‘The Soundscapes of Jóhann Jóhannsson’ by Alex Hobbs

According to Emilio Audissino, referencing the work of Laurent Jullier, the typical mainstream film has become a “film-concert”: an event “in which the sound elements are being foregrounded to such an extent that the enveloping and saturated aural experience […] is one of the biggest attractions”.[1] Expanding on this, Rossella Valdrè describes the film-concert as a “sensations bath” designed to provoke an intense emotional and physical response from the audience by creating or imitating a “growing similarity between emotions felt in reality or at the cinema”.[2] However, she quickly dismisses the film-concert as only applying to a few specific films and asserting that cinema is not purely “an amusement park”.[3] Similarly, Audissino frames his discussion of the film-concert as a criticism of mainstream cinema. He mourns the reduced importance of music in film, which he suggests has been undermined by new digital technologies that allow hundreds of sound effects tracks to be mixed and accentuated: “Music now has to cope with a thicker and louder texture of sound effects.”[4]

While I find this concept of a film-concert to be fascinating, it seems to me that critics such as Audissino and Valdrè have somewhat missed the mark in their evaluation of the term. Through the work of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, I hope to prove that dialogue, sound design and music can work together seamlessly in the digital age to produce impactful and compelling audio storytelling. Furthermore, I want to explore Mandy (2018) – one of the last films to be scored by Jóhannsson – as an example of the film-concert in non-mainstream cinema, and evaluate whether or not its emphasis on sensorial stimulation reduces it to “pure entertainment”.[5]

Jóhann Jóhannsson was an Icelandic composer who came to prominence after several collaborations with director Denis Villeneuve, starting with 2013’s Prisoners. His other works include Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), and Mother! (2017), for which he initially composed an original score, but eventually decided was redundant. Instead, he merged his work with that of sound designer Craig Henighan. This decision was completely natural for Jóhannsson, who, in an interview with IndieWire, explained: “For me, what people generally call sound design is just one component of orchestrating a score. […] this idea of a score being just an orchestra playing from notes is just very old fashioned.”[6] Consequently, the soundscape of Mother! is not defined by silence, but by the “creaks, whistles and bodily murmurs”[7] that rumble through the setting. Combined with slightly more literal imagery such as a beating heart in its walls, the house takes on a life of its own, helping the viewer to sympathise with mother’s (Jennifer Lawrence) horror every time her home is damaged by the assortment of strangers and intruders that invade her world over the course of the film.

Jóhannsson’s decision to scrap a year’s worth of work on Mother! is just one example of what made Jóhannsson both fascinating and extremely difficult to categorise. Vasco Hexel even suggests that he may be defined by a “lack of style”.[8] One of the only consistent things about his work is that he repeatedly processed live acoustic instruments electronically, combining new and old techniques in order to build up complex layers of audio. For example, ‘The Beast’ from the soundtrack for Sicario, was created by recording eight contrabasses playing in unison, processed and distorted to create a “deeply evil orchestral bass sound”.[9] Therefore, while the piece is technically quite static, with little variation in notation, it is the layering and manipulation of those notes that make it impactful. Furthermore, Jóhannsson explained that his use of low strings and woodwinds was designed to evoke a “subterranean element” – the sense that, as Kate (Emily Blunt) crosses the border into Juárez, both she and the viewer are descending into a more sinister “netherworld”.[10]

The scene is available on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/PTedsOULqX0.

You may also notice the emphasis on the helicopter blades, which Jóhannsson stated were essential to his creative process. The rising sound of the blades create a sense of something slowly approaching, “like the beating heart of a beast rushing towards you”[11], which was exactly what he hoped to achieve with ‘The Beast’. This effective and meaningful incorporation of sound design into Jóhannsson’s compositions is exactly why I find Audissino’s evaluation so inadequate. It seems reductive to state that there is a definite hierarchy between music and other elements of the soundtrack, rather than explore how they work together to create more cohesive soundscapes.

On the other hand, it could be said that Jóhannsson’s score is only used in this moment to provoke a physical reaction in the audience, due to its sheer volume and intensity. This takes us back to the concept of the film-concert, as the music in this scene is clearly highlighted in order to provoke the viewer. But does this reduce the film in any way, as Valdrè suggests? After all, when she posits that “People who want to numb themselves aren’t cinema-goers”[12], she directly lessens the value of film-concerts, and of audience members who seek sensory experiences rather than emotional or intellectual ones. I feel that, to approach this debate, there is no better “sensations bath” than Mandy.

