Sun’s Gone Dim : RIP Johann Johannsson

The last three weekends I’ve barely left my pajama pants, let alone my house. Winter blues? Middle age aches and pains? The hermit transformation nearly complete? Maybe a little of all of that. Anyways, this weekend I wasn’t going to melt into the caverns of the couch watching a Sam Raimi marathon like I did last weekend, so yesterday after morning coffee I changed into my workout clothes and dutifully headed into the YMCA. I was gonna put in some laps on the walking track upstairs come hell or high water. On lap three I glanced on my phone to see the headline that Icelandic musician/film composer Johann Johannsson had died in Berlin on Friday, February 9th. He was 48 years old. No cause of death has been determined or released at this time. But 48 years old? That’s not an age where you just randomly drop dead. Jesus.

I have to be honest, I was and am gutted. I didn’t know anything about Johannsson until I watched Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. I absolutely love the film. It pretty much turned me inside out, and a major part of that was the haunting and beautiful score by Johann Johannsson. It really captured the mysterious quality of the film; are these aliens truly friendly or are there ulterior motives behind their sudden “arrival”? The music Johannsson composed for the film carries a vastness and an alien quality to it. It truly felt like he locked into some unknown musical language to create something truly special.

Once I was aware of him I jumped into his back catalog. His previous work with Villeneuve, like the scores for Prisoners and Sicario are as equally compelling. I haven’t heard what he did for Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, but I plan to very soon. His album IBM 1401, A User’s Manual is a work of art. An ode to technology, nostalgia, and also an ode to Johannsson’s father who worked for IBM at the beginning.

What I was looking forward to most this year is the release of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. It’s a post-apocalyptic film that takes place in the early 80s that stars Nicholas Cage. Cage’s wife is murdered by a group of roving biker mutants and Cage is left for dead. The second half of the film is Cage reeking sweet revenge on the group of mutant murderers and their cult-ish leader. The film was scored by Johann Johannsson and it’s one of my most anticipated films and scores of the year. Cosmatos’ previous film, the dark and eerie Beyond The Black Rainbow is one of my favorite movies in recent years. There is a plot, but that’s not what’s important. What is important is the visual style of Cosmatos and how he engages the senses, sight and sound, in his work. On Rainbow, Cosmatos worked with the amazing Sinoia Caves. That soundtrack is one of my absolute favorite scores. I can only imagine that Johann Johannsson’s score will do the same for Mandy.

I think I’ll get a few more laps in today. Sinking into the couch just doesn’t sound like something I want to do to. You know, seize the day and all that. I’ll start out with Arrival, and then on lap 10 I’ll switch to IBM 1401, A User’s Manual. I hope Johann Johannsson is at peace, wherever he is.

Johann Johannsson, born September 19th, 1969 and died February 9th, 2018. He was 48.

Sounds In The Ether : Science Fiction and Johann Johannsson’s ‘Arrival’ Score

One of the best science fiction movies I’ve seen in awhile is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. It’s one of those films that after you watch it you sit and ponder it on and off for days. The implications it possesses, the scope of its reach, and the overall emotional heft it lays on your head and heart. It’s not a perfect film by any means(a recent comparison to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact by a friend had me second guessing Arrival‘s overall approach…for just a second), but some of the best films aren’t perfect. They create the environment and give us the ideas to mull over and think about obsessively for days, weeks, that allow us to decide whether they’re perfect in their own imperfect way. Science fiction allows each of us experiencing it to decide just how perfect or imperfect it is. I’ve never been a fan of hard science fiction. I don’t necessarily need a story to be based in some sort of factual reality. I mean, isn’t the appeal of sci fi the escapism aspect of it? I don’t even need a well written story to be honest. As long as there’s a definitive mood, look, sound, and feel that pull me out of the moment for a bit then I’m good(see Beyond The Black Rainbow.)

