This is unreal.

This morning, I sat down to write in a quiet corner at the back of the Roy Street Coffee shop, opened my laptop, put on my headphones, and pressed “Play” on Jóhann Jóhannsson’s strange and mysterious score for the Denis Villeneuve film Arrival. 

Arrival has become a reliable soundtrack for imaginative writing: It takes me into liminal spaces where mysterious ideas emerge.

And as those deep, dark tones unsettled me in ways that make me want to write, I sipped my coffee and started closing social-media apps so that I would have the freedom to think for myself.

I didn’t close them fast enough. A headline caught my eye:

Jóhann Jóhannsson, ‘Theory of Everything’ Composer, Dies at 48

I’m stunned. Kicked in the gut.

He’s just getting started as one of cinema’s most exciting composers. He can’t have left us already.

He’s only a few months older than me, for mercy’s sake.

Today, this music is not about “arrival” — but “departure.”

Jóhannsson’s imagination unleashed some of the most distinct and evocative sounds I’ve heard in recent years of cinema.

He did not follow a template, imitate other film composers, or tell us how to feel. Instead, drawing from the rich reservoirs of musical imagination that flourish in his Reykjavík home, he had a knack for conjuring sonic equivalents for our own unvoiced questions, our unease in the presence of mystery, and our deep connections to the worlds beyond the reach of our senses.

When I watched Arrival, I saw some unusual and startling imagery of aliens, but I felt those encounters more powerfully in what I heard than what I saw. And I remember noticing the unexpected influence of the music in Sicario and Prisoners as well. I fully anticipate that he will play a central role in Garth Davis’s upcoming film Mary Magdelene, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara.

And I’ll welcome his haunting of my headphones, my moviegoing, and my imagination for many years to come.

Rest in peace, Jóhann Jóhannsson. May you find mercy and grace in embrace of the Mystery from which your music came. And thank you for bringing such sounds into the world.