Beatles in the 1960s, but it creates very alien, eerie, and disturbing textures.
Is this something you return to in Blade Runner? Are you striving for a strange kind of futurism?
It's very early to say what the sound of Blade Runner will be. It's hard for me to say. Obviously it's a great honor to be given the task — it feels like you're being entrusted with this very special assignment to continue and expand upon this world that Ridley Scott and Vangelis and many, many other people of course created so beautifully. For me Blade Runner is one of the big influences in my life — I saw it when I was 13 or 14 when it first came out, and since I've seen it many, many times. So I approach it as a fan, and as a fan of Vangelis, but I also want to make my own take on it. This will be very respectful of the world that has been built by these great artists, but of course we have to expand upon it and create something new and strong, which hopefully has the same power as the original. But it's too early in the process to talk about it in anything other than very general terms.
Have you any idea how close the film is to completion?
Well, there is an official release date which is January 2018.
And your own album comes out sometime before that?
Yes, it comes out mid-September, followed by a tour of the States in October, then a tour of Europe in December. Then the next record, the Arrival soundtrack will be released in November. And I have at least two other solo projects that are quite near completion — there will be a major audio visual piece in 2017. I can't give you any more detail than that because it's all being finalized, but it's a major work which I'm working on as a director as well as a composer. It'll be coming out in cinemas and as a live performance, accompanied by live projections.
Text Ian McQuaid