“People seem to need labels, but they can be needlessly reductive.” These are words that Icelandic composer, musician and producer Jóhann Jóhannsson lives by. His music is a unique blend of electronics and classical orchestration, drawing on minimalism and drone music, as well as electronic and classical forms, but never settling into any pre-defined genre.
“I’m obsessed with the texture of sound,” he says, “and interested in minimal forms, with how to say things as simply as possible, how to distil things into their primal form.” It’s an approach that’s served him well, whether in his own solo work or in collaborative projects across media as diverse as theater, dance, and cinema.
Today, it’s the latter for which Jóhannsson is best known, and in the past couple of years, his status as a master of the film score has been put beyond all doubt. His 2014 soundtrack for James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything rightly won a Golden Globe, while his supremely brooding score for Denis Villeneuve’s FBI thriller Sicario picked up Oscar, BAFTA, and Critics’ Choice nominations.
But to understand how Jóhannsson became the musician he is today, you need to look back to his past. After studying languages and literature at university, he began playing in indie rock bands, using feedback-drenched guitar figures to create multi-layered soundscapes. From there, his palette expanded.