Essay: "A Tribute to Johann Johannsson" by kelsey bowen

"A Tribute to Jóhann Jóhannsson and the Ugliness of the Arrival Film Score"

I feel like I’m holding my breath. I got this ticket with the promise of aliens, but I’ve been watching Amy Adams look sullenly out windows for forty-five minutes. But now she’s in a helicopter with Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner, and they’re flying over the lushest field of grass I’ve ever seen, and the movie is silent, and I know these goddamn aliens are about to show up. And as the frame finally leaves Amy’s face, some kind of mechanical whine floods from the speaker. The speaker is broken. Are you kidding me? As more and more similarly sounding noises fill the theatre I realize it’s the music. I hate it. I hate it so much I shiver. It’s brooding and dark kind of like a thunderstorm. Not the whole storm, more like the build up. The seconds children count between the lightning and the thunder. It sounds like some exotic bird dying in a rain gutter; echoey and unnerving. There is nothing grand about, no expansive orchestral refrains. It’s no Hans Zimmer or John Williams. It’s ugly. And yet, as the camera reveals the mist pouring over a drop off onto that lush field of green, with a dark egg hovering in the middle, the music grows so loud I have to fight the urge to cover my ears. I find myself gripping the armrest, leaning forward, and losing the breath I held.

I saw Arrival (Villeneuve, 2017) a total of eight times at the movie theatre. I memorized the whole script. And probably every music cue. Which may be a little excessive, but I think I was addicted. Every time after the first, I sat in the back of the theatre right next to the speaker, so the low growls of the bass would resonate in my chest. I got a thrill out of the trail of goosebumps that would form down my arm. I loved the wicked nature of the music, the nefariousness.

Usually, composers make beautiful pieces with classic strings and horns, but the music in Arrival is different. It has strings and horns, but they are not conventional. Not to say Jóhann Jóhannsson can’t compose conventional pieces. He did Theory of Everything (Marsh, 2014) and it was beautiful and conventional. He was even nominated for an Oscar. The music in Arrival was just odd. And unashamedly so. I think that’s why I liked it. It’s the Bob Dylan of scores. Not exactly regular and pretty sounding, and at first, kind of bad. But after a few listens, there’s a certain charm that radiates from it.

Jóhannsson is the king of avant-garde music. He was constantly modulating different sounds to make new noises that were never been heard before, much less put into music. He made music that commanded attention and drew notice to not only the complexities of the score, but also the complexities of the movie and, even more importantly, the characters. He also wasn’t  in the business for the money or the fame. He wasn’t just making scores to prove to people he could create such odd music, He actually cared about the stories he was crafting music for.

But it doesn’t even matter how it was different, really. All that matters is the fact that it was different. I became obsessed with it, which was much to the misfortune of almost everybody in my life. Daily I would play the most beguiling noises in my car, my room, my headphones, so loudly, in fact, my coworkers asked me to turn it down. It introduced me to newer parts of me. New me who wore lipstick to class. New me who made earrings out of fake fruit. New me who started talking back. Now, I wasn’t smashing beer bottles on my face and stabbing creeps in the knee, but I liked the pieces of me I was started to meet. They weren’t parts of me I put on display to project a fake personality, but parts of me I was too shy to ever express. It’s gross how cheesy that sounds, but it’s true and I’m not going to apologize for it. It is completely ridiculous at how deeply a stupid film score from a movie that a small percentage of the population watched affected me. And yet, here I am. My friends say I am idealizing, and that’s probably true. But I also listen to movie scores and write homages, so I don’t think my idealizing is very surprising. And maybe the music isn’t even as good as I think it is. Maybe I am more attracted to the ballsy-ness of making a score that is kind of ugly sounding. But even still, Jóhannsson’s score was so awesome I like to think it allowed even Hans Zimmer to meet new parts of himself.

I invested more time in learning about Jóhann Jóhannsson as a person and a composer. When I found out his life wasn’t terribly inspiring or unlike any other composer’s story, I was relieved. I guess it was because he was just a regular guy, who is able to create incredible art. He wasn’t some genius, prodigy baby. I once read that he’d signed on to score a film, but halfway through production, he decided the movie would be better without music. So he dropped the job. He threw away a whole paycheck for this movie. For his craft. That is the most selfless and bad-ass thing I think I’ve ever heard in my life. It shows not only that he is one of the coolest people on Earth, but also that he has heaps of respect. For himself and also for his discipline. A couple of days after I read that story, I dropped my forensic pathology major and switched to creative writing. It may not be as poignant or literal, but it’s just as stupid if you ask my father. But I’ve actually been published a time or two, and even won an award.

On February 9th I woke up to a CNN alert: ‘Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has died at age 48’. I didn’t cry, but I wore all black. I’ve lost people before. People who were closer to me than Jóhann Jóhannsson. But I’d never lost an inspiration before. Especially one who affected me so much.

There is an influx of tributes and odes raining in from people across the world for Jóhann, which he deserves. But they’re mostly from people he worked with who ‘wish they could work with him one more time’, or fans in the industry who praise his innovation. None are from twenty-something-year-olds who sometimes idealize and who can appreciate the strangeness and be inspired by ugly beauty. I think about Jóhannsson a lot. I’m probably jealous. I wish I had that kind of conviction and confidence. I wish I’d written him a letter, or whatever you send a composer, and told him what he’s done for me and that he literally changed my life with his music. And how, like him, I want to make honest work, not for money, for my craft. I hope he knows now.


kelsey bowen is a writer from Memphis, Tennessee, USA. 

My mother has always said I’m not a great speaker, I guess that’s why I became a writer. I am just a 21 year-old trying to find what she’s good at. I’ve always felt that writing allowed me to be the kind of person I couldn’t be at home.

On their work: 

I truly love movies. My father and I went all the time when I was growing up. I like to think I like movie scores because it reminds me of my childhood and my dream to one day be one of the names in the credits, as cheesy as that sounds.

On creators: 

It’s important for people like me to share their stories so people like me can read those stories. It was hard telling my parents I was going to be a creative writing major. And it’s still hard facing that, “What are you going to do after college?” question. But knowing there are people out there who are in the same boat, but are still pursuing that goal, makes me feel like I made the right decision.

Connect with them: 

Twitter: @kelseemari

Instagram: @kelsobelso