Concept and Process: The Composing Work of Hildur Guðnadóttir
Hildur Guðnadóttir has become one of the most sought-after contemporary composers and performers. Her cello playing is profoundly deep, evocative, and powerful and her composing work is equally compelling, balancing between extremes of complexity and simplicity.
As a composer, collaborator, and performer she has worked with fellow Icelandic composers Jóhann Jóhannsson and Skúli Sverrisson, legendary industrial band Throbbing Gristle, doom-metal pioneers Sunn O))), and directors Todd Phillips, Todd Field and Denis Villeneuve.
Guðnadóttir blends elements of contemporary classical and mixed media music, Icelandic folk music, and electronics into a vast sound world.
Let’s dive into some of Guðnadóttir’s work for film as a composer and collaborator.
MUSIC FROM ‘CHERNOBYL’
Along with 2019’s score for Joker, Guðnadóttir’s score for the 2019 HBO mini-series Chernobyl, landed her at the forefront of the film scoring world.
Guðnadóttir’s score for Chernobyl captures the terror, dread, uncertainty and panic of the nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant.
For the score, Guðnadóttir visited the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania in order to capture the sounds inside a reactor site. Instead of relying on virtual instruments to imitate or approximate industrial sounds, every sound in the score was recorded on-site, giving the soundtrack a truly haunting and authentic feel.
The cue “The Door” opens with a pulsing, metallic rhythm with a dark and ominous cello motif underneath. An anxiety-inducing, atonal screeching, scraping noise fades in and out, until the scene washes away into a haze of static.
The cue “Vichnaya Pamyat” is a stunning example of Guðnadóttir’s abilities as a choral composer.
A heart-wrenching, mournful composition, “Vichnaya Pamyat” captures the raw emotional bewilderment and grief the citizens of Chernobyl must have experienced in the wake of the nuclear disaster.
‘SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO’
Guðnadóttir scored the 2018 film Sicario: Day Of The Soldado, the sequel to the 2015 film Sicario, for which Jóhann Jóhannsson composed the score.
The film is epically intense and violent, revolving around the fights between the Mexican drug cartel and American border patrol agents along the US-Mexico border.
The music is likewise incredibly tense, violent, and agitating, mirroring and reflecting the brutality of the film’s characters and premise.
Jóhannsson’s score was one of the first examples in contemporary film score music of this sliding, microtonal string motif that is reminiscent of Tony Iommi’s guitar intro to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”.
The motif is all over Jóhannsson’s score and is found in different iterations in many contemporary scores including Mica Levi’s score for Under The Skin.
Guðnadóttir continues to utilise and build on this motif in cues like “The Bomber” and “Gulf Of Somalia.”
Joker stands among Guðnadóttir’s best known scores. The film was a huge success, and the score earned Guðnadóttir the Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Academy Award.
The process of composing the score was likewise a unique and interesting success.
Upon reading the screenplay, Guðnadóttir began composing melodies and sketches. Her work was then fundamental in forming the characters and influencing the production and cinematography.
The score is primarily driven by Guðnadóttir’s cello work, with elements of electronics, and backed with a 100-piece orchestra. The density of the score builds through the film, with the orchestra only becoming fully audible towards the end, mirroring the psychological development of the Joker aka Arthur Fleck.
The cue “Defeated Clown” is an example from early in the film where the music is led directly by the cello.
A strong, dark, and melancholy melody is performed on the cello with a simple and haunting drum pattern underneath. A cloudy electronic pad supports the melody.
The piece sets the tone and reveals the psychological distress of the Arthur Fleck without being too heavy-handed or obvious.
The theme from “Bathroom Dance” is an example of how Guðnadóttir’s music directly impacted the acting and direction of the film.
During the process of filming the scene, Joaquin Phoenix would listen to Guðnadóttir’s music. He began to improvise movements along with Guðnadóttir’s cello recording and the scene transformed into something far beyond what was written in the script – becoming one of the standout scenes of the film in the process.
‘CALL ME JOKER’
In the film’s final moments, we see the culmination of Arthur Fleck’s psychological turmoil. Fleck has escaped arrest after the on-screen murder of variety show host Murray Franklin and is being carried through the streets of New York as a riot burns the city, ostensibly in his honour.
The cue “Call Me Joker” accompanies this scene. By now, we are fully immersed in the psychological drama of Fleck, as depicted in this cue by the juxtaposition of Guðnadóttir’s solo cello versus the 100-piece orchestra.
A COMPELLING COMPOSER AND CREATIVE COLLABORATOR
Guðnadóttir’s work as a solo cellist is also featured prominently in many films and her work as a collaborator is exceptional.
Her cello work with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto on The Revenant is stunning and her ethereal and vivid melodic work on director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Arrival is outstanding.
Over the last decade, Guðnadóttir has established herself as one of the most interesting composers and performers. Her work blends and bends genres and mediums, her concept of the union of visual media and sound is compelling, and her ability to combine and build ethereal ambience is stellar.
Cover: Camille Blake
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.