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Alien Communication: From Hafnarfjörður To Hollywood, Hildur Guðnadóttir Hits The Big Time

Alien Communication: From Hafnarfjörður To Hollywood, Hildur Guðnadóttir Hits The Big Time

Photos by
Timothée Lambrecq

Published September 19, 2018

Hildur Guðnadóttir’s beaming face emerges from the digital blur. She leans into the camera, her features springing into sharp resolution. Her long hair is tied up into a loose bun with several pixelated spikes, and her bright eyes glitter above a broad smile and she peers from the screen. “Hello!” she exclaims, with warmth, as if greeting an old friend.

Hildur is speaking from her studio in Berlin, a sunny peach-coloured room that’s suffused with soft late-summer light. She’s lived in the city for sixteen years. “It feels like home,” she says. “I love going back to Iceland—it’s expansive, and you always have the horizon—but it’s difficult to make a living there as a musician.”

“My punk rebellion would have been to be an athlete and be like ‘Fuck you, I’m going running!’”

A composer, performer and serial collaborator, Hildur has an impressive resumé. Her credits include long-term collaborations with múm and countless works with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. She has contributed to a diverse range of experimental projects including Throbbing Gristle, Pan Sonic, Hauschka, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Sunn O))) and The Knife.

Most recently, Hildur has become an in-demand film composer. A piece of hers was employed to dramatic effect in the 2018 season of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ and she scored 2018 movies ‘Sicario 2’ and ‘Mary Magdalene.’ When we speak, some news has just broken—her next big project will be ‘The Joker,’ starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro. All in all, it would be fair to say that Hildur is hitting the big time.

Origin story

It’s been a long road from Hafnarfjörður to Hollywood. Hildur has been around music for as long as she can remember—her father is a composer, clarinet player and teacher who runs the CAPUT chamber ensemble, her mother is an opera singer, and her brother—also a close collaborator—is a member of Agent Fresco.

“Everyone around me was a musician,” says Hildur. “The normal thing in my family was to do music. The abnormal thing was sports. My punk rebellion would have been to be an athlete, and be like, ‘Fuck you, I’m going running!’”

Her early exposure to music as a part of day-to-day life would prove formative. “I remember being with dad in a chamber rehearsal and falling asleep under his chair;” she says. “Being around musicians and their instruments all the time formed the way I think about music, in the sense that every personality became an instrument. For me, the oboe had the character of my aunt, the flute took on the character of Kolbeinn, the flautist in the ensemble, and so forth. Music became so personal to me and more about the people that were involved than the music that was being played.”

A family affair

These intimate bonds stuck with Hildur. She has known many of her collaborators for most of her life, and speaks about them with a joyful sense of familial fondness. “It’s very important that the people who work with me are close to me personally,” she says. “The people who worked on ‘Soldado’ [the Sicario sequel] and ‘Mary Magdalene’ were my little brother, my fiancé and my best friend who I grew up with. It’s very much a family affair.”

“I started making solo music as a way to contemplate, not speak, and be free of words.”

But her reasons for maintaining such a close circle go beyond shared history. Hildur describes how knowing collaborators well enables a wordless dialogue and a mutual understanding that eases the process along. “It’s such a vulnerable thing to make music,” she says. “You’re really exposing yourself. You’re exposing things that you wouldn’t even be able to express in words. I can only share that with people who really know me, and know what I mean without me having to find the exact words. I can be like ‘This sounds a little bit too… pointy,’ and they’ll say, ‘Okay!’”

Tough foetus

Hildur’s primary instrument is the cello. Her solo works are subtle, graceful compositions, with a sense of space, melancholia and introspection. “My mother decided on cello for me, really early on,” she explains. “When she was pregnant with me, she was listening to a lot of Jacqueline Dupre, who’s very fiery and full of passion and strength. I think I was a tough foetus—she had a hard time when she was pregnant with me. She was certain the child she was carrying would be called Hildur, which means ‘war,’ and play the cello. So when it came to me choosing my instrument, she offered the cello.” She smiles. “For a long time she said I chose it myself, but she just recently admitted that’s not entirely true.”

