To Hildur Guðnadóttir, film scores are more than background noise. The Berlin-based cellist and composer is set to score her highest-profile film to date, ‘Soldado’, the sequel to hit 2015 crime-thriller ‘Sicario’. Starring Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, the film premieres later this year. “Film music is manipulative,” says Hildur. “If a character appears with happy music you think: ‘Wow, what a super guy!’ But if the music is dramatic, you develop a different opinion.”
Hildur needs no background music to convey her affable disposition. We meet at a coffeeshop in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin, close to the studio she shares with her long-time collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson. Hildur has been involved in most of his projects to some extent, playing strings, singing, or whatever else comes up. “I see music as a dialogue, and I’m fortunate to have long-lasting family-like musical relationships,” says Hildur. “Jói and I have been collaborating for fifteen years, and I played with múm since I was fifteen years old. The privilege of growing up with them is something I’m very grateful for.”
Characters as sounds
Hildur has built a reputation by performing with The Knife, Ben Frost and Ryuichi Sakamoto, on the film scores for ‘The Revenant’ and the Jóhann Jóhansson-scored ‘Arrival’, and through solo work. Her recent accolades include winning the DV Culture Award and Edda Award for her score to Baltasar Kormákur’s ‘The Oath’.
“With ‘The Oath’, I came in early, read the script, sat in the editing room and shared my opinion,” says Hildur. “The approach varies depending on the director and when you come into the process. I like to get to know the characters early, think about them as certain sounds that can develop alongside their arcs.”
The most impactful film of her career thus far, she says, is a documentary on tragedy and grief. ‘Strong Island’, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner by Yance Ford, an African-American man whose brother was murdered in Long Island by a white mechanic, will be available on Netflix in the fall. “The killer never faced trial, despite multiple witnesses to the shooting,” says Hildur. “It’s amazing how little has changed since. We were working at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. It was a very inspiring process, having Yance in the studio—the protagonist, director and actor, all in one.”
Instruments as bandmates
Despite her workload as a film composer, Hildur identifies as a performer first. For her live shows, traditional instruments won’t always do—she has to make her own. “I’m a sound fanatic,” she asserts. “Working with instrument makers is inspiring because you can affect sound from when it’s just a piece of wood.”
One, a “Halldorophone” developed by Halldór Úlfarsson, is a feedback instrument. “It makes so much noise,” raves Hildur. “It’s really unpredictable, very much alive. Every sense has to be tuned up. I’ll be working a feedback but if I move my shoulder, it kills it. I have to be 100% present. Performing alone can be boring, but there’s a different energy when my bandmate—the instrument—has its own ideas.”
When sharing the stage with Seattle noise-merchants Sunn O))), she prefers another instrument, called “Ómar.” A mix between a cello and a gamba, its current manifestation is the result of an eight-year dialogue between Hildur and violin maker Hans Jóhannsson. “Personally I feel Ómar is transformative in terms of electronic string instruments,” Hildur professes. “I can play it with a band like Sunn O))) and even the most delicate sounds cut through the mix. They’re maybe the loudest band in the world. Their concerts are like a full-body massage, I’ve come out and everything I touch feels fluffy, all nerve endings shaking, everything cloud-like.”
Visit Hildur’s website here.