Otherworldly Loops: A Conversation with Arrival Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson

on November 06, 2016, 2:00pm

Sound to Screen is a recurring feature in which Blake Goble examines moments when music and film worlds collide in fascinating ways. This time, he speaks to composer Jóhann Jóhannsson about Arrival, aliens, and Blade Runner 2049.

We’ve talked before. Last year, I spoke with Jóhann Jóhannsson about his work on Denis Villeneuve’s ferocious art house thriller Sicario. Jóhannsson’s a mindful, and frankly, fascinating guy. He thinks at length before answering any question, and that kind of meditative quality shows in much of his work. He’s not a composer of jolly or hummable melodies (at least, not that often), but a man making circuitous music that requires concentration. The results are always worth it, too. Sicario’s music broods with an intimidating downbeat. His score for Prisoners is a severe soliloquy with lament at every repeat note. Jóhannsson makes minimalism sound elegant, harmonious, and easy to listen to and remember. He almost makes it sound easy. But it’s never without great effort. His latest score (and third collaboration with rising star director Villeneuve) for Arrival speaks to this high-minded style.

But this being our second chat, I figured I might as well start with the tough stuff — the thing hovering above the music.

“Do you, personally, believe in life on other planets? Do you believe in aliens?” I ask.

A nice seven seconds of silence follow.

“Well, I think saying no would be a very, um…” Jóhannsson carefully navigates his way through the answer. Scream “YEP!” and it’s tinfoil hat time. Pout “no,” and Jóhannsson is just someone making music for a film he might not have interest in. It’s fair to expect this kind of measured response, but it’s worth the wait. He resets the framing of my smart-aleck question to give the best answer.

“Statistically, I believe the likelihood of some kind of life existing beyond this planet is very high.” Jóhannsson further elaborates that he’s not sure he believes in “intelligent life,” but rather “some kind” of life out there. He feels that there are religious discussions, mathematical discussions, but it’s all discussion, and he’s willing to explore.

Phew. Glad we got that out of the way. Aliens. Insane, right? But what if?

This kind of carefully approached consideration makes sense when talking to Jóhannsson about his work on Arrival (opening wide November 11th after tearing down the house at Toronto and Chicago International Film Festivals). The film deals with Earth’s tense yet pensive experience with extraterrestrials that actually do arrive. In 12 places. In sleek, black, crescent moon-like crafts floating atop the Earth. The film commits to skepticism, rumination, and carefully depicting a close encounter on a world scale. It’s a film about our planet’s guarded gaze, how people might decide to react, whether freaking out or palling in terror. This kind of genre, this story, is not new. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters, you name it. But we’re in an age of digital fakery, geo-political trepidation, and the thought of aliens might take some time for us to process. Gone are the days of astonished onlookers; now we need round tables and time to really think.

Jóhannsson’s response to the thought of aliens seems perfect for the film’s tense relationship and slow arrival, as it were. And his music, his style of music, was carefully developed with that kind of thought process in mind. Musically, Jóhannsson was interested in how we communicate.

Arrival has more of an anthropological angle. And is about language. It’s about communication,” Jóhannsson felt. And that drives his sound. The film deals explicitly with a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) attempting to communicate with the aliens. What are their intentions? And how does Jóhannsson score that?

The score has intense string drops. Moans from a chorus that resemble whale calls. Gradual formations of sounds that literally represent the development of a sound and language. It’s almost like Philip Glass, or Brian Eno’s ambient albums. Just don’t compare it to Gyorgi Ligeti. Like I did.

“I’m slightly disappointed that you say that it reminded you of Ligeti … that’s exactly what I was trying to avoid!” Jóhannsson admitted. “That moment when they discover the Monolith in 2001 with Ligeti is sort of this amazing, clusters of vocals, and that is such an amazing moment in cinema, and my project was to use voices in a science fiction film.” Jóhannsson strived to find his own footing, and it took time. “Sort of the ‘forbidden words’ in this process were ‘Ligeti,’” Jóhannsson assured me.

“My references for the vocals were much more things like (Karlheinz) Stockhausen’s ‘Stimmung‘.” The harmonic symphony consists of six voices echoing almost like a dirge or a tribal ceremony. “Throat singing,” as Jóhannsson put it. The composer loved the simplicity and felt it would anchor Arrival’s concepts. Jóhannsson “wanted harmonic overtones, without it sounding ethnic, like sound that you would associate with Tibet.” And he gets that. He worked with Theater of Voices, a small vocal ensemble, along with other vocalists, and the composer utilized polyrhythms.

