Following the success of his soundtrack to James Marsh’s 2014 biopic on the life of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything (which was nominated for an Academy Award and awarded the Golden Globe for Best Original Score in 2015), Jóhann Jóhannsson is very much Hollywood’s go-to composer at the moment. His score for the sci-fi drama Arrival will already have hit the cinema screens by the time you read this, and will be followed later in 2017 by music for the long-awaited sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner: Blade Runner 2049.
All of which makes one wonder where Jóhannsson found time to compose music for ‘Orphée’, his first disc with Deutsche Grammophon since signing an exclusive contract in 2016. In fact, ‘Orphée’ is based on a series of musical ideas dating back to 2009 – ‘simple contrapuntal themes with an ascending harmonic thrust’, as the composer describes them. The Orpheus myth became a catalyst for further elaboration and development of these ideas, with Orpheus’s gaze upon Eurydice functioning as a ‘metaphor for artistic imagination’.
Other than Orphic Hymn (Jóhannsson’s evocative setting of a short text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, sung with sublime power and restraint by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices), the Orpheus story is only applied in a loose sense. It enables the composer to present the main theme – a rising stepwise melody that resolves upwards over a series of suspended chords – in a number of different guises, however, from a version for string orchestra in ‘A Song for Europa’, above which are laid shortwave broadcasts of coded messages from so-called Numbers Stations, to more straightforward presentations on pipe organ and string quartet, and the aforementioned a cappella setting. Jóhannsson’s imaginative synthesis of spiritual minimalism and electronica will satisfy fans familiar with his soundtracks, but the overall impression one gets here is of a series of short cues for a film that has yet to be written.