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The Mercy (Johann Johannsson)

May 20, 2018

Jóhann Jóhannsson left this world too soon. He was born in Reykjavik in 1969 and died earlier this year in Berlin. His legacy includes a short, but impressive list of film scores such as the Golden Globe-winning Theory Of Everything, Sicario, Arrival and Prisoners. He was initially set to score Blade Runner 2049 for frequent collaborator Denis Villeneuve, but they amicably departed as Jóhannsson’s score allegedly didn’t fit the film. The composer also worked on Mother, but it seems that the composer himself thought the film would work much better without music. Prior to his death, Jóhannsson worked on several films whose scores, unintentionally, now serve as a coda to Jóhannsson’s life.

The Mercy is a 2017 British biographical drama film, directed by James Marsh and written by Scott Z. Burns. It is based on the true story of the disastrous attempt by the amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst to complete the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968 and his subsequent attempts to cover up his failure.[1]

Don’t expect something typically ‘nautical’, just because the film is about a sailor. Jóhannsson doesn’t usually address what’s visible on screen, he addresses the character’s emotions. The Mercy is a dramatic score in Jóhannsson’s typical minimalist style. Relying mostly on piano, glockenspiel, some strings and synth atmospheres, the music aches. Some of the piano-and-glockenspiel is rather upbeat; and when combined with a subtle string ostinato it fills your heart with joy. But it’s bitter-sweet; and the rest of the score is painfully dramatic. The piano sounds raw, nothing glamorous about it. The slow strings get under your skin and almost unnoticeably start tugging at the heart strings. The synth pads create an almost unbearable emptiness.

It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re familiar with Jóhannsson, you’ll sort of know what to expect. It’s not quite as melodic and polished as Theory of Everything, but it’s certainly more accessible and more colourful than Arrival. For me, there’s an elegance to this score I much love. It is playful at times, but in a bitter-sweet way. It’s slow and minimalistic, but it’s fascinating. There are plenty of intricate details to discover, but you have to listen closely. It deserves it though; and it’s worth it.

Back in 2002 Englabörn was Jóhannsson’s first album. It was re-released in 2008 without any alterations; but a celebratory edition was scheduled (and has been released) in 2018. It’s been remastered and it includes a second disc with remixes by various artists. With Jóhannsson’s sudden passing, the release now serves more of a tribute and it fills me with deep sorrow to think that Englabörn now bookmarks his entire career. Critic Joe Muggs wrote in the Guardian that “He [Jóhannsson] makes music for endings, shut-down mines, obsolete mainframe computers and failed utopias … the notes fade away, the stories have already finished, everything ends.[2]. I can’t think of anything more apt to say than that. It’s that sense of loss in his music that makes his oeuvre sound like his very own requiem.

I have to be honest and say that I’m not familiar with the original release of Englabörn and thus can’t offer an opinion as to how this new release compares. This new release does sound crystal clear. The recording and mixing are of such quality that they allow you to hear every tiny little detail in the composer’s music. Jóhannsson’s music may at a glance sound minimalistic (or at least sparsely orchestrated), but that means that every note counts. Every silence between the notes, every stroke of the bow or breath of the performers, every little creak of the piano or every subtle electronic effects; it all matters.

Jóhannsson rarely offers instant gratification; his music needs to be taken in slowly. It requires you to stop, sit down and emerge yourself in his sound in order to fully appreciate those solitary cello notes, or that juxtaposition of violin and electronically distorted glockenspiel. It’s not an easy album, but it is a fascinating one; and I think it’s one that shows just how timeless Jóhannsson’s music is.

2018’s special release of Englabörn contains a second disc with remixes by various artists, such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Hildur Guðnadóttir and A Winged Victory For The Sullen. The mixes and reworkings offer an interesting perspective on Jóhannsson’s music, taking it into different (often slightly denser sounding) directions but without ever losing the essence of Jóhannsson’s original ideas.

Having worked with Jóhannsson, Mary Magdalene sees cellist and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir step to the fore. She seems to be filling in the void that Jóhannsson has left behind, as she’s also scoring Sicario‘s sequel and has taking on scoring duties on the tv-series Chernobyl (which Jóhannsson had initially signed up for).

Mary Magdalene tells the story of the woman who travelled with Jesus and who witnessed his execution, burial and resurrection. I have to say that there is little, if anything, in the music that conforms to our general ideas of what a religious or historical movie soundtrack should sound like. I don’t pick up on any sense of locale or era; but as I stated near the top of this article, that’s not really what Jóhannsson (or indeed Guðnadóttir) does. The focus is on emotion, regardless of time or space.

There are parts of the score that are utterly beautiful in the composers’ own ways. “The Mustard Seed” offers a piano-driven arpeggio (in a slightly odd meter of 7/4 or 14/8), whilst silky smooth strings weave in and out of focus in “Ravine”. Much of the score revolves around slow, dramatic string writing with the odd whimsical note on the piano and a surprising amount of electronics. Sometimes these electronics are soft and subtle, supporting the woodwinds in adding a sense of loss to the music. At other times they are harsh and create an atmosphere of dread or even horror. “The Goats” and “Golgotha” are as fascinating as they are unlistenable, with all kinds of distorted sounds (acoustic and electronic) moaning and groaning whilst a steady drum increases the tension. If you happen to hear any of those cues before the rest of the album, you may be put off, so make sure you don’t hear those first.

Elsewhere, “Crucifixion” is a solemn piece for strings; and “End of a Journey” and even more solemn cue for low strings and male and female vocals. Closing cue “Resurrection” revisits and builds on various elements of the score, primarily the vocals and the piano arpeggio supported by immersive electronic pads. I love this sort of thing; and despite its relative simplicity it is incredibly powerful and full of hope.

Whilst adding the finishing touches to this article, I’m listening to his album Orphée. It dates back to 2016 though it feels like it came out just yesterday. It’s such a beautiful album; I’m fighting back tears. As quoted earlier, much of Jóhannsson’s music sounds like an ending, a prelude to an end or an aftermath. It often inhibits a sense of loss, to convey the deepest and darkest of emotions where words and conventional music fail. His compositions are often minimal, his arrangements sparse, but there is nothing simplistic about his music. He had a unique ear for harmonies, melodies, for juxtaposing instruments and for combining the acoustic with the electronic. His music doesn’t really sound like others’ (though others sound like him), and it doesn’t always evolve or resolve in traditional ways. There’s a serenity about his music, something timeless and inevitable – like gazing at the stars at night.

His voice is missed.

The Mercy, Jóhann Jóhannsson, 22 tracks, 56m, Deutsche Grammaphon 2018. [4/5]
Englabörn and Variations, Jóhann Jóhannsson, 26 tracks, 89m, Decca Classics 2018. [4/5]
Mary Magdalene, Jóhann Jóhannsson/Hildur Guðnadóttir, 13 tracks, 39m, Milan Records 2018. [3.5]

[1] Wikipedia.
[2] The Guardian.

Reviews by Pete Simons (c) 2018 Synchrotones

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