Arrival composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Arrival composer Jóhann Jóhannsson: 'People are hungry for new sounds'.
From using space to avoiding “weird for weirdness’s sake”, the Oscar-nominated film scorer reveals how creates his haunting soundtracks.
Whether it’s a John Carpenter classic or Jonny Greenwood’s experimental modernism, the film soundtrack is becoming ever more popular as a standalone listen. Contemporary Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson reckons that’s because “people are hungry for new sounds, and for the experience of listening to unfamiliar music that you don’t hear on commercials and in every TV show”. He should know. Jóhannsson has written boldly impressionistic scores for numerous high-profile films, including Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything, darkly emotional revenge piece Prisoners and drug-cartel thriller Sicario, where he used a 65-piece orchestra to convey ominous intensity; and he’s earned two Oscar nominations in the process. The common thread in his work is his treatment of the score as an integral element of the overall sound design, rather than an independent composition imposed on it. Jóhannsson’s latest work is the soundtrack to smart sci-fi thriller Arrival, starring Amy Adams. Here, he offers his top tips for writing a winning movie score…
Feed off the script.
“Arrival is my third film with Denis [Villeneuve, director] – we’re working on our fourth now [Blade Runner 2049] – and we’ve developed a trust and knowledge of each other’s tastes and sensibilities. Denis always involves me in the pre-production stage: I read the script and we talk about the mood and the role that the music needs to play. With Arrival, we didn’t talk much about the music and this was deliberate on his part; he basically gave me carte blanche to experiment.”
Go with your gut.
“I knew that I wanted to use voices as one of the prime instruments in the score of a film that is primarily about language and communication. But I wanted to use the voice in a different way, so I worked with an ensemble called Theatre Of Voices. They’re masters of both early music and contemporary music, so have a very good command of exotic vocal techniques. I worked with Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe; he is not academically trained, but his voice is an amazing, powerful and flexible instrument.”
Expand your horizons.
“In terms of voices, I was very influenced by Stockhausen’s Stimmung, a piece for six voices and microphones. But I was also listening a lot to spectral composers like Gérard Grisey and Horatiu Rădulescu.”
Enjoy the silence.
“In mainstream cinema, there’s usually too much music. In Arrival, the use of space and silence is extremely important. When music is needed, it’s really there and it serves a purpose.”
Don’t force it.
“I try to approach a project with a blank slate and just let things emerge. I start very early in the process because it takes a lot of time to work in this way. It takes time to find a mood and feel that has some character and individuality, and is not weird for weirdness’s sake.”
Arrival (OST) is out now; Jóhann Jóhannsson plays the Barbican Hall, EC2, 9 December
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