Last year, Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson earned an Oscar nomination for his lush, classically inspired music for the Stephen Hawking biopic, “The Theory of Everything” — a precise, lyrical score driven by strings and piano, and accented by harp, woodwinds and the fairy-tale chimes of a music box. It is by turns as delicate as a glass figurine and as rich as a Renaissance tapestry.
But with “Sicario,” Denis Villeneuve’s drug cartel thriller that opens Sept. 18 in limited release, Johannsson goes in the opposite direction, aiming more for sound design than melody. It’s an ominous, percussive work that reflects the grisly reality of its subject matter, which involves a rogue U.S. government task force intent on disrupting the Mexican drug trade with its own brand of shock and awe.
At times the soundtrack can have the effect of a pulse rate gone mad, or, as Johannsson puts it, “like the throbbing heart of a beast charging at you.” And save for a few reflective, even mellifluous passages, the score rarely lets up.
“It has this kind of brooding brutality to it,” explains the composer, speaking by phone from Berlin, where he’s lived for the past three years. “Denis and I wanted the music to be like violence almost, to have this intense, insistent, relentless quality.”
Johannsson used a 65-piece orchestra with an emphasis on drums (mostly tom-toms and military snare drums, but with the snare turned off), strings and an unusually large (for the composer) brass section — all on the low end of the register. “This idea of working with low percussion and low strings and low brass was intended to create a sound coming from below,” Johannsson says. “It’s almost the sound of the drug tunnels that are featured in the story.”
In the liner notes for the soundtrack, Villeneuve states that he wanted Johannsson’s score to feel like “a threat, coming from under your feet, deep under the surface of the scorched earth of the Chihuahua desert.”
A good portion of the music is distorted, such as one scene where the sound of whirring helicopter blades builds to a crackling crescendo using heavily processed percussion. That violent pounding becomes a recurring motif in the film.
But not all of the movie’s music is unsettling. Two tracks on the soundtrack — “Melancholia,” featuring soloist Skuli Sverrisson on six-string bass, and “Desert Music,” a showcase for cellist Hildur Gudnadottir — allow for the kind of quiet, if rueful, beauty one has come to expect from Johannsson.
Although “Melancholia” vaguely evokes a Spanish guitar motif, Johannsson steered clear of a regional or traditionally Mexican sound. “I don’t like to have very literal or obvious references to places or ethnicity,” he says. “But if you do that in a subtle way, it can work on a very subliminal level.”
“Sicario” is the composer’s second collaboration with Villenueve after “Prisoners,” and Johannsson, very much a product of Reykjavik’s avant-garde tradition in terms of his solo work for the concert stage, has already begun sketching out themes for Villenueve’s latest feature, “Story of Your Life,” which just finished principal photography.
Johannsson is also working with fellow rising Icelander Baltasar Kormakur (“Everest”) on a series called “Trapped,” a detective story shot in their home country, set in an isolated fjord plagued by a relentless snowstorm.
Another soundscape may be in the offing.