Revisiting the Composer Whose Music Would Make Perfect Quarantine Soundtrack

How an Israeli experimental musician found himself completing a movie score by Johann Johannsson, the superb Icelandic composer who died at age 48 of a lethal mix of cocaine and flu medicine

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Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, top, and the Israeli experimental contrabassist Yair Elazar Glotman.
Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, top, and the Israeli experimental contrabassist Yair Elazar Glotman.Credit: Andrey Onufrienko and JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

Johann Johannsson, the prolific and groundbreaking composer of film scores, had a yearning for worlds that are no more. Many of the Icelandic musician’s works are essentially requiems, characterized by a gloomy, stately tone and a blend of classical, electronic and Gothic music: to outdated technologies such as old-fashioned mainframe computers which featured in his studio album “IBM 1401”, to groups whose vitality and cohesiveness had waned such as coalminers in England, to industrial stratagems gone bust: Henry Ford’s “Fordlandia” project in Brazil.

The movie “Last and First Men,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year, also looks at things that are gone: a country — the former Yugoslavia; a regime type that has collapsed, “classical” communism; and an aesthetic that is quite passe — brutalist architecture. But the film is also a requiem to a person no longer among us, Johannsson himself. The body of the admired composer, who was awarded a Golden Globe for the score of “The Theory of Everything,” was found dead in his Berlin home in February 2018. He was 48. The cause of death: a lethal mix of cocaine and a flu medication.

Johannsson never actually completed the music for “Last and First Men.” At the time of his death, the work on the score wasn’t quite half finished and not one note had been recorded yet, says the Israeli composer Yair Elazar Glotman, an Israeli living in Berlin, who worked with Johannsson on the project.

After Johannsson’s death, both the film’s producers and the composer’s family wanted the score to be completed and the man entrusted with the task was Glotman. This was only natural, since he was already involved in its composition.

Interpreting Johannsson’s artistic will was a challenge, as well as an emotionally demanding task. Permutations of the word “hard” appeared time and again in conversation with Glotman earlier this year, during a visit in Israel.

“It is still hard for me to organize my thoughts on this project,” he said. Asked about the vision of the film and of the score, he said, more than once, “It is hard for me to speak in the name of a person who isn’t here any more.”

It took him about a year to complete the not-quite-half-finished score, and was a heavy burden of work and responsibility, Glotman says: “It was a strange situation. It wasn’t something I had been looking for, but i found myself engulfed.” When asked by the film’s producers and Johannsson’s family to complete the score, they hadn’t realized how incomplete the work was.

They must have been delighted with the outcome: breathtakingly beautiful music, gentle but penetrating, epic and at the same time deeply intimate.

Reconciliation with contrabass

Glotman, 32, began as a jazz contrabassist, switched to classical music ,and then decided to forgo actually playing instruments and made the switch to sound for movies. But after several years in Berlin, where he’d moved over a decade ago, he felt the need “to reconcile with the contrabass,” as he puts it. He recorded a solo album playing the contrabass. “I didn’t want to go back to techniques that I knew from jazz and from classical music. I didn’t want to rely on the ‘muscle memory’ that I had from years of playing. I wanted to rediscover the instrument. It was more like research. The album was based on textures, on spaces of sound, on things that were less linear,” he says.

Usually when musicians talk about “textures,” “spaces” and “research,” that is ample reason to assume their music will be boring. Not in Glotman’s case. This “rediscovery” album, “Etudes,” is daring in its forms, balancing intellectualism and primal emotiveness. It was the album that prompted Johannsson to contact Glotman and propose that they collaborate.

The original plan was modest. Johannsson wanted Glotman to play contrabass on a composition that he was re-adapting from a work by the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. But the connection between the two quickly grew stronger, and Glotman became one of the artists in Johannsson’s inner circle. Another musician in this group was Hildur Gudnadottir, the cellist and composer who recently won an Oscar for the film score for “Joker.” He who also wrote the score for the TV series “Chernobyl,” and plays and sings on the film score for “Last and First Men,” as do other musicians who were in Johannsson’s circle.

