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How Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Found a New Musical Language for Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’

The two-time Oscar-nominated composer emphasized unique vocals and eerie tape looping for his otherworldly sci-fi score. Next he moves on to the sequel to "Blade Runner."

Arrival Amy Adams

“Arrival”

Paramount


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Everything came together for film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson on “Arrival,” his third score with director Denis Villeneuve (following “Prisoners” and “Sicario”). Here he was able to broaden his avant-garde musical expression in a way that was totally in sync with the alien contact movie about language and communication.

“I have the luxury of working in pre-production with Denis, and the primary inspiration for the score came from the concept art,” Jóhannsson told IndieWire. “One of the main themes was written during the first week of shooting when the helicopter approaches the alien shell [or ship] for the first time.

“I did a session in Berlin where I was working with a 16-track tape loop and I recorded layers and layers of piano drones (sustained without the attack) at different speeds and slowed them down. So it took on the texture of the very tense drone with almost no processing. These were analog methods that have been around for a while.

“Over that drone, I brought in singer and frequent collaborator Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and wrote this sequence of notes which he sang in a unique, harmonic way that’s hard to distinguish as a human voice. It’s an extremely eerie, unsettling piece of music without any processing at all.”

And so the composer had his otherworldly, atmospheric sensation, which he emphasized with other vocals as well, including the Theater of Voices ensemble, which provided stuttering layers of staccato vocals for “Heptapod B” (listen to the soundtrack below).

"Arrival"

“Arrival”

Paramount

“There’s a crucial montage in the middle of the film about the process to understand the language and to reverse engineer it in some way by Louise [the linguist played by Amy Adams],” Jóhannsson said. “The accompanying music is a pivotal portal to this final epiphany that changes Louise’s view of life. And it has a strong command of harmonic singing and overtone singing by Theater of Voices.”

Jóhannsson’s rough cuts were crucially played on set in Montreal, inspiring director, cast and crew and influencing the creative process. “The vocals we created latched into Jóhann’s complex and brooding score without competing,” Sound Designer Dave Whitehead told IndieWire. “Once we started to get final cues delivered to us we did pitch-shift some of the sounds of the aliens to fit better with the tonality of the music creating a more sonically pleasing balance between the two.”

“Almost every sound in the score is played by a musician in a room,” added Jóhannsson.”There’s very little use of sequencers, synthesizers or samplers.”

The composer’s currently working on the scores for Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” and Darren Aronofsky’s untitled romantic thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence. He cites both men as auteurs who inspire new creative directions, but the “Blade Runner” sequel provides a special opportunity for experimentation — without competing with Vangelis’ iconic score.

“Hopefully, people realize that this is not a remake but a sequel that takes place 30 years later, so the challenge is composing something that is true to that world but has its own identity as well,” Jóhannsson said. “And a lot can happen in 30 years. So I think that will be reflected in all aspects of the production.”

Both the “Arrival” soundtrack and Jóhannsson’s recent “Orphée” album devoted to the Orpheus myth are available on Deutsche Grammophon.

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