Another point of visual inspiration came from the film’s production design. In the film, the aliens (and this is okay to talk about; it’s in the trailer) use circular patterns to speak to Amy Adams. “Logograms” is what they’re called, and they were crafted by Patrice Vermette for Arrival. Villeneuve sent the circles to Jóhannsson to rack the composer’s brain for musical ideas. Naturally, looping came to mind. “I have a 16-track analogue tape recorder … and created a loop, rather a long tape loop, which I used to stack layers and layers of various instruments, like piano, without the attacks. So we just recorded the tone of the piano, not the attacks.” Jóhannsson even had singers come in, hum in sync with piano droning, scaffolding sound. There were up to three pianos enrichening sound at one point, and Jóhannsson talked about his goal of reaching a strange, mysterious, and haunting sound. It’s layer upon layer in search of the right sound.

At one point, Jóhannsson brought in Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (whose project title is Lichens) to provide vocals, hum notes, and guide the score. He captured some iPhone footage of the process, sent it to Villeneuve, and according to Jóhannsson, the director got right back to the composer saying, “Wow! This is great. Send me a five-minute version of this.”

In loosely comparing this film’s scoring process to Eno’s innovative tape work on “Discreet Music” or Philip Glass’ propensity for deeply concentrated repetition, Jóhannsson shared that his work on Arrival lasted close to nine months.

“I spend a lot of time working on sounds and finding sounds and finding ways of creating something … looking at things that excite me, that I haven’t heard. And that takes time.” Jóhannsson pointed out, “When you’re working on a solo album, you have all the time in the world, but on a film, you have a schedule, and you have deadlines.” Jóhannsson prefers starting early, often in pre-production. And he multi-tasks. Tinker with Arrival. Stop and work on another film. Then another. Then back to Arrival. According to Jóhannsson, scoring for him is about letting the music develop, working with the editor and the director at the start of an edit. He and Denis Villeneuve avoid temp tracks (temporary music used in editing to suggest mood and direction before the real score comes in – Hans Zimmer gets used a lot these days).

Jóhannsson’s a talented multi-tasker, working on upwards of several tracks at a time. He’s on several scores right now, has been working on a new audio-visual project for 2017, just released an instrumental studio album, Orphée, which is the culmination of work started in 2009. Orphée features pipe organs, harmonies, and dozens of changes based on Jóhannsson’s different interests in any given year. “It’s very different from how it sounded in 2009!”

His work takes time, and even with an Oscar nomination (for Original Score on The Theory of Everything), he doesn’t like holding himself to one thing. All of these works are like gardening to Jóhannsson. As he puts it, the seeds get planted early, and he tends to his music at length. So don’t call him strictly a film composer.

“I don’t consider myself a film composer. I’m a composer, and sometimes I do film music,” Jóhannsson asserted. The Icelandic composer stated that he has no interest in becoming a “Hollywood composer.” He has criteria for choosing projects. His guiding principles? The idea has to excite him. He wants to be able to bring something to the project. And he wants to work with talented people. Size has no bearing on his decisions. Seems easy enough, especially when you’re working regularly with a hot-shot director like Denis Villeneuve in top form.

Jóhannsson considers himself lucky that he gets to work from scratch and gets to create. But he feels he needs confidence and inspiration to make music. That patience, that curiosity, and that willingness to explore all surface in Arrival’s soul-searching sound.

The end result is worth it and a drawing factor for Arrival. It will make for easy, brooding listening. Great ambient music outside the film. It’s ethereal and, most excitingly, celestial. Perhaps it’s best to hear them used in the film, but tracks like “Kangaru” exemplify the aforementioned intensity of the vocals, and “Hydraulic Lift” showcases that intense, multi-layered looping and texture. When goaded, Jóhann copped to being very happy with tracks like “Heptapod B” and “First Encounter”. They’re deeply gorgeous, sonic worlds. For the sake of comparison, imagine Arrival’s sound in the vein of Malick’s minimalist echoing in Tree of Life rather than Philip Glass’s globally layered Powaqqatsi.

In the end, Jóhannsson, armed without weapons but wonderful sounds, may have been the perfect man to make first contact for Arrival.

Next for Jóhannsson? Another austere, low-expectations science fiction flick by the name of, oh, Blade Runner 2049. Jóhannsson’s just started working on the project, and the composer admits it’s too early to know where the score is going, but he relishes the opportunity to make exciting new sounds. He loves the 1982 Ridley Scott work and admires Vangelis’ music. Jóhannsson loves the original film’s score and Vangelis’ “taste for simple, strong melodic statements.” Ask for details beyond that and Jóhannsson’s a steel trap. Why wouldn’t he be? This is a big-deal property with mystery all around it. He nervously laughs off a question of whether it’ll sound like “the year 2049.”

It’ll “take a while to grow,” he says.

Jóhann Jóhannsson is currently on tour around the world, and Arrival lands November 11th.

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