Processing Organics With Jóhann Jóhannsson

One of the surprises of this fall’s film season was Prisoners, a film whose promotion relied on its star-studded cast, but grew to increasingly favorable reviews and decent reception at the box office. One of the mostly overlooked but key players in the film’s success was composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose experience in and out of film allowed for a heavily nuanced and perceptive score that played not to simply reinforce the content on the screen, but to elevate it and, at times, interrogate that which was being observed. Recently I touched base with him about the work and his efforts both for the screen and the eventual record that has been released.

Garrett Tiedemann: First off, how did you get attached to the project and what drew you to it?

Jóhann Jóhannsson: The director, Denis Villeneuve, liked my music and I was asked to do the score. I was drawn to the richness of the script—it’s such a well-constructed thriller, which skillfully avoids genre clichés. I was also a fan of Villeneuve. I really loved his previous film Incendies and I was intrigued with what he would do with this material.

GT: From the opening track you present a tribal percussion quality that resonates throughout the score, but never takes prominence until the end. How did you find that idea and keep the percussion so sparse without losing its resonance?

JJ: The percussion is actually four double basses, played by striking the sound board with the hand. I liked the idea of using the string orchestra as a percussion instrument. I had to do a bit of convincing to get the London orchestra players to do this to their expensive instruments. So I couldn’t use this effect very often in the score. But it’s effective when it is used, because it’s a sound you can’t easily place; it’s not tympani, it’s not tom toms—it’s a bit ambiguous. Then I mixed this with a recording of me playing a much cheaper bass in a similar way with a rubber mallet. I was not going for a tribal effect, but it is quite primal I suppose and ominous, like it’s announcing something, like drums in a funeral procession.

GT: You use strings to also present this feeling. Was that a way of connecting the idea without losing the overall ambience of the structure and making the quality too bombastic?

JJ: The strings were always a very important part of the score. The score has a two-fold purpose, one is to serve as a kind of lyrical and poetic counterpoint to the horror of the events in the film. The other purpose is to keep a certain tension and sense of unease. So it’s comprised of two very contrasting elements. The strings and woodwinds provide the lyricism and beauty while the treated and manipulated sounds provide the tension. However, it’s not so clear-cut, because the treated sounds are all derived from acoustic sources, from recordings of cellos or basses or electric guitars, all manipulated in various ways. I also treated the strings and the woodwinds quite a lot, with a lot of different kinds of processing. The keyword throughout the writing was to avoid anything that sounded like thriller music, but to still convey a sense of tension, coupled with these moments of melancholy and delicate beauty.

GT: When you began the project did you set out to produce themes for characters or to have an overall theme mapping the movements of the narrative and inspiring variations of the initial idea?

JJ: I think the main character, Keller, has his own theme and the girls who are abducted have their own theme. Then there is Alex Jones’ theme, which is a cello phrase that is repeated in various variations and contexts. Then there is a theme which is connected to the parents’ grief. So there are four main themes that are all developed and repeated in different variations. There are also a few strong themes that stand on their own. I wrote the Abduction theme (“I Can’t Find Them” on the score album) and the Parents’ Grief theme (“Through Falling Snow”) first. This was very early in the editing process, when I only had two or three scenes to work with. The editors then used these demos a lot in the editing process, so this shaped the way the score evolved as well.

GT: Though not on every track, the primary voice for the score is the organ. How early in the process did you find it? How did you come to find it?

JJ: It is not an organ, actually. The sound you refer to is a mixture of the Cristal Baschet, which is a glass instrument similar to a glass harmonica, and the Ondes Martenot, which is an electronic instrument from the ’30s, similar to the Theremin. The sound of them mixed together is a bit organ like, but it has a very fragile, glassy texture. It allowed me to do very delicate things without being too sentimental or overly emotional. An organ would be too church-like in this context. I did record some real church organ for the score, but it’s used as a bass, placed under the orchestra, an octave below the string basses. You can’t really hear that it’s an organ.

GT: There are extensive variations to instrumentation and the overall sound of each track playing with the theme provided by the organ, how did you find and define that interplay?

JJ: I wanted to blend these strange old instruments, the Cristal Baschet and the Ondes Martenot, with an orchestra and electronics and to do this in a very organic way. I also spent two days in Berlin recording drones and soundscapes with Erik Knive Skodvin from the bands Svarte Greiner and Deaf Center and Hildur Guðnadóttir. We recorded hours and hours of material, of which I used maybe 10 minutes, but they are very important 10 minutes.

The first stage of writing the score was to write the themes and define the emotional core of the music. Then it was a process of organizing and finding the structure and defining the sonic palette and the texture of the score. This is orchestrating, really. For me, orchestration is not only a process of writing a score for an orchestra, but also to find space for each instrument and each orchestral element within a greater textural whole. The orchestra is only 60% of the score, the rest is about creating and manipulating sound to produce a texture which still feels very organic, even though it’s completely studio-created—although all the sources are ultimately acoustic in origin. I never use sound which has not existed in a room at some point. For me, a sound has to exist as a sound wave in a room or other physical space before you can use it in a composition. So the room where you record the music is very important for me.

GT: The track titled “Through Falling Snow” and returning in the final track “Prisoners” brings in a string section that masterfully evolves and redefines the musical language of the score, at least as a record. Is it the same in the film? Do you see that variation as having particular prominence for the overall project?

JJ: The track “Prisoners” is the end credits music, which brings together the three main themes, Keller’s theme, Parents’ Grief and Abduction into one suite.

Through Falling Snow is the music for a car race scene, as the detective races to the hospital with one of the girls, who has been poisoned. So its purpose is to provide movement and underscore the urgency of the scene, but also to underline the empathy of the detective for the abducted girls.

GT: I love the track titled “The Keeper.” The voice carried as it builds and the sounds you place around the repetition is all astounding. Can you talk about its production? How you decided on its presence within the larger score and themes?

JJ: On the score album, that theme is actually quite a bit longer than in the film, where it’s under a minute. I lobbied to have it longer in the film, but it was cut down in the end. So I made a special version for the score album, which allowed the idea to breathe and to develop over time. I wanted to feature the string basses heavily, to play this repeated glissando theme which builds and builds until it reaches this kind of frenzied urgency, under a bed of orchestral effects and electronics. I have used this kind of effect before, but not in a film context. I guess it’s becoming a trademark! Unfortunately, in the context of a film project you don’t always get the space to develop ideas over time, but it was nice to be able to include the original idea on the album.

GT: Did you work at all with the sound design team in determining what the final sound of the film would be or did you work independently from that aspect of it?

JJ: No, I didn’t meet the sound designers or mixers at all and I was already working on another project when the final mix of the film was done. The sound design and the music were very much separate entities. Denis was very protective of the score and he knew where he wanted to feature the score and where it should be sound design. He always had a strong vision concerning the sound of the film, and I knew the sound designer would do an amazing job, so I wasn’t too worried.

GT: Musically, how would you summarize the film? What were the main guides for you to express the film’s sensibility?

JJ: What Denis and I discussed from the beginning was that we wanted to avoid thriller clichés and also not to blanket the film with music—that when the music is used, it really serves a purpose. The music should be in counterpoint to the film and not to state what’s already on the screen. It should be its own voice, almost like a character in the film.

GT: Looking back, was the process of this project different from previous work? If so, how?

JJ: All film scores are alike in some ways, but they are all different as well. It was amazing to work with a team that has as much experience as the one on this film. I’ve never worked with editors that are as sensitive to music as Joel Cox and Gary Roach for example. And Denis and I share many sensibilities regarding music, so it was a very pleasant project and artistically rewarding.

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