Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jóhann Jóhannsson at the Walt Disney Concert Hall: the prequel to the sequel


I've been in LA for almost two years, and finding a reason to see a show at the architectural wonder of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, has been hard. Tickets go fast for such a beautiful venue, but I was lucky enough to snap some up to see one of my favourite musicians, Jóhann Jóhannsson, as part of the Reykjavik Festival. Showcasing some of the best talent to emerge from Iceland, the festival is spread out over a few weeks and also features shows by Sigur Ros, followed by a long-running digital installation by Bjork

The venue is worth a visit on its own. From the outside, Frank Gehry's concert hall is a large metallic sculpture, with swathes of curved metal that reflect a spectrum of colored light, and looks even more glorious at sunset. It was the perfect setting for the future Blade Runner sequel composer- the epitome of futuristic architecture, sat right next to the towers of downtown LA. 

Our seats were on the terrace level, but dead-center and looking straight at the performers. As long as you don't mind heights, there didn't seem to be a bad seat in the house. The metallic features outside are replaced by warm wooden beams on the inside, with graceful curves the remaining constant, as multicolored seating rose steeply on each side of the stage. 

Bedroom Community kicked off the evenings proceedings. A collective of musicians currently based in Reykjavik, they took it in turns to host a piece they had each written, which resulted in a mixture of styles, ranging from beautiful folk, to Icelandic themed experimental, and more electronic IDM sequences from label founder Valgeir Sigurðsson. To quote my wife, every piece had a sweet spot of around 3-minutes which peaked her interest, but they tended to go on just a little bit too long, becoming more abstract, and pushing the boundaries amongst each of their talents on stage. For the experimental admirers in the room (of which my wife is not), it was undoubtedly an impressive feat as the collective transitioned through various movements and toyed with different song structures and moods. What would start as a simple piano piece, became a cacophony of drums, electronics, vocals and organ, ending on, for example, a simple folk melody. 

After the interlude, the stage was changed slightly, with just one grand piano remaining, two synthesizers/pianos, a reel-to-reel, and a seating arrangement for five string players. Whilst the stage was still empty, the reel-to-reel was switched on, crackling through the short-wave radio transmissions we heard throughout Jóhann's latest album, Orphée. As Jóhann's orchestra took their seats and began to layer on top of the tape, the show quickly flowed through some of his most majestic pieces.

Because of this uninterrupted approach, it was hard for me to identify the many beautiful stages and compositions amongst his extensive catalogue. Tracks from Orphée, peaked at several points, but I didn’t take any mental notes for every other track, and kept my trainspotter activity to a minimum - it was the perfect score to drift off and immerse to on a Monday evening after rushing from the west-side. Flight From The City was odds-on to be the defining moment of the show, and it didn’t disappoint, with Jóhann's perfectly timed, and delicately sensed piano caressing the beautiful, heart-wrenching strings to his side. The emphatic Fragment II closed out the show to flickering strobe lights and a well deserved standing ovation. 

Unlike the Hans Zimmer show I saw the previous week, Jóhann didn't provide any commentary between scores, and instead chose to flow them together, sometimes with the help and interlude of the reel-to-reel short-wave samples. This practice became somewhat of a spectacle in itself, with Jóhann stopping the tape whilst his orchestra remained, placing the tape back into boxes, and then reattaching new tape for the next composition. It was a nice addition to the show - the refined and beautiful violinists purring away as Jóhann sorted through boxes, created a juxtaposed left and right stage atmosphere. Jóhann's cues and signals did not come in the form of a classical conductors hand wave, but instead from the crackling shortwave numbers and distorted vocals emitting from the reel-to-reel tape. 

I left the show feeing like I’d just witnessed a skilled professor give a masterclass. Jóhann was diligent, and every move he and his orchestra made was purposeful and poignant. His moments behind the piano were rare, but powerful- like a secret weapon amongst his many beautiful pieces - it kept each moment he sat down at the keys, extremely special. 

Only once, did he resort to instructing his fellow orchestra, pre-empting them to raise a section of one specific score. The rest of the time, he let them be the focus, whilst he gracefully assembled his reel-to-reel, or added subtle elements through his laptop setup. 

As I left the venue, it was an unusually foggy evening in downtown LA and the high-rise offices surrounding the Walt Disney Concert Hall mimicked scenes from Blade Runner, as the dim glow of coloured lights pulsed from the sky above. It was as if Jóhann Jóhannsson had planned it all along - this show, featuring discovered tapes from the past, set amongst futuristic architecture and a dystopian Los Angeles skyline; a prequel to the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 score he is set to deliver later this year. 


Jóhann Jóhannsson - Orphée


His name has been floating around in recent months, after it was announced Jóhann Jóhannsson would take up role scoring the highly pressured Blade Runner sequel.  If this news introduced you to the Icelandic composer, then welcome to a shining example of this mans capabilities in Orphée. If you're already aware of Jóhann's work, then join me in welcoming another masterpiece, and his first solo album since 2009.

Inspired by the story of Orpheus from Greek Mythology,  the poet became a metaphor for the album and the process of change. It's taken Jóhann over six years to complete this album, without the pressure to finish, and the ideals of "mutability, transition and our relationship with the dead", played a big part in this magnificent score. 

Some of the music on the album has been around for quite some time (take this 2012 performance on KCRW of Flight From The City - one of the best pieces on the album shown updated below) and as described in the video above, the album could've continued to evolve if Jóhann hadn't decided to let go - it seems unfinished - just like most artists would lead you to believe, who continually strive to perfect their work. But upon first listen, this is a defining, completed piece, with some of the most emotional compositions you're likely to come across. 

As you can imagine from an album drawn out over a long period of time, with no existing boundaries; the pieces each stand on their own, albeit with a slightly dark and ominous tone throughout. Incorporating a range of approaches, from solo cello, organ, string quartet, string orchestra to "the mesmeric sounds of shortwave radio numbers stations”Orphée, holds true to its ever-changing, evolving inspiration; tracing a path from darkness into light akin to the Greek poet.

The emotion and atmospherics are unparalleled, and without reading too much into the album upon listening, and with Jóhann's background scoring the likes of The Theory Of Everything, I initially believed this was another score for a major motion picture - think James Newton Howard, Mark Isham or Michael Nyman on deck, given the drama and intelligence at work. But, no. This is simply an album of extreme beauty built for its own intent and purposes, reflecting on some very personal stories close to the artist and its development over the years.

I don't normally write about soundtracks on here as they are normally intrinsically tied to a film and best expressed that way. Orphée purposefully stands tall on its own, and it's becoming increasingly clear that Jóhann Jóhannsson is no ordinary composer, exemplified within the range of compositions and emotion at play here.

Listen to the album in full over on NPR.