Jóhann Jóhannsson, who composed the scores for Arrival, Sicario, and The Theory of Everything, died yesterday (Feb. 10), his management team announced. He was 48. The cause of death is currently unknown.
An indie guitarist turned solo artist turned film composer, Jóhannsson had long been a respected musician in his native Iceland. But it was his collaborations with Hollywood director Denis Villeneuve that made him one of the most admired film composers in the world and a source of both envy and inspiration for his contemporaries.
Jóhannsson’s fourth studio album, IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, previewed his innovative work in film that was to come, seamlessly melding majestic orchestral strings music with ominous electronic music. The album was inspired by his father, an IBM engineer, and Jóhannsson implemented a tape recording of actual electromagnetic sounds emitted by the IBM 1401 computer into the album.
His first collaboration with Villeneuve, in the film Prisoners, which starred Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, announced Jóhannsson to mainstream movie audiences. He recorded solo cello and processed it electronically in order to blend the orchestra with his electronic manipulations, so that listeners wouldn’t be able to tell when the strings end and the electronic begin. He said he was inspired by Icelandic church music and the pump organ his grandfather used to play. The result is a plaintive, foreboding soundscape of grief:
The composer’s next score was for James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. It was by far the best thing about the movie.
Jóhannsson’s delicate, wondrous, but still moving music lifted the entire film and earned Jóhannsson his first Academy Award nomination for best original score.
His next film score was very different.
Back working with Villeneuve, Jóhannsson scored the crime thriller Sicario, which followed a team of CIA operatives trying to disrupt a brutal drug cartel in Mexico. The entire soundtrack for Sicario is a deeply compelling, sinister descent into chaos, but, in particular, the thunderous, indelible track “The Beast” is the stuff of nightmares:
Jóhannsson’s final collaboration with Villeneuve came on Arrival, the heady sci-fi film about a linguist (Amy Adams) trying to communicate with aliens who’ve arrived on Earth. Jóhannsson’s music for Arrival is truly special, an amalgamation of weird sounds, voices, and instruments that’s wholly unlike anything that came before or has come since.
Because the film is about language, Jóhannsson wanted the human voice to play an important role in its score:
Jóhannsson also somehow managed to create the most definitive alien sound in cinema. When you listen, you’ll know: If aliens exist, this is probably what they sound like. Or, at least, these sounds encompass what it must feel like coming into contact with beings we don’t fully understand:
At the time of his death, Jóhannsson had completed work on the film Mandy, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Early reviews of his score were, as always, glowing.