Her training with this large instrument was somewhat fraught. “I had a weird love-hate relationship with the cello,” says Hildur. “The case was big and bulky, and about 10 kilos. I remember being about eight, and I was walking to rehearsal in the middle of winter. It was really windy, and a big gust of wind swept in and grabbed the cello as I walking over a sheet of ice. I fell on the cello and smashed it. It’s not the most practical instrument.”

Band therapy

Instead, the teenaged Hildur channeled her musical curiosity into various band projects, which culminated in studies of electro-acoustic programming in Berlin. But that too proved troublesome. “Programming is frustrating,” she says. “You spend weeks writing code just to get a little beep. It wasn’t a satisfying working progress for me.” She picked up her cello one day for some relief. “I put the bow on the strings and played, and was like, ‘Oh my god! sound!’ I fell head over heels in love with it again. It was like having a boyfriend for twenty years that you didn’t really like and then realising: ‘You’re actually great!’”

“Múm is a band you never quit. It’s a beautiful… blob.”

Allergic to authority and dogma, and carrying the strong notion that constant rehearsal wasn’t best path for her progression as a musician, Hildur found a more comfortable environment for her experimental urges in band projects. She started collaborating with her friends Gunni and Örvar in the band Andhéri, which would evolve into múm.

“Múm was such a crucial part of my musical upbringing,” she says. “It was always about hanging out and the friendship and the collective. That kind of fluidity, space and camaraderie was a huge part of everything. Múm is a band you never quit. It’s a beautiful…” she pauses, searching for the word. “Blob!” she decides, dissolving into infectious laughter. “It’s a beautiful blob.”

Solitude and space

Despite loving musical communication and her close collaborative bonds, Hildur still needed another outlet. “I started doing solo music because I’d been playing with other people so long, in these energetic, social projects. It’s super lovely, but I need a lot of solitude and space as a contrast. I started making solo music as a way to contemplate, not speak, and be with myself and sound—not having to communicate, and being free of words. That’s why a lot of the music I make is very contemplative. It’s a space where I come and meet myself.”

“Music is all about communication. It’s like time travelling, or making a message in a bottle for someone you don’t know yet.”

Ultimately, Hildur is seeking a balance between these divergent processes. “Music for me is all about communication,” she says. “It’s the core of why I make music. It’s like time travelling, or making a message in a bottle for someone you don’t know yet. That’s why it’s so nice to meet people who really respond to the music. You can be like, ‘Oh, when I was making this, I was speaking to you!’ It’s like beautiful alien communication.”

Socialising and schizophrenia

Communication and social interaction also sits at the heart of her history as a collaborator. She explains that most of her projects came about through social meetings that organically evolved into working together, from Sunn O))) to The Knife. “I can understand why people would look at the collaborations and ask ‘Why is she so schizophrenic?’” she laughs. “But it’s not that mysterious. When you walk down the street, you just meet so many people, and maybe you ask someone, or you get a call. I don’t have a huge social life outside of music, so when I meet people, it’s usually related to music.” She laughs. “You’re basically looking at my social life. These are the only people I met in the last fifteen years!”

This fluid approach has led to some unlikely pairings. “I was just recording with Sunn O))) and Steve Albini, and people were like ‘How can you be in a doom metal band?’” she smiles. “But I say ‘What do you mean? They’re the sweetest people in the universe! These guys are some of my best friends!’”

Handmaids and Jokers

More recently, Hildur has risen to prominence as a film composer. She’s been working with theatre and film for over a decade, but recently, the scope and frequency of these projects has ramped up exponentially.

“You can’t ask me to write a Hans Zimmer or John Williams score. I wouldn’t know how!”

