One of the greatest composers of our generation, Jóhann Jóhannsson, left us in February, at the young age of 48.
Before he became known as an award winning soundtrack writer, scoring over 30 films, including Sicario, The Theory of Everything, Arrival as well as getting the first shot at Blade Runner 2049, he was deep in the trenches of the Icelandic art scene. He founded the Kitchen Motors collective, which encouraged cross-genre collaborations between jazz, electronic, heavy metal, and classical musicians. This, combined with piano and trombone studies as a teenager, playing in various rock bands, and an interest in “found sound,” informed his later compositions.
It’s probably why Jóhannsson so easily straddled the line between the rarified circles we imagine composers move through, as well as the indie rock and electronica world. That, and the fact that he was releasing modern classical music on 4AD, the label best known as the home of Cocteau Twins, Pixies, St. Vincent, Deer Hunter, and many other art rock acts, explains how so many of us who identify with the latter tribe came across his music. Later collaborations with members of Can, Sun o))), and Nick Cave’s band probably didn’t hurt either.
15 years ago a friend recommended I check out Jóhannsson’s Virðulegu Forsetar. I didn’t think I liked many modern composers, assuming we were long past the era where composers, in the traditional sense, were even relevant. I realised I was wrong when I heard that record.
It opened my mind, and prompted me to see what else was out there, leading me to anything from new forms of electronic music, beyond what I already liked, to things that occupy space in multiple genres, like Fennesz, and Tim Hecker. Jóhannsson would go on to collaborate with the latter.
Years later I became fast friends with Jesper “Yebo” Reginal, owner of the Copenhagen-based label, Crunchy Frog. He gave me a selection of their releases, most of which were some form of rock, psych, or pop. All of it was fantastic, but one, in particular, stood out as the wonderful oddball. Understandably, I assumed that Apparat Organ Quartet would be some hard driving organ rock, which would fit in with the label’s aesthetic. Instead I found myself listening to legit electronic music project, comprised of vintage combo organs, old synths, and vocoders. While the music nodded at groups like Kraftwerk, and had a retro vibe, it was also fresh and original. Plus, the packaging was beautiful. I’d often toss it in when I needed something ‘soundtracky,’ wanted some cool dinner party music, or thought it might add a spring to my step when I cleaned my house.
I feel compelled to point out that ‘music to clean the house by’ is a high compliment in my world. Eno never bothered to tackle that one.
A few years later I was in Copenhagen, having dinner at the home of one of Yebo’s colleagues, Thor Jonsson. He, and his spouse, Arndis, are exceptionally kind and interesting people. Originally from Reykjavik, they were in the middle of it all when Iceland made the transition from a small Viking island stepping stone, on the way to Europe, to music powerhouse that consistently hits well above its weight.
One of the dinner guests was a guy named Jóhann. He was soft spoken and what I can only describe as ‘artistic,’ in the most positive sense. We talked about soundtracks, electronic music, Berlin, and how new tools for recording and composition were so powerful. “Damn,” I thought, “Thor and Arndis sure are humble, considering they know the most interesting people.” I assumed Jóhann and I would cross paths again in day. It wasn’t until the dinner was over that I found out I had been chatting with an artist whose work I was very familiar with.
When I mentioned this to Yebo, later, he said “yeah, Thor has known him for a while, and we put out some of his music.” I was confused by that last part, and asked when Crunchy Frog, best known for giving the world the Noir ‘Gaze band, The Raveonettes, and dance pop heroes, Junior Senior, had gotten into putting out modern composition. He laughed and said, “he’s in Apparat Organ Quartet!”
That blew my mind.
Like most music obsessives, I’ve spent my life carefully poring over liner notes whenever I get a new record, but ‘Jóhann Jóhannsson’ is not a terribly uncommon name in Iceland, where they still use the son and daughter suffixes as they were originally intended. ‘Jóhann, son of Jóhann,’ literally.
I’d even seen videos of Apparat performing, but hadn’t noticed it was the same person. I mean, how likely was it that a composer of stark pieces, that sonically define the Nordic aesthetic, was also in… a quirky keyboard band!
Minimalists are not allowed to have fun. That’s the rule.
Recently, I was blindsided at Iceland Airwaves when I stumbled across a band called Skelkur í Bringu, and had my senses overloaded. I told Thor about this ‘discovery’ and he said, “you know the singer’s dad was in Apparat with Jóhann, right?”
Of course. Of course he was. Iceland, man…
This time last year Jóhannsson was performing his Drone Mass near where I live, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Regrettably, I couldn’t be there, because I was traveling. As cliché as it sounds, I just assumed I’d catch him eventually.
Trite sounding or not, it’s yet another reminder that we should live every day like it’s our last, and see our heroes when we get the chance. I’m not sure how Jóhann died, but I know that a person my age, who lived through the exact same global social changes as me, and interacted with some of my closest friends, is no longer with us.
That is nothing short of a perspective bomb.
Condolences to his friends and family, who must be struggling to make sense of this.
Perhaps the most appropriate thing to post right now would be one of his many dark compositions. Jóhann wrote plenty of pieces that could function as his own requiem.
I’ll leave that to the others, though. I’m going with something more upbeat, to celebrate the artist’s life, rather than mourn his death.
Words: Alex Maiolo