Jóhann Jóhannsson was a Golden Globe winning and Academy Award nominated composer renowned for his solo work and compositions for films The Theory of Everything, Sicario, and Arrival. Back in April 2017, he sat down with KALX’s own DJ Velvet Einstein to discuss his album Orphée, Ovid’s Metamorpheses, Cold War-era archival sounds, and how the IBM 1401 computer found its way into his work.
We’re here in San Francisco with Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is in town performing his most recent album, Orphée. Talking today about some of the origins behind Orphée, some of the mythological roots behind it— what was the impetus to choose Orpheus?
Well, Orphée is an album I released a few months ago; it’s my first solo album, really, in six or seven years. So it's been longer than that in the making because the main kind of building blocks of the album are based on material that I generated in 2009. Really it has its origins way back then. It was material that I felt went along together and always intended as something that would become the building blocks of an album, but generally my solo albums have been very conceptual or focused around a certain fixed idea. Like a non-musical idea, or narrative or conceptual idea; IBM 1401 or Fordlandia for example. But for this one, it was just pure music to begin with.
Since 2009 I've worked on this stuff every year, taking some weeks or a month here and there to slowly evolve this material because there was no real kind of pressure on me to deliver an album. I had a lot of other work so it kind of became over the course of these six or seven years like a diary almost. This period of my life became like a record of the changes that happened. It was a period when I went through change, my relationships, and then I moved to a different city, to a different country, and was uprooted in some ways. [I was] trying to find some kind of builds, a kind of a new life in a new city in a way; it was a period of transition and change. I think what I started looking for were texts and themes to work with. I was looking for texts and I looked into Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in particular his retelling of the Orpheus myth. And of course Metamorphoses is all about changes and the theme of change in mythology. The Orpheus myth in all its retelling has this quality; it's all about transition, it's all about thresholds between life and death, between light and dark, between these different states in a dream and wakefulness. So it is about mutability. It’s a very powerful myth, a powerful story that resonates on many levels and I felt it had a lot of connotations that were interesting to me and resonated in many different ways. I felt it was a rich garden to cultivate in a way, so it slowly became the central motif in the creation of the album.
When you mention the metamorphosis and the changes, is that more sequential going throughout the album? Is the beginning of the album more from six years ago and then it developed or is it more of a circular motion where within each piece there were iterations on it over the last six years?
The whole album is really based on an ascending harmonic progression. [It] is kind of developed and transformed and presented in different iterations, different versions, and goes through these variations [and] transformations throughout the album, but you can recognize the pattern in almost all the pieces on the album. It’s this sort of progression that has to serve upwards, this sort of ascending momentum, which is another element that I felt connected it to the Orpheus theme. It was this small ecosystem of ideas that evolved over this period of time and it was kind of a luxury to have this much time to experiment, to try things out, to record these ideas in different settings. They exist in many version and it’s almost like in some cases the ideas have morphed and mutated, and become unrecognizable from the original, but they all share the same kind of origin; they're all off-shoots from the same stem in some way.
You make reference to Jean Cocteau's Orphée. How much did that actually influence the composition of the music?
Yeah, that was something which occurred to me after I’d chosen the text from Ovid. I'd seen Cocteau’s film a couple of times, but I hadn't seen it in a while, maybe fifteen years or so. But I really remember these scenes in the film where you can see Jean Marais listening to these broadcasts on his car radio of a voice repeating words and phrases in a very monotone, almost surreal, beat poetry kind of way. Like abstract, coded transmissions in a way. Cocteau based these sequences on broadcasts heard during the war. I had this collection of recordings and it has been used before by people like Stereolab and others, but I wanted to to use it in a very different way, a much more lyrical way. So it all kind of fell together in some ways, in themes and motifs that relate to change and transformation and crossing thresholds. And also to the artistic process in a way. It has something to do with the artist’s relation too, and I think the Orpheus myth had something to do with the artist relation to beauty and creation.
What transgressions did you surmount, or what were your transgressions in the creation of this?
In a very general sense I think there's a sense that there are rules that have to be broken.
Art that doesn't break the rules in some way is not necessarily… it's not automatically interesting. Although, the music I make is not superficially extreme at all. I'm very interested in artists that kind of explore extremities and I think they then form what I do in many ways.
Are there any particular artists that you see as influencing your music more than others?