“I invited everyone who wanted to come and record,” says Glotman. “It helped the people who loved Johannsson to process their grief. It also helped me to sya farewell to him more completely.”

Yair Elazar Glotman. 'In general, I didn’t mean to get into the world of cinema and movie scores.'Credit: Andrey Onufrienko

Ulitmately the collaboration between Glotman and Johannsson was profound and productive, but short, lasting all of one year. “We were simultaneously close and distant. I feel that this combination helped me to complete the project,” Glotman says. “I needed a certain distance in order to touch the materials. On the other hand, , we spoke a great deal while we were working, and I knew what was important to him and what he wanted to do.” I had a roadmap on the basis of which I was able to work.”

The guiding principle of this roadmap was that Johannsson didn’t want to create an epic orchestral film score, Glotman explains. “He wanted something closer, more fragile, more textural. Most of the music is based on very close and intimate recordings. We placed the microphones right up against the instruments. We didn’t want to depend on reverberation of the room. Also, we recorded on reel-to-reel tape. Sometimes we slowed down or speeded up the tape. My discourse with Johann had to do with the material textures of sound. The film itself was shot on actual film, and it was important to us that the music would also express the warmth and the substance.”

The “roadmap” didn’t supply Glotman with clear answers. “In the end, I had to trust my gut,” he says. “To enable myself to be myself, instead of being a shadow composer of someone else. That would have led to a non-authentic place. When I hear the score I sometimes can truly hear Johann, and at other times I hear my own voice.”

Classicism and horror movies

The score of “First and Last Men,” like Johannsson’s most recent albums, was released by Deutsche Grammophon, one of the leading classical music record companies. Johannsson stood with one foot in the classical world and the second in the artistic pop world. “He was very eclectic,” says Glotman.

“In his youth, he had a metal band, and also a synth-pop band. I could talk with him about Stockhausen, ‘Cockatoo Twins’ and Grace Jones. His music hd a dialogue with the American minimalism of the ‘60s, and to the same degree, with industrial electronic bands.”

Johannsson’s breadth and eclecticism is discernable in his score for the horror film “Mandy,” which was released following his death. Glotman worked with Johannsson on that project as well. “It was a completely different sort of experience,” he says. “On ‘Mandy,’ it was primarily a sound of chaos. Johann was good at producing under chaos; that was part of his creative process.”

Asked if that hadn’t been a difficult process, Glotman laughs: “It was an interesting experience,” he says.

Trying to move from the artistic realm to the personal, I asked if in life, Johannsson also lived on the edge, and if that could have had anything to do with the circumstances of his death. Glotman opted not to play along. “He was not in the best of health, and in the end there was a sense of decline, but I’d rather not speak about that too much. It got a lot of attention from yellow journalism. I don’t know how to speak about it. I feel that I am dancing a weird sort of dance in my answer. His death was a very difficult experience.”

“Mandy” isn’t the only horror film that Glotman has worked on. He recently completed work on the score of a horror movie starring Pierce Brosnan as an evil doctor. “It is an indie film, but at the high end of the indie scale,” he says.

Johann Johannsson. Many of the Icelandic musician’s works are essentially requiems.Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

Is he suddenly inundated with offers by horror film producers?

“Don’t make too much of it,” he answers. "In general, I didn’t mean to get into the world of cinema and movie scores. I found myself in it, and I am continuing with it, in parallel with a career in experimental musical composition.”

Wouldn’t movie scores likely pay better than composing experimental music? “Clearly,” he says. It frees me compromise less in my music, but it is also interesting in its own right. Something has changed lately in the whole conception of music for films. Johannsson was part of that. Hildur (Gudnadottir), too. The thought that Warner took someone like Hildur to write the score for Joker is pretty astounding. There is a sense of a paradigm shift . People are looking for a new sound, a new approach to composing for films. That is something wonderful.”

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