Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, known for his moody, minimalist scores for films such as Sicario, and Arrival has died, according to a post on his official Facebook page. Jóhannsson was 48 years old, and no cause of death has been given.
Jóhannsson grew up in Reykjavík, and played guitar in a variety of indie rock bands before founding a music label that encouraged collaboration between various musical genres, which sparked his own musical experiments. He released his first album, Englabörn, in 2002, and he eventually moved on to score films like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival, James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, and Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, and many others. He later joined Villeneuve once again to score last year’s Blade Runner 2049, but he was later removed from the project and replaced by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. His work on The Theory of Everything and mother! earned him a Golden Globe Award for Best Score, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his score for Sicario.
My first encounter with Jóhannsson’s music wasn’t through one of his film scores, however: it was a song in the first trailers for Jonathan Liebesman’s 2011 film Battle Los Angeles, “Part 5/ The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black” from his minimalist album IBM 1401, a User’s Manual.
The haunting track and album was inspired in part by his father, who worked for IBM, featuring sound from one of the company’s mainframe computers along with an orchestral score. It’s a distinctive, beautiful work of music, one that made me seek out Jóhannsson’s work when it popped up.
His score for Sicario opens with a haunting, driven beat that carries a claustrophobic, hunted feeling that complements the film perfectly, while his score for Arrival is beautiful and ethereal (and sadly disqualified from the Academy Awards), capturing the otherworldly nature of the film’s Heptapod aliens. But Jóhannsson did more conventional work as well, such as with his score for The Theory of Everything, which retained some of his minimalist tendencies alongside the film’s soaring themes. I’ve often found myself working with his music playing in the background.
Jóhannsson’s work was beautiful and original, demonstrating that a film’s score could go beyond merely setting the mood or filling silence: it could be an integral, complementary part of the story.