Another friend had told me he wasn’t a fan of Christopher Nolan’s hard science fiction approach, both in his Batman films and especially Interstellar. I can understand that. I watched his Batman films prior to reading the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale Dark Knight stories so I appreciated the films on a cinematic level. After reading those excellent books the films seem to have a certain detached brilliance to them. The fantastical ideas behind some of those great villains seems too grounded in our real world reality now. I still love the movies on a filmmaking level, but they seem slightly “colder” than before.

When it comes to Interstellar I have to disagree with my friend(who knows quite a bit more about sci fi then I do, honestly.) While the film is certainly steeped in a heady dose of real science and actual time travel theory, I feel the human aspect of the story trumps the hard science fiction approach Nolan uses to tell the tale. At the base of the story is a father wanting to save his daughter, and he’ll sacrifice his own life for hers. It’s pretty simple. If that means traveling to the far reaches(literally) of the universe to do so then so be it. I felt there was a perfect balance of emotion and intellect in that film. There’s lots of black hole theories, space/time paradigms, and general poindexter jargon to satisfy the Stephen Hawking in all of us, as well as plenty of emotional heft to satisfy the person looking for a deeply heavy film.

So Arrival. Well for those that are reading this that haven’t seen the movie I won’t talk about any of the heavy details. It’s best to discover things naturally as you’re watching. In a nutshell, the film is about a handful of oblong UFOs that land at various points around the world. The US military bring in a nationally renowned linguist and a physicist to try and figure out how to communicate with the creatures that live inside these objects that seem to float above the ground like skyscraper-sized cocoons. You’re given hints of some tragedy that occurred in the life of one of these experts, which the lifeforms in these ships seem to be connected to. Are they trying to bond with the human? Or manipulate? As the late Chuck Berry once sang, “you never can tell.”

The film has a dreamy quality to it. In Villeneuve’s direction, Bradford Young’s cinematography and the acting of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, there’s a truly impressionistic approach to storytelling. There’s nothing bombastic here. It’s all very quiet, with muted colors and quiet conversations. The film feels very meditative. For those that like their science fiction with Will Smith and Luc Besson, you may not get the proper thrills out of this. But for fans of Blade Runner, Under The Skin, Ex_Machina, Beyond The Black Rainbow, and even A.I., I think you’ll love this film.

Johann Johannsson’s score to Arrival is just as big a character as Adams, Renner, or the Heptapods. He creates both quiet beauty and shaded dread. He uses both traditional orchestration, as well as vocalization, electronic manipulation and loops to create this musical world. But his approach is anything but “traditional”. You feel like you’re in another world listening to his beautiful music. Opening piece “Arrival” drones along and is accompanied by what sounds like whales communicating(strangely, the alien objects look a bit like whales floating vertically above the ground.) “Heptapod B” brings Steve Reich to mind, especially in the looping aspect of the piece. This piece feels like a hallmark of Johannsson’s score, which in turn makes the overall sound seem like something new and exciting. Johannsson turns the traditional film score on its head. It runs the gamut from incidental to emotionally crushing.

I recently picked up this score on vinyl via Deutsche Grammophon and its a beautiful piece of vinyl. The sound is pristine, with Johannsson’s work coming through exquisitely. And the last song is the beautiful Max Richter piece “On the Nature of Daylight” which the film dons both at the beginning and end(unfortunately, because of the inclusion of Richter’s piece Johannsson was ineligible for an Academy Award nomination.)

I guess it doesn’t really matter how you take your science fiction, just as long as you take it. It’s important to open your mind a bit and delve into some critical thinking once in a while. Even if you don’t understand it right off the bat, give it a shot. Ponder it, re-watch it, read Dune again, buy The Criterion Collection edition of  Solaris and put that in your skull. Go to your locally owned used book shop and buy a stack of Philip K. Dick paperbacks, hit a coffee shop, and jump into his world. Let Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson tickle your frontal lobe, then jump into some classic Terry Gilliam fare. Just step out of the intellectual meat grinder known as modern entertainment for a bit and go somewhere in your head. Somewhere strange, hard to grasp, and uncomfortable.

Stretch your brain a bit. Your heart will follow.