Mandy’s connections to heavy-metal music and its wider subculture have not gone unnoticed, with one critic calling the film a “heavy-metal psycho horror”.[13]  Despite this, I would argue that Mandy is not an overtly aggressive film, far from it in fact. While the second half of the film is undeniably bloodthirsty, taking the form of an intense revenge story full of gloomy visuals and brutal violence, the first chapter is the exact opposite. When we are introduced to our protagonist, Red (Nicolas Cage), he appears as a relatively quiet and reclusive man. He is clearly eager to retreat back to his woodland lodge and be with his girlfriend – the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) – a soulful young shop assistant who enjoys reading and painting detailed fantasy art. Although their existence seems idyllic, there is pain under the surface: Mandy’s facial scar and traumatic childhood stories point to a troubled past, and it is implied that Red is a recovering alcoholic. Even when Mandy inevitably transforms into something more nightmarish and psychedelic, this powerful feeling of melancholy pervades the film to the very end, balancing Red’s obsessive need for vengeance with an overall feeling of grief and futility.

These opposing sensations of sorrow and rage are undoubtedly part of what attracted Jóhannsson to the project, who has previously expressed his obsession with extremes.[14] Each chapter of Mandy is marked by distinct shifts in genre and mood, from the mournful synths of the opening chapter to the doom metal inspired guitar riffs which infect the world once Red begins his rampage. You can actually see the changes in the music visually through waveform patterns, as seen below:

Notice how the waves in ‘Mandy’s Love Theme’ (left) build and swell whilst the ones in ‘Sand’ (right) start big and only get larger as the piece progresses. Clearly, Jóhannsson’s compositions become increasingly aggressive and fragmented to reflect Red’s own descent into violence and psychosis. This can also be heard in the sound design: for example, when Red faces Jeremiah (Linus Roache) for the last time, the level of noise and distortion applied to Red’s dialogue makes it difficult to understand what he is saying, and his voice takes on a demonic quality, cementing his transition from an ordinary man into a monster.

Cosmatos once explained that he wanted Mandy to sound like “a disintegrating rock opera”,[15] and I believe that this description taps into the true potential of the film-concert; not to overwhelm for the sake of overwhelming, but to create an auditory experience which enhances our understanding of the characters and their environment. When Mandy is drugged by Jeremiah and he tries to absorb her into his cult, diegetic music, complex sound design and Jóhannsson’s score all work together to create a truly nauseating and frightening sequence which culminates in an all-out war between Jeremiah’s yelling and Mandy’s mocking, distorted laughter. While we almost want to cheer when Mandy fights back against her abusers, her laughter is increasingly unpleasant and the music remains ominous: we are forced to acknowledge that this decision will send her to her grave. If a film-concert like Mandy can take what is essentially two people screaming at each other and somehow fill it to the brim with emotional weight and atmosphere using sound alone, then I question anyone who claims these types of films are just “an amusement park”[16].


[1] Emilio Audissino, ‘John Williams and Contemporary Film Music’, in Coleman and Tillman (eds.), Contemporary film music: investigating cinema narratives and composition, p. 223.

[2] Rossella Valdrè, ‘The evaporated body: a dream, a limit, or a possibility?’ in Sabbadini, Kogan and Golinelli (eds.), Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Virtual Intimacy and Communication in Film, p. 201.

[3] ibid, p.202.

[4] Audissino, ‘John Williams and Contemporary Film Music’, p. 224.

[5] Valdrè, ‘The evaporated body’, p. 202.

[6] Chris O’Falt, ‘Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Fight to Be Visionary, From His Film Scores to His Directorial Debut — Interview’, IndieWire, (12 February 2018) https://www.indiewire.com/2018/02/film-composer-johann-johannsson-interview-experimental-score-music-1201927641/, accessed 1 November 2019.

[7] Greg Noone, ‘Inside the Dreamy Nightmare of Mother!’s Music-Free Soundscape’, Vanity Fair, (18 September 2017) https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/09/mother-movie-jennifer-lawrence-darren-aronofsky-score-johann-johannsson, accessed 3 November 2019.

[8] Vasco Hexel, ‘Johannes factotum’ in Wierzbicki, James (ed.), Double Lives: Film Composers in the Concert Hall, p. 166.

[9] Julian Brimmers, ‘Soundtrack Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson on Arrival, Sicario and The Theory of Everything’, Red Bull Music Academy, (10 Janurary 2017), https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2017/01/johann-johannsson-feature, accessed 1 November 2019.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] Valdrè, ‘The evaporated body’, p. 202.

[13] David Jenkins, ‘Panos Cosmatos: “Nicolas Cage is a very special creature”’, Little White Lies, (10 October 2018) https://lwlies.com/interviews/panos-cosmatos-mandy-nicolas-cage/, accessed 3 November 2019.

[14] Noone, ‘Inside Mother!’s Music-Free Soundscape’, Vanity Fair.

[15] Ryan Reed, ‘Mandy: How Heavy Metal Inspired 2018’s Most Psychedelic Action-Horror Film’, Revolver, (6 November 2018) https://www.revolvermag.com/culture/mandy-how-heavy-metal-inspired-2018s-most-psychedelic-action-horror-film, accessed 3 November 2019.

[16] Valdrè, ‘The evaporated body’, p. 202.

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