The Dark Night: Jóhann Jóhannsson on “Orphée”

The Arrival composer gives voice to an unlikely subject: himself.

Patronyms might be the norm in Iceland, but there’s nevertheless a kind of mythical quality to the name Jóhann Jóhannsson—it sounds like a character you’d find in the scrolls of the ancient Norse sagas traversing the underworld and embroiled in the epic battles and triumphs of Gods that most of the world has long forgotten. In truth, Jóhannsson was born in Reykjavík in 1969, but his latest solo album, Orphée, combines the ancient and modern worlds with grace, elegance, and poise.

At once complex and straightforward, its haunting neoclassical soundscapes are inspired by an amalgamation of three things: the Greek legend of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film from which the album takes its name, and Jóhannsson’s own life changes—specifically his relocation from Copenhagen to Berlin, a transition that occurred while he was writing it. He did so over the course of six years, in between other projects, myth and reality intertwining more and more as time went on and the project developed.

“When you work on something for such a long time,” he says over the phone, “it becomes a diary of sorts.” He speaks seriously, slowly and at length, with a precise and intellectual erudition. “It starts to reflect what’s happening in your life. It was a period of transition for me, of changing personal relationships and moving countries and [experiencing] upheaval in many ways. The Orpheus myth is very much about borders and crossing thresholds. It also relates to the process of creation and writing music and making art, and the elusive nature of inspiration and beauty, and of catching these moments of beauty.”

Whether making music for film—most notably, Jóhannsson wrote (and won a Golden Globe for) the soundtrack to 2014’s The Theory of Everything, and he’s worked with Denis Villeneuve on scores for Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, and the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel—or for his own albums, that depth of approach is something Jóhannsson has always applied to his art. He admits it “could sound a bit elevated,” but while that level of intellectual and conceptual engagement has always defined his work, it’s counterbalanced by an emotive yearning and those ineffable moments of beauty.

A case in point is his fourth album, 2006’s IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, which used melodies Jóhannsson’s father had made with that very computer while working as a maintenance engineer for IBM. Similarly, 2008’s Fordlandia was inspired by the prefabricated industrial town of the same name in Brazil. Established in 1928 as a location to secure cultivated rubber for the tires of Ford vehicles, the experiment failed and was closed in under a decade. Knowing those back stories (or the legend of Orpheus) attaches an intrinsic humanity to his work and gives it emotional heft, adding extra depth to what would otherwise be narrative-less instrumental music. But it’s not necessary knowledge, either; Jóhannsson’s music is powerful enough to stand on its own.

“When you’re working with instrumental music,” he explains, “the titles and having concepts behind it all is very important. I don’t normally write absolute music that’s music for music’s sake; there needs to be an overarching theme, even if it’s only for me. Most people will listen to this on Spotify and you can’t find any information there—and that’s fine. That doesn’t bother me. I’m always grateful when people dig a little bit deeper, but I’m perfectly OK with people listening to my music unaware of these connotations; it’s just very important for me to have that kind of frame around it.”

“It’s about ephemerality, it’s about how things can disappear in a minute, whether that’s an emotion, whether that’s love, whether it’s an idea or a memory.”

Whether people seek out that information or not, listening to Orphée’s fifteen tracks makes it clear that there’s more to it than just music; there’s a profundity to it all that comes across even if you don’t know the multilayered inspirations behind it. Caught somewhere between avant-garde post-rock (Jóhannsson has previously released albums on renowned indie labels 4AD and FatCat) and classical composition (this album is being issued by Deutsche Grammophon, one of the oldest classical labels in the world), parts of this album are infiltrated by disembodied voices and found sounds taken from old numbers stations that punctuate the songs with a metallic coldness at odds with the sumptuous and expressive nature of the music.

“Cocteau was inspired by the transmissions of the BBC during the Second World War,” Jóhannsson explains, “where they transmitted coded messages on shortwave radio to the Allies. These numbers stations were very prevalent during the Cold War and you could pick up the transmissions widely on the shortwave radio spectrum. There would be mostly female voices repeating rows of letters and numbers in a very robotic, monotone, and lifeless fashion.”

Cocteau used those recordings in his version of Orphée, and, after watching the movie again, Jóhannsson decided to incorporate them into his own musical interpretation. Such multimedia intertextuality isn’t just an homage to the French filmmaker, however, but a clever device that lends the music dramatic intensity while subtly reaffirming the themes of the Orpheus myth, both in and of itself and as they relate to Jóhannsson’s own life.

“Today, these voices have a strangely haunting quality,” he says. “This was a period of great change in my life and I think it reflects that. It’s about ephemerality, it’s about how things can disappear in a minute, whether that’s an emotion, whether that’s love, whether it’s an idea or a memory. The Orpheus myth is very much about memory as well—memory of the dead and the hold that the dead have over us and the grip we can find ourselves in in certain relationships.” He pauses, and allows himself a brief and rare moment of levity. “I’m not personifying myself in Orpheus at all,” he chuckles. “I hope that doesn’t come across.”

He needn’t worry. Orphée blurs the line between myth and reality, history and fiction, but at the same time it welds together past, present, and future to create a powerful piece of work that serves to soundtrack whatever dramas unfold in your own life—while also illuminating the narratives upon which it’s based. And as much as Jóhannsson’s individual saga is wrapped up in the project, it’s nevertheless thoroughly lacking in ego.

“It’s almost like a diary filtered through these classical sources,” he says. “I’m not someone who would put my personal diaries in a record. My background is in academia, and so I prefer to work with classical poetry. This is a way for me to incorporate my interests and obsessions into what I’m doing.”

Perhaps aware that his words have once again become quite lofty, he pauses. Over the phone, you can hear the faint curve of a smile forming on his lips.

“It’s mainly for me,” he says, “so it’s not of great importance.” FL

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