In 2002, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson released his debut album, Englabörn, which sounded like a chamber orchestra jamming with a robot.
This month brings another Oscar nod as the 46-year-old’s sinister soundtrack for crime thriller Sicario competes in the original score category. Here, he talks about the five film scores that changed his life.
Ennio Morricone: Gli occhi freddi della paura (Cold Eyes of Fear)
“Morricone’s soundtracks for spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars are amazing, but I prefer his more obscure scores from the ’70s, when he worked with an Italian improvisational avant-garde group. They did a few albums together and some of their music ended up in this horror crime film. It’s fascinating stuff. He was the first film composer who used his recording studio as an instrument.”
Miles Davis: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows)
“What’s mind-blowing about this score is that it was improvised. Davis took his band into the studio, projected the film onto a screen and they played along while watching it for the first time. It was all finished in one day. Nobody has done that since, except for Neil Young [Dead Man] apparently. I think that’s a great way of working. It’s my dream to do an improvised film score at some point.”
Bernard Herrmann: Vertigo
“This is the score that got me interested in cinematic music, not least because the film itself is so strong. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s way of arranging the interplay between Hermann’s score and the images on screen is unsurpassed. The music is almost like a character in this film. Check out the scene where James Stewart is following Kim Novak—it’s almost choreographed like a dance.”
Howard Shore: Scanners
“David Cronenberg’s scary films were a big part of my youth, I watched them so obsessively on VHS in the ’80s that the tape wore out. It was impossible to buy the Scanners score in Iceland, so I had to record from TV to cassette to listen to it. Shore’s music stands out for its interesting and visionary combination of orchestral and electronic elements, which is something I aim for, too.”
“This minimalistic score for Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, recorded by an Italian prog-rock band, is unique. It’s based on this repeated six-note phrase that builds and builds and has this unsettling effect. But it’s alluring and hypnotic at the same time; it really casts a spell over you. I admire filmmakers who take chances with the score and don’t go for the more conventional or safe choice.”