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Interview | Blade Runner 2049 Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Puts Iceland on the Music Map

The Oscar-nominated film composer breaks the ice about Denis Villeneuve, Icelandic influences and his upcoming solo performance at the Reykjavik Festival.

Patrick Greenby Patrick Green
Photo: Jonas Lindstroem

When you think of music capitals of the world you envision London, Austin, Berlin, Vienna. Reykjavik may not be the first city that pops in your head, but it’s slowly working itself into the conversation.

Iceland’s capital city has a rich history in music, from Viking folks songs that date back to the 14th century to the 21st Century art-pop of BjörkThe Los Angeles Philharmonic is doing its part to spread the word of the thriving Icelandic music scene by hosting the Reykjavík Festival. 

Also: Sigur Rós Team Up with LA Phil (3x) at Reykjavík Festival

Curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor Laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and Daníel Bjarnason (of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra), the Reykjavík Festival will showcase the dynamic music community thriving in Iceland’s capital from April 1-17 at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Among those performing will be Jóhann Jóhannsson with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble on April 17. Although the 47-year old, Oscar-nominee has become Hollywood’s go-to musical composer (Arrival, Theory of Everything, Sicario), he also has a thriving solo career with a long discography that includes his latest release, Orphée.

I caught up with Jóhannsson over the phone where we talked about Iceland’s unique influence on his distinct sound, what fans can expect from his Reykjavík Festival appearance and a little movie he’s currently working on called, Blade Runner 2049.

Crave: Iceland is such a unique place from the isolated island geography to the weather, landscape, history. How did it shape you as an artist? 

Jóhann JóhannssonTo be honest, I don’t particularly see myself as an Icelandic artist. I’m a European artist. I moved to Iceland (from Paris) when I was 12. Of course, I don’t want to make light of the importance of my musical upbringing as you cannot avoid being influenced by the area you grow up, but I will say that Reykjavík’s geography is very different from say New York, Paris, or Copenhagen. There’s big skies. The buildings are low. The landscape is spread out. Even if you’re in the city there’s a view of the mountains. It’s expansive, yet there’s a really strong sense of community within the musical circle. 

For American fans who might be only familiar with your film scores, what can they expect from your live performance at the Reykjavik festival?

This concert is part of my tour which follows the release of my album Orphée. It will be a retrospective focusing mostly on my solo work. A combination of piano and electronic music. The theme from Prisoners is the only piece of material from my film scores that we’re playing.

Speaking of your film scores. You’ve worked on four movies now with (director) Denis Villeneuve. Was there a moment when you realized as they say in Hollywood that “this was the start of a beautiful relationship?” 

It was easy from the start. We have shared sensibilities. A similar aesthetic in many ways.

Your work has become a trademark to a Denis Villeneuve film as much as say Roger Deakins’ cinemaphotography. 

What I like about his films is he takes his time. He’s not afraid to let the scenes breathe. He has a great sense of building. It’s a great match for my music.

Your current project is Blade Runner 2049. The original is one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever, not just from Ridley Scott’s visuals, but musically as well with Vangelis’ score. What are your memories of watching it just as a fan? 

Blade Runner was hugely important to me in many ways. I’m a huge fan of Philip K Dick. Even though the film is vastly different from the book they managed to explore his ideas well. The sound design and the music combined with the incredible visuals that Ridley Scott created were really unique at the time. I had never seen anything like it. It has aged so well and still feels very modern and current. It’s a film I consider a huge influence on what I do. 

So how do you approach the music on Blade Runner 2049Do you try to service the original or create something entirely new?

Unfortunately, I’m afraid I can’t talk about Blade Runner 2049 so I can’t go into much detail, but I think everyone who is involved in the film is keenly aware to honor the legacy of the original while also creating something new and it’s very important to me to find the balance between the two things. 

For tickets to see Jóhann Jóhannsson on April 17 at the Reykjavík Festival go (HERE).