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Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson gets biblical in this exclusive video premiere

(Photo: Jonatan Gretarsson)
(Photo: Jonatan Gretarsson)

Icelandic artist Jóhann Jóhannsson has already had a prolific, successful career composing both his own solo works of delicate orchestration and decaying electronic drones, and the acclaimed scores for movies like The Theory Of Everything and Sicario. But this year promises to be his busiest—and most high-profile—yet: Not only was he recently tapped to follow in Vangelis’ estimable footsteps on the Blade Runner sequel for frequent collaborator Denis Villeneuve, the coming months will also see the debuts of his scores for the Villeneuve-directed Arrival, So Yong Kim’s Lovesong, and the Rachel Weisz drama The Mercy. And amid all that, Johansson is releasing his first album in six years, Orphée, on the venerable classical label Deutsch Grammophon.

In this exclusive video premiere for “By The Roes, And By The Hinds Of The Field”—one of Orphée’s more quietly gorgeous tracks—you get a tidy summation of what the album (and Jóhannson) is about. Its simple, somber piano melody is backed by cyclical waves of strings, then nearly drowned out by a sudden cloudburst of distorted radio static, before emerging steadfastly on the other side, echoing what Jóhannsson says is the album’s theme of death and rebirth inspired by the classic myth of Orpheus. It’s beautiful, but also kinda creepy—a feeling reinforced by the video’s images of ghostly, wild animals wandering through an eerily abandoned house.

In an email, Jóhannsson offered The A.V. Club this detailed statement on the video’s biblical origins:

Máni Sigfússon’s beautiful video is based on a concept I originally had, which was to fill an old, decaying mansion outside of Berlin with animals of the Saxonian forest: deer, wolves, foxes, owls, birds of all kinds, as well as biblical animals such as lambs and locusts and such. The animals would then be filmed wandering freely around the mansion using a 16mm camera, with slow zooms and slow tracking shots. Nature, flora and fauna has taken over this once magnificent villa and reclaimed it.

This idea proved far too expensive to produce, so I had the idea of approaching Máni, who is a genius at creating believable and kinetic, but still surreal, mysterious and dark worlds, mostly though highly advanced digital manipulation of still photography and moving images.

The backgrounds in the video were shot as still photographs in the above-mentioned run-down château, a place often rented out for three-day-long parties.

In Iceland, Máni was able to capture on video some of the indigenous Icelandic fauna, reindeer, foxes, minks, cows, horses, and crows. Máni then spent many sleepless days and nights putting these elements together to make it appear as these Nordic subarctic animals had taken over this run-down old Prussian mansion, still filled with the remains of debauched revelries. He then added his own stylistic touches—the dark glow of fading lamps, the jittery flashing lights and the hazy blurring—which adds so much of the atmosphere of the video.

These once majestic and opulent spaces are now inhabited by wild animals, foraging, feeding and roaming about, like they would in their natural habitat. The animals walk through the rooms freely, lie on the mattresses and eat what scraps are left from long-forgotten banquets.

The title, “By The Roes, And By The Hinds Of The Field” is from “The Song of Songs”. Taken as pure literature, it’s my favorite part of the Bible, easily its strangest and most beautiful book. It’s really a pagan erotic poem, like a conversation between two lovers. The title is a plea for the poet’s lover not to be awakened, but to awakened from death or from sleep is left ambiguous. The poem has a certain voluptuousness and the spirit of overflowing, luxurious nature, but also a sense of deep melancholy. This connects it to my album Orphée’s central conceit, which is Orpheus’s eternal search for his dead lover and his divinely sanctioned, but ultimately doomed mission to retrieve her from Hades.

Orphée will be released on Sept. 16.


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