Arrival: Translating the Sounds of the Film with Johann Johannsson

We sit down with Oscar nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson to discuss the Arrival score.

Arrival might be one of the most thought-provoking science fiction films released in the last few years. And given how many recent, smart films there have been in that genre, this is saying something. Indeed, the film deals with hefty concepts like linguistic relativity, as well as the challenges that might exist if we actually attempted to communicate with aliens on Earth—or know why they’re here.

But just as crucial as the sounds of the enigmatic heptapods who’ve landed on our planet is the film’s somber and hypnotic score. Composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, the music is every bit as haunting and cerebral in its soundscape as the image of Amy Adams holding up her hand against a pane of alien glass. Then again, considering Jóhannsson has been nominated twice for Academy Awards, this isn’t exactly a surprise. Indeed, all of his films with director Denis Villeneuve have an enthralling quality, which fits perfectly with Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Story of Your Life,” which is the basis for Arrival.

We discussed this with Jóhannsson, plus much more when we sat down for the below phone interview.

So Arrival is your third film with Denis. How did he approach you about working on this particular project?

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Well, Denis talked to me early on [saying] that he wanted to do a science fiction film with me, and I remember we were talking about it after Prisoners. He was already talking about Arrival, and it’s been a dream of mine for a long time to do a science fiction film score as well. And this was such a powerful story, a powerful script, and an amazing project that you know, it’s really felt like the right thing to do and very much a logical progression from Prisoners to Sicario to Arrival. It’s been a fantastic journey working with Denis.

Did you read the short story going into it then?

Yeah, I was aware of the Ted Chiang short story and loved it. I thought it was a really strong concept, really strong idea, and when I read the script… I thought it played really well. You know, it’s like many science fiction films that are actually kind of action films disguised as science fiction. But this is really a film, science fiction and speculative fiction in the true sense of the words, in the sense that it’s about ideas and possibilities, and alternatives. And ideas about language and about time, and our experience of time, and about how language affects our experience of time.

So it’s really a film that is a piece of speculative fiction and true hard sci-fi, and that’s really become kind of a rarity.

It has. And speaking of that specific convention, obviously with Arrival, you’re dealing with science fiction elements, but the score doesn’t necessarily sound like traditional sci-fi composition, or sci-fi action movie scoring. Was that a conscious choice to get away from more familiar sounds associated with this type of material?

I think Arrival is quite a unique film, and Denis is a unique director and—every film has its own challenge. Every film has its own need for approach, and one of the things I really enjoy as a film composer is that you have to find the voice of the film. You have to find each film’s unique voice. So genre has nothing to do with it; it’s about finding the voice of the film.

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Denis always encourages me to experiment. He gives me a lot of freedom to experiment and to try bold and characterful, and individual sort of sounds and ideas. The bolder and kind of experimental idea, the more excited he gets, so I’m very fortunate in that sense that he gives me the freedom in the initial phase of composing to really explore and to research, and to experiment. But it’s also very much a collaboration between me, Denis, and Joe Walker, the editor. And once the sound has been established, it’s really a very close collaboration between the three of us in terms of finding the right places, the right moments for music.

Denis’ movies also are known for just how quiet and how intimate they can be. Is there an ongoing discussing between yourself, Denis, and Joe about what scenes need music and what scenes do not?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m all for that. I don’t like scores that are wall-to-wall music. There are exceptions to that. There are some very, very good exceptions to that. Some filmmakers make that work very well. Darren Aronofsky is one of those, for example. But there are many films where you could just feel there’s just music there for the sake of it; there’s no real motivation for it. And with Denis—what I love about his film is that he really lets the scenes breath, and that he lets the camera linger. He doesn’t edit too fast. There’s a pace to his films which fits my music very well, I think.

And I think that’s one of the reasons we work together very well is that the rhythm of his films has this kind of very deliberate, kind of almost—it has this kind of pace to it that is not too rushed, and it gets to breathe and the music gets to breathe as well. Also, Denis has such an understanding for when there is music, the music is really there, and you can really feel it, and I think that’s one of the keys to why people react strongly to the scores that I do with Denis, is that the moments when the music occur are very well chosen. Denis is very good at finding the right place for music. He has a very strong instinct for that.

