Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson on His Immersive World of Sound

A black velvet sky looms overhead as you walk through the empty streets brimming with emotion. You find yourself propelled by something radiating deep within, whose origin you may not recognize, but runs through you with force. It’s a powerful sensation but you allow yourself to succumb to it because inside that somber chamber of feeling lies something beautiful. And if ever there was a sonic accompaniment to such tactile emotion, it would be the work of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose music evokes a visceral and stunningly immersion into sound.

Melding the timeless essence of classical composition with modern ambient rhythms, Jóhannsson creates intricate and penetrating electro-orchestra sonic worlds that speak volumes even in their silence. Soaring from sparse acoustic melodic motifs to grand cinematic gestures that envelop your mind completely, his music transports you to a very distinct mental landscape full of richness and texture. From his stunning solo albums—such as Englabörn, Fordlandia, and And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees—to his haunting film scores— Dreams in Copenhagen, The Miners’ Hymns, and the upcoming Prisoners—Jóhannsson’s work is drenched in pulsating echoes that burst and crescendo with a rare beauty. Whether employing the use of electromagnetic emissions of old IBM 1401 mainframe computers or working inside the musical aesthetics of holy minimalism, Jóhannsson operates in a world of heightened sensitivity that feels an experiential as it does insular.
 
Earlier this week, Jóhannsson made his way down to Le Poisson Rouge to play fantastically moving show alongside the Acme Quartet. Sitting in the darkness of LPR, I found myslef in a complete trance as I listened to his songs played live before me, swiftly drawing me into a vortex of pure emotion. But before Jóhannsson’s performance, I got a chance to chat with the acclaimed composer to dive further into the instinctual nature of his creative process, his affinity for film music, and how his work adapts to live performance.
 
With music that feels so dymanic and layered, I’m curious as to where you begin. How do you go about the initial process of writing a song or creating an album?

There are many ways to approach it, and it’s very much depends on the context—if I’m writing for a film or for for my own project. There’s no one way, but I approach writing very instinctively and it’s a very non-cerebral process. It’s instinctual and it comes very much from images or being inspired by visual arts, films—very often non-musical stuff—poetry, a novel I’m reading, or ideas. A lot of my work comes from abstract image. It starts with a vague, abstraction in my head that’s translated into music somehow.
 
When I spoke to William Basinski, he referred to that sort of creative process as “going back to the womb” or the “space station.” And personally, listening to your music has always been a very insular experience for me and really sinks me into very particular feeling. But when you’re writing music, do you find it to be a very meditative? You say it’s instinctual, so does that require freeing your mind and allowing these abstract images to speak to you? 
Yes, it’s very important to empty your mind. But I don’t really like the word meditative because it implies a kind of calm and a kind of serenity. It implies music that doesn’t disturb you too much, and I think my music is very much about tension as well, it’s not about relaxation. I like that tension but I also like my music to be very enveloping and immersive. But there always has to be this element of push and pull. But it’s true that when I write it’s also visceral, it’s like you’re thinking with your body and not with your mind and the music comes from the blood,  from a physical place. But then afterwards, once you’ve done the creative process of writing the material, another process takes over—which is much more cerebral—the structuring and creating the form.
 
Speaking to that tension, there’s a great dichotomy in your work between very delicate minimal sounds and harsh pulsating beats with overwhelming drama. That’s also echoed in your use of both acoustic and electronic instruments. Are you attracted to exploring that differentiation in your music and seeing how two seemingly opposite things can be blended together?

Yeah, that’s one set of oppositions, this dichotomy in my music between the warmth and expression of the acoustic instruments— which are very often strings—versus the electronic sounds that can be quite harsh and abrasive. There’s a tension there that I’m very interested in and this kind of contrast and making these elements work together to make them a whole. Sometimes, for me, it works best when you can’t hear what is what, what is the instrument is exactly. I very rarely write music that’s purely acoustic or purely electronic,  it’s always a blend of the two.
 
As someone who does a lot of film scoring, is that a welcome diversion from your own creative work, to have to inhabit someone else’s sonic world and help in tell their story?

I like to have a balance between the two. I feel like being only a film composer and sometimes get sick of working in my own world and want to collaborate with other artists. But I’m a huge film and film music fan and have so much respect for the film form, so for me a it’s a great pleasure to work in that medium. It’s something I enjoy very much and I’ve been fortunate to have some really good projects come my way and work with really good filmmakers. So that’s a pleasure. People approach me for film music because they’ve heard my solo albums, so often there’s not much difference I write for film and the music I write on my own, it becomes all part of the same work. But writing for film is very different because you are part of a creative group that’s a collaborative enterprise and your music is supposed to serve the film and carry the emotions and the narrative forward; it carries a purpose. But it’s very natural for me to write film music. I very much enjoy dividing my time between the two.
 
Your music carries such a deep emotional current that feels like it’s meant to be either extremely intimate or extremely grand. How does that translate to live performance for you?
A lot of my work I can’t really play live. Some of it I adapt because usually when I play live I play with a string quartet. I have done shows with a full orchestra where it’s easier to play certain things, but generally I create special versions for concerts and that’s a process I enjoy—to reinterpret the music and to make it work within that context. But not all of it works that way, so there are certain pieces that I tend to play live and some I tend to stay away from.
 

 
Do you find your exterior environment plays a large role in what you create or is it more about the psychological that informs you? 
In many ways I could write anywhere, you know? For the longest time when I lived in Iceland my studio was in a basement with no windows—basically a very dingy little basement—and I wrote a lot of stuff there. My studio now is a little bit brighter, but I don’t need spectacular grand views or amazing vistas to write music, I think you just need to be in the right mind. That’s one of the things that’s hard about getting into a writing mode, is getting yourself into that headspace and the right state of mind to write,  and that takes several days and is very frustrating. Sometimes you spend several days sitting around trying to write and nothing is happening, but it’s a process you have to go to to be able to get to the state where you can actually do it. It’s a purgatory, but in terms of locations, it doesn’t really matter where I am, it’s more about the internal.
 
Are there any particular film scores that have really inspired you or had a lasting impact on you as an artist?

There are a lot of films that are up there among the greats that have had a profound impact on me. A very early influence on me as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a film a lot of people cite as such. But it was a huge cinematic experience when I saw it at a young age, and it had a profound influence on me. The way Kubrick uses music in that film is absolutely great—it’s not a score, it’s classical piece but it’s amazingly put together. Also, the Bernard Herrmann/Hitchcock collaboration is something that’s inspiring and a large well of music and images are great to get into and take inspiration from. I’m a huge fan of the collaboration between David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti as well.
 
When making music that’s so heavily steeped in a sense of melancholy or darkness, do you have to put yourself into that place mentally or are you able to conjure up those emotions through your music without having to delve head first into them yourself?

I have to feel very good to write. I have to be physically and mentally in a very good place. So I have to stay away fro the studio if I’m not in a good state. You don’t have to feel those emotions exactly at the moment you’re writing, you can draw from the past or from experiences or from feelings from those times.
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