Being a fan of heady, philosophical sci-fi, I assumed that sooner or later I would eventually see Arrival. The love affair that I had last year with the Interstellar soundtrack had also left a void, so it seemed fitting that I should check out Arrival’s score. In my opinion, the best soundtracks can stand on their own compositional merit without being attached to the action of a movie. This paradigm was cultivated in, and perhaps limited by, the work of John Williams, but in recent years Hans Zimmer and Steve Reich have opened my ears to increasingly subtle uses of melody. This increased interest in less “Neo-Classical” forms of film scoring cleared a path for me to readily appreciate Johann Johannsen’s soundtrack to Arrival.
Arrival, as a freestanding piece, is minimalistic but not minimalist, at least not in the mathematic tradition that Reich and Glass epitomized. Melodic content is used sparingly throughout, with an emphasis on soundscapes and atmospheric textures. This might suggest that Arrival veers towards mere ambience, but tastefully placed tension and non-orchestral timbres imbue it with a certain narrative capacity. At its most intense, Arrival captures the austerity of Japanese Gagaku, while otherworldly murmurs and voices provides a sense of impenetrable, creeping alienness.
All of these ingredients are essential to the tone of the film and make Arrival a fascinating piece of sound sculpture. More impressively, it sustains a narrative that allows it to work as a freestanding composition, but in a way more aligned with contemporary composition practices than the thematic leitmotif that I have often used to define a successful soundtrack.
I began to dig a little deeper and discovered that Johannsen is quite prolific. In addition to scoring quite a few films, he has also composed several freestanding works. In the spirit of collecting some new music for late-night feedings, I put 2016's Orphee into rotation. Like Arrival, Orphee is minimal but not really minimalist, using simple melodies can draw out a lot of emotion. For me, the first note of opening track Flight from the City, causes the world to slow down.
I try the best I can to shy away from generalizations, but here is seems fitting: Icelandic musicians are able to capture something unique. It is not difficult for me to imagine Jonsi from Sigur Ros vocalizing in his signature falsetto over Johannsen’s contemplative soundscapes. This is not to say that Johannsen is copying Sigur Ros’ hyperbolic post rock, but that there is something essential that the two artists share, not the least of which is a tendency to blur the borders of “classical” music.
Orphee bears this problematic label, but there are many aspects of the album that are in no way traditional. While there are moments that pay homage to the eloquence of a Bach Cello Suite, these passages play out on a stage set by impossible background textures, buzzes, and static. Like Arrival, Orphee seems to play with tradition and technology to widen the horizons of what “classical” music is. The edges of these horizons will certainly be under scrutiny at 2 am when it is my turn to feed the newborn.
Which will happen very soon. As I am finalizing this entry, I am in the Labor and Delivery room watching the birthing process slowly progress. The birth of our son (referred to for the time being as #3), is imminent. I cannot imagine ever receiving a more meaningful Father’s Day gift.