Some moments make no sense when they happen, but the death of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson last Friday still makes none. Too young, too gifted and with too much yet to offer. What is left is a chasm, and a recorded history so very brief.
The first of his music I heard was probably the track Fordlandia from the album of the same name, either via Donal Dineen or John Kelly’s radio show. It flagged a huge discovery – new classical. Compositions with the bare bones of classical, but with a mood of modern life. You could feel Radiohead and Talk Talk, perhaps, ebbing back into these new pieces. Soul-touching rather than high brow. I pounced on his work, soaking in Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter, Nils Frahm and Ireland’s own tragic loss, Conor Walsh, along the way.
Every year since 2005 I have been to Iceland Airwaves music festival for State and while there I discovered the record store 12 Tónar. I picked up many an album by Jóhannsson there, guided by the wonderful owners who also operate a mini record label for local artists, and had released some of his music. They first drew my attention to his soundtrack to the animation short Varmints. An exemplary work and much more a full solo album than a soundtrack, the opening piano notes something I often practised on a piano left by a previous tenant while I was living in Copenhagen. It was, in fact, the only thing I ever played on it.
And all the while, albums and soundtracks would appear bearing the man’s name. The Miner’s Hymns with it’s heart-bursting finalé, the unsung Copenhagen Dreams and his Hollywood back-to-back soundtracks of The Theory of Everything, Sicario and Arrival. And then a rediscovery of IBM 1401, A User’s Manual after a universally panned film he had nothing to do with (Battle: Los Angeles) recut their trailer lifting the final track from that album to add weight to a movie with none. One review of the movie proposed that you watch this trailer 50 times instead of watching the film itself.
Then there were the live opportunities. As part of Airwaves 2006 he played the magically intimate Fríkirkjan. I got in late but got a spot on the balcony on my own, and was just rapt. He completed the night with the afore mentioned ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and The Sky’s Turned Black’, bringing in the sampled voice via a controller on his piano, and backed by a string quartet. I have often talked about it being one of the most beautiful live experiences I’ve witnessed.
There were wonderful evenings in AB, Brussels with Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka, and a night in our National Concert Hall too, with the Hilliard Ensemble.
Through friends of 12 Tónar I did finally get to meet him and I shared a design project with him by post, where upon I received a very complimentary email in reply. We talked briefly in the foyer after his Brussels concert too – he was a polite, quiet and very tender person to me.
The last time I saw him live was when he arranged the Miners Hymns’ score for the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra at Airwaves 2014. I ran out half way through a meal out with friends because I had been given a ticket for the event by the festival and got to the large concert hall in Harpa just in time. The silent movie was being screened above, and with this full orchestra beside him, he just reached levels of wordless communication that can hardly be surpassed. That final movement, Part V, brought tears too.
Though I could have drawn a line under that concert that night, I ran around to catch a number of others with that ringing in my head. Some hours later I popped back to my hotel briefly and sitting in the bar, relaxing alone after the concert with a glass of wine, was Jóhann. I reintroduced myself to him and I effused about the concert. He told me he was now living in Berlin and shared studio space with an Irish composer, Brian Crosby, who he thought might know me. I confirmed this and asked him to pass on my regards. Idly saying I might see him in Berlin some day if I was passing through, I left him to enjoy his moment of solitude and carried on into the Reykjavik night.
I do believe he spearheaded a wave of a new classical music, where before there were mostly individual icons. He broadened his scope more than any of his contemporaries. He was given Oscar and Grammy nominations and took home a Golden Globe. And he has albums that will always be unearthed by curious music lovers because they are not of yesterday, and not quite of today either. You can begin anywhere.