'Making music is like making a sculpture'

Updated: Jan 05, 2017, 13:54 IST | Aastha Atray Banan |

Arrival's music composer Johann Johannsson talks of using familiar instruments in unfamiliar ways

Johann Johannsson Pic/JONATAN GRETARSSON

AS LINGUIST Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) walks towards the alien spaceship for the first time in director Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi flick, Arrival, you are with her in anticipation of what may be. Along with her able portrayal, it's the music that helps build excitement, and that doesn't change through the movie. There are long drone-sounding sequences, that almost remind you of being in a monastery, to words uttered in a chanting manner, that lends an eerie, surreal feeling. It's the music that builds the out-of-world ambience, one that any sci-fi film could need. Icelandic music composer Johann Johannsson, who worked with Villeneuve before on his award-winning Sicario, for which he himself was nominated for an Academy award for Best original Score, says that the project was so evocative that he had started writing the music long before filming started.

"Arrival was very special, because of the story. I was so excited at hearing it, that I started composing pretty early on," he tells us on the phone from Germany, where he is touring right now. "What I have done with Arrival is that I have used very familiar instruments — like the piano — but recorded in very unfamiliar ways." What he means is this — for producing the sound that sounds like a drone (a harmonic or monophonic effect where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece), he recorded the pianos in layers — keeping the sustained note alive. "Why I did that was to relate to the theme of the movie. It's about time and how we perceive it. In Arrival, they say that time is non-linear — it doesn't have a beginning or an end. That's what I have done in creating a tone like I did with the piano, which has no start and no end. So you see, the movie really inspired my music," says the 47-year-old, who was also nominated for an Academy Award for the Stephen-Hawking film The Theory of Everything, and picked up a Golden Globe for it too.

An Indian may find the music familiar, as the chants sound typically Tibetan. Though Johannsson says he is not an expert on that kind of music, it did seep in. "I was very interested in using vocals as part of the music as the film is about language and communication. How language can change the way we think. I worked with vocal ensembles such as the Theatre of Voices, who are influenced by Buddhist chanting, harmonic singing and vocal techniques. It's all about singing vocals in a non-traditional way." What Johannsson has also done is limit the use of software-generated sounds. "We have produced the sounds for sure, but there is almost no sound on
the record that is not created by a human."

Amy Adams in Arrival 

For Johannsson, the musical journey has been a long and rewarding one. Growing up in Iceland, where he hasn't lived for over 15 years, was culturally rewarding for him, as it's a country that occupies the middle ground between America and Europe. "It has a tiny population, but has a thriving art and music scene. It's very special. The place you come from always affects who you are." He still remembers playing guitar in a "noisy indie band", and then starting his own experiments with music when he was barely 18. "I used to create multi-track recordings, by layering guitars or other classical instruments. That's what I have been doing all through my career — constantly layering sounds, and building textures from layers of different harmonics. For me, making music is about taking a sculptural approach."

Right now, he is busy working on his next film, Blade Runner 2049, which is a sequel to 1982 movie and will see Harrison Ford reprise his original role. "once again, filming is yet to start and I already have a lot of material, but I can't talk about it," he laughs. "In some ways, we are still looking for the sound of the movie. It's a movie that was well loved, and I love it too.

But, this is not a remake, but a sequel, and a lot of things can change in a sequel." When asked what does he listen to in his own time, he says, "Actually, at the end of a working day, when I am back home, I rather read. But what really interests me, music wise, is artists who are doing something you have never heard before. I like to listen to 'voices' that are very individual and say something only they can. That's what an original song is."

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