Based on a True Story
Interview: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Discusses His Emotional Score
From Focus Features comes the inspirational drama THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. Starring Eddie Redmayne & Felicity Jones, the opens in select cities this Friday, November 7th.
Starring Eddie Redmayne (“Les Misérables”) and Felicity Jones (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), this is the extraordinary story of one of the world’s greatest living minds, the renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who falls deeply in love with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde.
Once a healthy, active young man, Hawking received an earth-shattering diagnosis at 21 years of age. With Jane fighting tirelessly by his side, Stephen embarks on his most ambitious scientific work, studying the very thing he now has precious little of – time. Together, they defy impossible odds, breaking new ground in medicine and science, and achieving more than they could ever have dreamed.
Based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, director James Marsh went with Icelandic composer and musician Jóhann Jóhannsson for the movie’s score. Prior to the film’s release, Mr. Jóhannsson spoke with me over the phone about capturing the emotional themes for the moving and unusual love story that is THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING.
Mr. Jóhannsson started studying piano and trombone when he was 11 years old. In high school, he ceased formal music studies. At age 18, he started performing in rock bands in Reykjavik, and continued to for 10 years after studying literature and languages at university; he concentrated on feedback-saturated compositions, using layers of guitar to sculpt soundscapes. Setting the latter instrument aside, he started writing music for strings, woodwinds, and chamber ensembles – and combining acoustic and digital electronic sounds for a unique, seamless blend.
Among Mr. Jóhannsson’s notable compositions is “IBM 1401 – A User’s Manual,” incorporating sounds that his father, one of Iceland’s first computer programmers, created. He has recently done two ambitious multimedia projects with filmmaker Bill Morrison, including an expanded Calder Quartet interpretation of the latter composition; and “The Miners’ Hymns,” which pays tribute to the coal-mining culture of Durham, England, and which he performed with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and brass bands at venues in the U.S. last winter.
His varied discography also includes Virthulegu Forsetar, a fanfare for pipe organ and brass; Fordlandia, a cinematic ode to the city that Henry Ford tried to build in the Amazon jungle; and “Copenhagen Dreams,” a visual and musical reflection on the city and its people.
In 1999, Mr. Jóhannsson was a founding member of Kitchen Motors, an art collective that encouraged collaboration among practitioners of jazz, classical, punk, metal, and electronic music. His first solo album, Englabörn, was a suite based on music written for the troupe’s theater piece of the same name. Writing music for plays, and for dance and theatrical performances, led to film.
He has since scored a number of movies, including Eva Mulvad’s documentary feature The Good Life; Marc Craste’s animated short Varmints; So Yong Kim’s For Ellen, starring Paul Dano; Lou Ye’s Mystery; Josh C. Waller’s McCanick, starring David Morse and Cory Monteith; János Szász’s Le grand cahier (a.k.a. The Notebook); Phie Ambo’s documentary Free the Mind; and Denis Villeneuve’s hit PRISONERS, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, on which Mr. Jóhannsson cultivated large string and woodwind presences as well as the distinctive Cristal Baschet and Ondes Martenot instruments.
WAMG: I was listening to the soundtrack again last night – it’s absolutely lovely. It has an old world classical charm about it, as if it was from a film in the 1960’s.
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Oh thank you.
WAMG: The film’s warm, romantic look about a scientist was further enhanced by your score – what made you choose the piano to convey the story?
JJ: We went with the piano as the lead instrument because it’s a film about an astrophysicist, a cosmologist, but it’s also very much a love story. The story about the relationship between Stephen and Jane – it’s this odd love story at heart. We needed to emphasize the emotion and humanity of the story.
Of course, the science of the physics is also a part of the story and a part of Hawking’s life and character, but the relationships are really the heart of the film. I didn’t formulate the piano – it kind of suggested itself naturally. When I tried to analyze it, I found it to be very expressive and precise instrument. It has this mathematical and mechanical kind of quality to it which unites the emotions and human aspects with the cerebral, scientific parts.
WAMG: You can hear a four-note piano ostinato throughout the film’s score – it’s so simple but it’s a lovely theme.
JJ: Yes, the first track on the soundtrack, “1963,” which is the music for the intro of the film, was a theme that came early on in the process. It’s a theme that needed a kinetic, driving quality that suggested a young Hawking in the full vigor of his youth as a young doctoral student at Cambridge. We had to capture that energy and the first theme shows him cycling at full speed through the cobblestone streets. That four-note motif needed a lot of power and the way that I harmonized that motif became the building blocks for many of the subsequent cues.
The four-note motif is deconstructed, played in a minor mode to break it up and used throughout the score. Regarding the harmony, I used it from the first to the last cues. It’s this lecture theme at the end of the film where Hawking is being acclaimed as this great scientific mind and he delivers this lecture where he’s demonstrating his ideas about life and God and the Universe.
The intro appears there again in a very thoughtful and philosophical mode for a much more serene kind of version.
WAMG: A few of the tracks like “The Spacetime Singularity” and “The Theory of Everything” mix in orchestral instruments along with synthesized sounds. With those themes, did the director James Marsh tell you what he was looking for beforehand and were you going for a lofty tonality?
JJ: A lot of the score is very orchestral, but there are cues like “The Spacetime Singularity” that are more ethereal and studio creations.
WAMG: I like the blend of the music with the mechanized sounds.
JJ: I love doing that. It’s my signature sound in many ways. For example, the score I did for PRISONERS is much more in that vein where I do a lot of blending of orchestral instruments with electronic sounds. They’re not really electronic, they’re more of an acoustic recording which I treat and process and create these soundscapes out of.
I love these homogeneous textures that work well with a live orchestra, so it almost becomes one sound. It’s something I really enjoy doing.
WAMG: Who are your favorite film score composers?
JJ: There are so many but one of the first I got obsessive about, way back, was Bernard Herrmann. He’s remained one of my favorites. I really love his writing. His relentlessness and beauty the of his harmonies – Also his simplicity. He’s a very minimalist composer, even though he predates minimalism.
I love Ennio Morricone. I’m a huge fan. I love his 60’s and 70’s scores. Amazing experimentation he went through and creating his amazing sounds in the studio. Of course, his melodies and orchestrations are remarkable.
WAMG: What other projects do you have coming up?
JJ: I’m in the middle of a film score right now with Denis Villeneuve from PRISONERS. He’s doing a new film called SICARIO (2015) starring Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Josh Brolin and that’s very exciting.
WAMG: My thanks to Mr. Jóhannsson for taking the time to discuss his score for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING.
Check out his score on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/theory-everything-original/id930744739 and on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Theory-Everything-Johann-Johannsson/dp/B00NOWAM7C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415375434&sr=8-1&keywords=the+theory+of+everything+soundtrack