“Yeah, how do I explain it?” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir ponders aloud over the phone. She’s currently in Berlin, sitting in her studio. “This year, just by complete accident, both projects that I worked on—the reception of them—went beyond my wildest dreams. It’s been quite incredible.”
The projects in question are two soundtracks: one for the HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ and the second for the Warner Brothers film ‘Joker.’ Calling each work “acclaimed” would be an understatement—’Chernobyl’ won Hildur an Emmy award and is currently nominated for a Grammy, while ‘Joker’ nabbed a Golden Globe and is a favourite to take home an Academy Award.
That said, the two soundtracks could not be more stylistically different. For ‘Chernobyl,’ Hildur, a classically trained cellist, gave her instrument a break and created a score almost entirely composed of non-instrumental sounds, most of which were recorded by Hildur inside an actual nuclear power plant.
“When you’re doing film music you have to put your ego aside and be a servant of the story that’s being told,” she explains, referring to this non-traditional approach. “So even though I’m normally more comfortable with an instrument, I just felt that the story needed something else,” she says. “it was quite an easy decision to make.”
For ‘Joker,’ Hildur found her sound in the darkest depths of Arthur Fleck’s character. “The strongest moments of intense inspiration hit me after reading the script,” she explains. “When I first found his notes, it hit me like lightning in my chest. That was my way into his head and into what I felt like he wanted to say.”
This resulted in an intensely symbiotic relationship between the music, acting and direction in the film. Hildur wrote pieces for ‘Joker’ before filming even started, which director Todd Philips played on set while filming. Hildur’s work, therefore, became a literal soundtrack to the creation of the whole movie.
“The music ended up influencing the performances, the cinematography and the whole pacing of the film. So much so that in scenes like the bathroom dance, that’s [Joaquin Phoenix’s] actual response to the music that you hear in the film,” Hildur explains, with palpable wonderment in her voice. “When they sent me the scene, I just saw Joaquin responding to this music in exactly the same way in which I had felt it when I first wrote it. We had never exchanged a word. It was such a magical process.”
Giving an example
The critical acclaim and widespread media attention that both projects received have thrust Hildur into the spotlight, a position that she doesn’t seem fully comfortable inhabiting. “It’s quite exposing,” she admits. But she also hopes to use this platform to encourage other women to join an industry still dominated by men. She believes the situation is moving in a positive direction, but still has a long way to go.
“I felt a big change after #MeToo. The film music world was definitely more aware of the lack of women in the industry and the numbers say it all. Even last year, it was only around 1% of the 500 biggest grossing films had music written by women, so the numbers are just preposterously low,” she explains. “But I think the best way to change that is just to show up and do the work and just give an example, both to the industry and to younger women.”
Hildur’s Golden Globe win made history in this regard, as she became the first solo woman to win for Best Score.
Back to basics
This year will prove to be another busy and varied one for the composer, but in quite a different way from the previous. “I’m taking a little bit of a film break,” she admits. “I’ve had such an unusually extroverted year, it really feels like it’s time to go back into my cave.”
Instead, Hildur will inhabit other areas of the art world. This month sees the launch of a new exhibition with Ólafur Elíasson, in which Hildur excitedly relays there will be, “a robot playing cello!” Fans can also look forward to the release of a new album.
But whatever project Hildur takes on next, you can bet on it being adventurous and thrilling. “I feel a sense of urgency in almost all that work that I create,” she laughs infectiously. “I’m someone who doesn’t really do things halfway.”
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