Jóhann Jóhannsson began studying the piano and trombone at the age of eleven but found this formalistic approach constraining and eventually abandoned academic musical training in his teenage years, opting to study literature and languages at university instead.
He spent the following decade playing and writing music in a number of indie rock bands, using guitars to compose feedback-drenched pieces and sculpting complex multi-layered soundscapes that integrated both acoustic and electronic elements to create a strikingly unique sound.
His first solo album, Englabörn was released in 2002 by Touch and drew from a broad set of influences, ranging from Erik Satie, Bernard Herrmann, Purcell and Moondog to electronic music issued by labels such as Mille Plateaux and Mego. Another album would follow on Touch, before Jóhannsson released two orchestral albums on 4AD: Fordlândia and IBM 1401 – A User’s Manual. In 2016, Jóhann signed with Deutsche Grammophon and released his latest solo record, Orphée.
A great deal of Jóhannsson’s work in recent years has been closely entwined with film: in 2010 he paired up with American avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison on the critically acclaimed The Miners’ Hymns. He has also scored a number of major cinematic hits, including Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), the score of which was nominated for all major awards, and Arrival (2016), which earned him Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. His other notable film credits include James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything (2014), for which he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, and forthcoming biblical drama Mary Magdalene (2018), which Jóhannsson is currently scoring alongside longtime collaborator Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir.
Beyond scoring films, Jóhannsson directs them as well: his debut short, End of Summer, arrived in 2015 and was followed up by a multimedia piece titled First and Last Men, which premiered at this year’s edition of the Manchester International Festival. Narrated by Tilda Swinton, the project combined film and music to create a poetic meditation on memory, loss and the idea of Utopia. For its world premier, the BBC Philharmonic performed a live rendition of Jóhannsson’s score at The Bridgewater Hall. A wider release of the film and score is planned for next year.