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Review: Jóhann Jóhannsson, 'Orphée'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Jóhann Jóhannsson, <em>Orphée.</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Orphée.

One of the most enduring stories at the intersection of music and love is the Orpheus myth. The ancient Greek paragon of all-encompassing musical talent and fatalistic passion has inspired artists of all stripes in all eras.

Icelandic composer and producer Jóhann Jóhannsson wrote Oscar-nominated scores for Sicario and The Theory of Everything. In his new album, Orphée, his simple, haunting sketches of instrumental poetry use the familiar tale — and elements of a particularly famous telling of it — to comment on changes in his own life.

Jean Cocteau's impressionistic 1950 film Orphée transplanted the legend to postwar Paris, and includes the poet of the title listening to mysterious voices on the radio. According to Jóhannsson's liner notes, it's an effect he chose to duplicate in "a period that saw old relationships die and new ones begin, old lives left behind and a new life begun in a new city."

This is the score to a movie that only Jóhannsson knows, but you could imagine it. The work has cues for solo piano and mournful strings and, at the end, the resplendent vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices singing lines from Ovid in Renaissance style. An intriguing tiny bit has a generic title, "Fragment II," while the slight dissonance, stark organ, bloopity sound effects and yearning strings of "Burning Mountain" come along just in time to vary the gentle mood.

If you're into Philip Glass and Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt and movie soundtracks in general, this could be for you. You'll probably hear this music on TV and out in the world. Maybe it'll decorate a rainy afternoon, give texture to your night or even remind you of your capacity to follow the promise of someone — a lover, even a fellow musician — to the future, to the past, to Heaven, to Hell.

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Mark Mobley