How do you transform something silent and invisible and yet inhumanely savage into sound? Composer and former Grapevine cover star Hildur Guðnadóttir was faced with this challenge when tasked with creating the soundtrack for HBO’s newest mini-series ‘Chernobyl.’ What she ended up making is an uncomfortable, eerie, and remarkably beautiful accompaniment to one of the greatest human tragedies in recent memory.
An atypical soundtrack
“It was clear from the get-go that it wouldn’t be appropriate to do a normal thriller TV score,” says Hildur, when asked how she initially approached creating a soundscape for ‘Chernobyl.’ “We’d need to approach the subject honestly. It’s such an important historical event—and we didn’t want to sugar coat anything. It was out of the question to have violins marching in for the dramatic moments.”
Instead, Hildur approached the project scientifically, asking herself, ‘if you could hear radioactivity, what would it sound like?’ “It’s just such an interesting sound world, because radioactivity is so powerful and strong… but it’s silent at the same time,” she answers. “Of course, the explosion was big, but the impact of it, and the actual aftereffects… they are so silent and invisible.”
A loaded experience
To turn the silent into sound, Hildur journeyed to Lithuania to spend time in a mid-decommissioning nuclear power plant that looked and operated very much like Chernobyl. She recorded every sound that went into the soundtrack in the plant. “We went to just observe and document what it was like to be there,” she explains, “And to find out how it sounds to be in such an environment; what that physically feels like.”
Hildur was determined to seek out the sounds rather than creating them. “I didn’t want to go in and slam doors or bang on stuff because that would be too much of an intrusion,” Hildur says. “We tried to capture as honestly as we could what it sounded like to be there.”
The whole experience was an eye-opening one. “The feeling of being there—the smell, the intensely long corridors, the amount of people cleaning any radioactive material, the constant measurements they have to take,” she pauses, reliving those uncomfortable moments. “It was so loaded.”
The soundtrack Hildur ended up with was also loaded. One of the most haunting moments in the show comes whenever radioactivity is unknowingly passed between two parties—a fireman picking up a piece of graphite, or a wife touching her sick husband in the hospital. In these scenes, a delicate but intense frequency becomes audible. Hildur perfectly managed to articulate the passing of this invisible decay between objects and people, which only the audience is privy to.
“That comes from this door to one of the pump rooms,” says Hildur, when asked about this particular sample. “We had to pitch it down because it was at this crazy high frequency, almost inaudible.”
The only human touch on the album is Hildur’s own voice, which she added for a few selected moments. “There’s not a single instrument on the whole score,” she says. “It’s all actual recordings that we made there, but we needed the human element as well. It’s a huge human tragedy, because it was a human mistake that caused the catastrophe.” She pauses; it’s clear working so close to the tragedy has had an effect on the artist. “My voice became the human element in it.”
‘Chernobyl’ is available to view now via HBO streaming services. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s ‘Chernobyl’ soundtrack is out now on Spotify.
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