“I never had any plans or ambitions to become a film composer,” she says. “I love storytelling, so I’d worked on some film and theatre, quite off-and-on. Then me and Jóhann Jóhannsson crossed paths pretty strongly, and started working on every project that the other was doing from 2003 on. He was very into film music, and he dragged me into the stuff he was doing, and that escalated quite a lot. When he moved to Berlin, we shared a studio and we were working hand in hand on all the films he was doing.”

Composing for the screen is an entirely different process for Hildur, but it’s one that she takes great pleasure in. She’s able to maintain a certain amount of autonomy in her film work, partially because people come to her expecting a certain signature sound. “I have it easy in a way, because as a musician I have a pretty distinctive sound that people approach me to get,” she says. “There are composers who can ‘be anyone,’ but I’m normally very open that I have to be myself—you can’t ask me to write a Hans Zimmer or John Williams score. I wouldn’t know how! But also, I’d feel like I’m lying. It wouldn’t be good communication on my part.”

Mass communication

Communication is—as in all aspects of Hildur’s practise—absolutely key. “Working in film is a huge exercise in human communication,” she says. “The bigger the project, the more communication. You have a director, five to ten producers, the editor, and the public opinion from screenings. Everyone has an opinion, and I obviously have a pretty strong opinion too. It’s an interesting process.”

“I’m not interested in the red carpet situation and that whole fiasco—I just try to hide in my Berlin! And I manage pretty well.”

Working from her home base in Berlin, Hildur squeezes in emails and Skype meetings on LA time, after her studio work, and when her young son has gone to bed. “It’s not necessarily the most healthy rhythm,” she laughs, “but it works somehow. I don’t know how it happened, really. I’ve never had a manager of a booking agent. Until last year I’d compose, mix, manage, and book concerts… I’ve never been career focussed in that sense. But all of a sudden it’s escalated into a very big project. And I still don’t have a manager! I do have a film agent who’s been a huge part of it in the last year.”

Hildur has found that staying true to her open and amiable working method has served her well in this new scenario, even when all the talks happen remotely. “It’s very different to being in a room with someone,” she says. “There’s more room for misunderstanding. You get some quite abstract briefs. I mean, it’s difficult for musicians to describe music, never mind non-musicians. But when you hit the sweet spot of what a director wants, you’re like, ‘There it is!’”

“Even through the projects are big, I treat it the same,” she continues. “If it’s a big director, it’s still just a person. That’s the thing I’m interested in. I’m not interested in the red carpet situation and that whole fiasco—I just try to hide in my Berlin! And I manage pretty well.”

Mass destruction

Hildur is also currently deeply engrossed in a soundtrack for forthcoming HBO series about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. As part of the project she recorded some music in a Lithuanian nuclear power plant that’s in the long process of being decommissioned.

“What happened before, during and after the accident there is unbelievably fascinating.”

“You arrive and you have to put on these Soviet uniforms and hats and so on,” she says. “Being able to spend a few days in the lives of the people who work in these environments is phenomenal. They spend their days taking it all apart, and have been doing for 15 years or so. It was really inspirational to go there.”

The show will be a dramatisation that stays true to actual events, which has engaged Hildur in creative a process of active learning. “What happened before, during and after the accident there is unbelievably fascinating,” she says. “It’s been so great learning about nuclear energy, what it is, and how it works.”

Nuclear community

Despite the nuclear-inspired work, it seems Hildur is more of a renewable energy source. Alongside ‘Chernobyl’ she’s also starting on ‘The Joker’ soundtrack, and working the second season of ‘Trapped’; she’ll performing live with Éliane Radigue at Union Chapel in London next month and has several other performances in the works.

And, as always, she’s keeping it in the family. “I’m taking part in a few memorial concerts for Jóhann, and finishing some things. We have such a great situation at the studio—it’s a whole floor of an old factory, and there are seven or eight studios. We work a lot between the rooms. Viktor who was in Hjaltalín is in there, and Dustin O’Halloran, Rutger who we did Trapped with, and Gunni, and Sam Slater, my fiancé. So Jóhann’s ‘Last And First Men’ project is being finished on the floor.” She pauses for a long second, then smiles again. “It’s just a really good community.”


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