Interview: Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson

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Jóhann Jóhannsson, born in Iceland, is an award-winning composer, musician and producer. His work blends electronics with classical orchestrations and bears the diverse influences of the Baroque, Minimalism, and drone-based and electro-acoustic music. In 2015 Jóhannsson won the Golden Globe for his critically acclaimed score for The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s biographical drama based on the life of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Jóhann Jóhannsson will be at The Cedar on Tuesday, October 18th featuring American Contemporary Music Ensemble and Jacob Pavek. Tickets are $22 advance/$25 day of show, and available at thecedar.org.
We spoke to Jóhann in advance of Tuesday’s show. 

Q: After working on Orphée for six years, how does it feel to finally have it released?
A: Orphée is a very personal album and the reason it took so long was not only that other exciting projects kept coming my way. It also took a while to find its current form. It was a collection of ideas and it took me a while to figure out how to put a frame around it. Even though I’ve worked on this album for so many years, it doesn’t feel like old music to me. It feels current, and actually most of the work happened in the last six months. I’m very happy that we found good collaborators to release the album, who are able to present it to a wider public.

Q: You recently directed your first short film, End of Summer. Have you always wanted to direct films? Will we be seeing more films in the future?
A: It’s been a slow process. I’ve always been very interested in film as a medium and I’ve been working with super 8 and super 16 film myself for about 15 years. Initially I made film to accompany my concerts in collaboration with an artist Magnus Helgason. End of Summer was meant as a document of my time spent in Antartica. I didn’t go there with the intention of making a film. I don’t see my films as being a career change to film directing. It’s more an extension to what I do as a composer. I’ve always included narrative and conceptual elements in my music. So adding visuals to it is just another element. The piece becomes multi-disciplinary, audiovisual. I’m finishing my first feature now, which will be both presented in cinemas and as a live concert experience with project and live narration.

Q: As someone known for his film scores, how do you feel that visuals influence the creation of your music?
A: I’m always influenced by non-musical ideas, both visual, art and literature. But I’m also a big cinephile and films have had a big influence on me. Not necessarily film music in general. There are certain composers that I really like (Bernard Herrmann/Georges Delerue/Ennio Morricone) but most film music I don’t really like. I think when I’m working on a film, the visuals are always the biggest source of inspiration. However, I also very often start working on the music before the filming starts, so I start working with the visuals I create in my head. This is a normal work for me because in my solo work I tend to derive inspiration from visual art, from paintings and poetry. Seeing the visuals is important but I often start writing the music before the film is ready.

Q: What message do you hope listeners will take from Orphée?
A: It’s up to the listeners to interpret. I try to use my concerts in a way of presenting my music in an intimate and personal setting that creates some kind of oblique narrative and an immersive experience that takes the people on a journey.

Q: What’s inspiring you right now?

A: Ingmar Bergman’s films and George Berg’s novels.