Top 5: Tracks By Jóhann Jóhannsson

On Friday 9th February, Jóhann Jóhannsson, the composer famed for his Golden Globe-winning soundtrack from The Theory Of Everything, was found dead in his Berlin apartment. He was just 48 years old. We'd first come to know of him through his film soundtracks - in addition to his work on The Theory Of Everything, he'd also recently composed the score for such films as Sicario and Arrival- but it wasn't long into our fandom that we became acquainted with his wealth of commercial releases which blended electronica with classical orchestration, and which burrowed deep into our consciousness, almost without us even noticing. For those who have known of Jóhannsson for a while, let this be a timely reminder of the beautiful fragility of his work, and for those who haven't, treat this as a starter pack before taking a deep dive into the rest of his extraordinary back catalogue. 

1. ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black’, IBM 1401, A User's Manual

‘The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black’ or Part 5 of Jóhannsson’s IBM 1401, A User's Manual remains is his ode to technology. This is the only track on the album without a reference to obsolete IBM equipment in the title and by far the most powerful. Hypnotic robotic vocals creep into your consciousness before wave upon wave of strings and choral chants batter any preconceived perceptions of beauty. At 4 minutes 26 the track hits such gigantic proportions it leaves my hands dripping with sweat. The rollercoaster of emotions takes you upside down and inside out at a blistering speed; ending, richly, with a satisfying computer bleeps and ghostly outro. It’s a fitting end to an album of great personal importance to Jóhannsson. His father worked on the IBM 1401 as a maintenance engineer until its decommissioning in the 70s. A composer himself, Jóhannsson senior recorded his own tracks as a cathartic farewell to the data processing system, these tracks then formed the basis of this album. 

2. ‘First Encounter’, Arrival OST

Last year’s Arrival picked up 8 Academy Awards nominations in total, and it’s a crime that Best Original Score wasn’t one of them. Jóhannsson’s soundtrack suffered a similar fate to Johnny Greenwood’s compositions for There Will Be Blood and was disqualified from nomination due to its use of Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature Of Daylight’ to bookend the film. Out of the 20 tracks I settled on ‘First Encounter’ as my Desert Island Disc. It skips through peaks and troughs, staccato strings and booming brass, comfort and fear, all the while boasting a whirling siren that sounds like a Dalek has got hold of a didgeridoo. Alien life has landed on earth, and it’s tough to know what their intentions are. Jóhannsson’s score reflects this uncertainty beautifully.

3. ‘Industrial and Provident, We Unite To Assist Eachother’, The Miner’s Hymns

The Miner’s Hymns, a documentary exploring the ill-fated mining communities in the north east of England, is a collaborative piece between Jóhannsson and American filmmaker Bill Morrison. The entire score was recorded in Durham Cathedral and is a fitting celebration of the cultural aspects of the now-defunct industry. ‘Industrial and Provident, We Unite To Assist Eachother’ is an epic. Longer running times gives Jóhannsson the opportunity to really get going, the ability to investigate the themes he’s looking to survey. The track starts with a disturbing and evocative low organ notes that quickly shuffles into a more celestial rhythm. Yet, by minute 3 we are in a whole new territory - sweeping brass announces the coming of a new theme, one of resilience, a timely reminder of the lasting impact the mining industry has had on contemporary culture. The track builds and builds, like a steam engine battering it’s way through sleet and snow, to a bombastic crescendo, only then to disappear, delicately and cautiously. 

4. ’Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device based on Heim's Quantum Theory)',  Forlandia

“I don’t consider myself a film composer. I’m a composer, and sometimes I do film music,” states Jóhannsson in an interview with Consequence of Sound. Whilst he’s undoubtedly best known for his film scores, his own compositions are his most sumptuous works. ’Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device based on Heim's Quantum Theory)' is my favourite from 2008’s Forlandia. It’s the second instalment in a trilogy of dealing with the archaeology of technology, the first being IBM 1401, A User's Manual but, for me, the two sit in very different worlds. ‘Melodia’ feels more self-assured and purposeful. Space and exploration always tantalised Jóhannsson and his ability to take you on a cosmic journey was second to none. The delicate backbeat that gently orbits the organ ushers in the other instruments. With a wider range of sounds comes more power, more speed - lights and objects seem to whip past the windows, as we race to our destination. 

5. ‘Flight From The City’

I don’t want this list to simply be a Greatest Hits run-down, but it’s nigh on impossible to curate this particular Top 5 without including ‘Flight From The City’. It’s the opener to Orpheé, an album inspired by the various recountings of tales of the mythological poet Orpheus. At the time of its release, Jóhannsson had just won a Golden Globe for ‘The Theory Of Everything’ and requests for film score were flying through the door - it’s a miracle this album came to light at all. ‘Flight From The City’ feels so delicate, as if the merest touch would shatter its structure. Jóhannsson was a master of simplicity; he had the power to command a tsunami of emotion using a handful of instruments and some gracefully manipulated computer static. It’s a song about escaping, moving on and, in the light of the sad news this week, feels more poignant than ever. 

Photograph: Jónatan Grétarsson