For me, I think one of the moments where it’s most powerful is the use of music during the flashback scenes. The film gets very impressionistic during those moments, and I thought that these sequences are where the score was particularly distinct. Did you view them as almost separate from the main narrative or as an opportunity to explore something entirely different within the story and Louise’s journey?

Yeah, I mean, there are definitely two different moods involved in the film. One relates to Louise’s story, and her daughter’s story, and the other relates to her ongoing mission to discover the purpose of the alien, so there are these two contrasting moods going on.

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On the other side then, for conveying the sense of foreboding in the score, the otherworldliness, how important was the sound design for yourself as well as Denis? Did you work with the sound department to develop it, because it’s like the music is almost participating in the translations or the communications between the aliens and the humans.

Yeah, this was something that we spent a lot of time on. In fact, it’s one of the more difficult scenes to score… When they make these breakthroughs in communication, when we hear the aliens’ voices, I was very aware of what the sound designers were doing, and the sound designers were very aware of what I was doing. So it was very much a collaboration. It all went through Denis, so I was not collaborating directly with the sound designers, but we made sure that they always had an updated version of the music, and that I always had an updated version of the sound design.

I think this is very important in general, in writing film music. You always have to have the sound designer in mind when you’re writing. You have to make sure the music fills the right area of the sound spectrum, that it doesn’t get in the way of the dialogue, that it doesn’t get in the way of the sound effects, especially in a film that has very unique sound design like this one. And sometimes, it blurs. Sometimes, what I’m doing musically is—people might perceive that as sound design when it’s actually a part of the score. So I think we kind of influence each other. I think there was a real kind of symbiosis going on between the sound designers and myself.

Film itself has its own language, as do film scores, but this movie plays so freely and so fascinatingly with the idea of communication and how it affects our perception of the world. Did that pretext give you a certain freedom to maybe break your own rules while scoring?

Definitely, I mean, it’s science fiction. When you’re dealing with something which is, you know, literally out of the world, when you’re dealing with the fantastic and with something which is not strictly naturalistic—still, Denis’ style is very naturalistic, even though it’s science fiction, it still feels very real.

And musically, I think Arrival gave me the possibility to explore a lot of unknown terrain, basic areas I haven’t explored before, using vocal and vocal writing, and experimental vocal writing, using extended vocal techniques, and harmonic singing and all sort of singing, and layering vocals in different ways and processing them digitally. Also, other more analogue methods. A ot of sounds were created using analogue tape loops where we made like a tape loop on an analogue taping track recording, and creating sounds by layering instruments.

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So using sound on sound, recorded at different speed. Very old technique. It’s a technique that Stockhausen used. It’s a technique that the Beatles used. Pink Floyd. Yeah, it’s a whole technique, but used in a very new way. And then, of course, it’s all brought into the computer, it’s all brought into the digital world, and that meant manipulating it further. But the idea of the tape loop appealed to me because of the story. Without giving the ending away, or giving any spoilers, there is this sensual image of the circle… which are kind of these very telegraphic circles. So the idea of the loop, and the more philosophical idea of eternal recurrence, is something that really influenced the music.

You’re now working on your next film with Denis, the Blade Runner sequel. Could you talk about how your relationship has gone working on that film, and what’s it like working on a sequel with such a memorable score in the original film?

Well, it’s certainly a challenge, the biggest challenge probably in my film scoring career. But I welcome it. I very much welcome challenges, I like to be challenged. It’s very early in that process, they’re still filming, but I’ve already started the writing process and started sending to Denis, and we’ve started a back and forth kind of dialogue about creating that sound world of Blade Runner 30 years later. And yeah, it’s like you said, it’s a sequel, it’s not a remake, so we are in the same world as the original Blade Runner, but it’s a new world. It’s a world three decades apart. So that’s really all I can say about it.

Thank you very much for being able to talk with me today.