There was one that passed away recently. Mika Vainio of Pan Sonic was someone I worked with and had an influence on me. He was a very extreme person in his life and in his art as well. He had a very extreme minimalism, an extreme aesthetic kind of formalism. I’m very drawn to that, though I don’t create music that is like that. My music has softer edges, but I think there's a certain tension and a certain set of underlying kind of darkness, an underlying melancholy that is at the root of it which is a very central element in what I do in my solo work especially.
In terms of the origins of sound, what is your philosophy on when you’re going to take a sound that comes from a traditional instrument versus using the sounds of the numbers radio? Or going back to IBM 1401, the sounds of the machines—how do you know when to pull in something that is not a traditional instrument?
I’ve had an interest in this for awhile. This idea of using found sounds and archaic sounds or recordings from long ago, and this kind of juxtaposition almost kind of wrote emotionless declamations of dry information. Very dry, emotionless information. Juxtaposing that with very expressive and emotional musical ideas, and creating a kind of tension through this juxtaposition— I'm very interested in that. That fascinates me and I continue to to work with that kind of juxtaposition, and I have been doing that since my first album.
In terms of the difference between the soundtrack work and your solo work, is it influencing that as well? Do you see any separation between the solo work and the soundtrack work?
I'm lucky enough to be able to work with directors that are looking for something different. They're not looking for a traditional film score. They're looking for a new sound, so in many ways you could say that some of my film scores you can draw a very direct line between my solo work. For example, Prisoners, which was the first sort of big film project that I did with Denis Villeneuve, is very much at home with my solo catalog. Sicario, which was our next project, is more violent, more extreme in a way and more textural, less melodic, but it is still very much in my world. For me there's a very direct thread from albums like The Miners’ Hymns for example, where I started to work more with textures and more distorted, violent and darker colors in many ways.
Moving away from strings, for example, working more with extended techniques, working with spectral elements, with the orchestra as a textual way more than a melodic or harmonic way. And I’m also more and more interested in exploring those ways of working and combining these various approaches.
I think in many ways the film scores provide opportunities to experiment. I tried to use each score to try something new, to try something I haven't done before, so no film project is is a like for me. I tried to set challenges and new obstructions in a way to serve some parameters. I've been lucky enough to work with directors that very much encouraged that approach. The film scores have to have kind of been almost like experimental research for me. I’ve been sort of given resources to try to do some work with really interesting players, and interesting combinations of musicians. I’ve been very fortunate in the their kind of creative relationships I have developed directors.
Coming back to the sounds of the IBM 1401 project, your father who had worked on that the first IBM 1401 in Iceland— was he the one that did the original recordings of the sounds?
Yeah, the IBM 1401 project is based on recordings that my father made in the early seventies. [It was] 1971 I believe on a two track reel-to-reel recorder at least of these recordings of sounds and music he had made using the IBM 1401 computer which was the first mass-produced mainframe computer. My father worked for IBM in Iceland and the IBM 1401 was the first computer to arrive and be used in Iceland. My father learned a method of programming music on these computers by exploiting the bad shielding off of core memory of these computers so the magnetic cores emitted electromagnetic radiation. They developed an algorithm to program the memory to play melodies using Punch Cards, so they had this whole collection of music that my father and his colleagues had programmed. They made recordings of these sounds on the music that they programmed on the computer. He told me about the existence of these recordings about 30 years later in the year 2000, and I asked him if these tapes still existed and I found them somewhere in our attic. When I listened back to them, it really sounded like material that had a tremendous resonance for me. It also seems to have recorded it over a recording of someone reading a manual, like an extra instruction manual for the computer or for the printing units and a spoken instruction manual with a bell sound. I incorporated all of these elements into the the the final competition, IBM 1401: A User's Manual, which I wrote in 2001 and released in 2006.
Finally, you were talking about machines in general. You said they might turn against us, and we’ll have to read their user’s manual. Is that a model for your life still to this day? That sort of interaction of humans and machines?
I think they are like all our tools. They are extensions of all of us; extensions of our senses, of our bodies, so a computer is an extension of our brain in a sense. They are tools, and our tools have always changed throughout the history of society in very dramatic ways. The more our tools advance, the more they will change our society, and then change us. Whether it's a good or bad thing is irrelevant; it's something that is inevitable. It’s just a logical and very natural extension and consequence of our nature as tool making animals. It will take us wherever it will take us. Hopefully not to a place that's too apocalyptic.
Transcribed by Carmen Llerena
Edited for clarity by Chandler Le Francis