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Jóhann Jóhannsson Scores a Musical Big Bang for ‘The Theory of Everything’

Jóhann Jóhannsson Scores a Musical Big Bang for 'The Theory of Everything'

Jóhann Jóhannsson (best known for his melancholy “Prisoners” score) likes simplicity and pattern-based construction. And he’s found the perfect artistic expression in “The Theory of Everything,” conjuring a musical Big Bang about physics and love that just might earn him the Oscar.

“The thing about this film is that it’s intimate and very small in many ways, set in these town houses and corridors and classrooms, but it’s still very cosmic and has an epic quality as well, which is an interesting balance,” explains the Icelandic composer who’s next score is “Sicario” for “Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve. “And that was fun to deal with because it has such a wide scope. But that was the challenge, really to do justice to that scope. There are very joyful and exuberant moments and there are moments that are bittersweet and tragic and melancholy and philosophical and very mystical.”

The film starts with a four-note motif that’s a circular, ostinato piano figure that slowly develops and recurs in different modes, including a more serene minor mode during the climactic lecture.

“It was a matter of trying to express the simplicity and beauty of a perfect mathematical equation,” Jóhannsson continues. “I believe that things can be expressed very powerfully through simplicity. So geometry was always in the back of my mind and it blossoms into patterns like a series of fractals.

“For example, the first cue, ‘Cambridge, 1963,’ is a very exuberant piece of music, very kinetic and that appears much later as a piano solo in a very melancholy setting during the breakup scene between Jane and Stephen. And then again it appears in the lecture scene, in a more philosophical way, which is a summation of his life’s work.”

It’s about morphing motifs and delivering a sense of warmth at the behest of director James Marsh. 

“A lot of my music tends to combine electronics and orchestra. In this case, it’s the opposite: it’s much more orchestral, around 85%. My electronic pieces are acoustic in origin but then they’re processed and digitally manipulated. I use the piano early on for its expressive quality, for its precision and its mathematical quality. And also there are a lot of keyboard instruments. Tack pianos, electric harpsichord. I wanted to create shimmering sounds, almost like the sound of a firmament with a classical orchestra.”
One of the most difficult sequences to score was a montage, starting with Hawking humorously being carried up the stone steps; then receiving his electric wheelchair; playing with his son in a garden; and finally revealing the mounting frustration of his wife. “It was tough to make a piece of music that had that kind of unity but still manages to convey these different emotions.”

Again, a geometric simplicity that musically expresses time and space, love and hope.

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