Exploring An Award-Winning Composer’s Sound


Hildur Guðndottir has entered the building! Explore her most recognized works and why she deserves to be up there with the composer greats.

Hildur Guðndottir. If you don’t know her, then we will get to know her. Her unique, poignant, and captivating musical language won her prestigious awards for both the blockbuster movie Joker and HBO’s mini-series Chernobyl.

We all know the greats John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, and the list goes on.

But I guarantee there won’t be any mention of a female composer on this list.

Well, Hildur Guðndottir is on the rise to join these other composers at the table. She is not only a fantastic composer but a pioneer for female film composers. We will look at her two most recognized works, Joker and Chernobyl, and deep-dive into her compositional methods.

Here’s some background…

Hildur Guðndottir (pronounced Hill-dur Guth-nah-door-tier) is an Icelandic composer based in Berlin with almost two decades of composing behind her.

Growing up surrounded by music, she is an accomplished cellist and singer with a plethora of performance experience. She not only performs her own solo work but collaborates with other creatives. Furthermore, she arranges choral music and also plays the halldorophone (an electric cello that she helped develop).

Hildur began by composing her own solo works, her first album entitled Mount A. Her solo albums consisted heavily of cello and electronics, in which she would perform herself.

Her 2009 album Without Sinking is one of my favorites and established her writing style. As a lover of drones, she nails this sound world so well and is present in many of her works. This led her to become more recognized, being commissioned for further work, until eventually getting commissioned to do movie scores.

Performer and Composer

Before Hildur was an Oscar-winning composer, she was performing her own music as well as performing alongside her fellow composer collaborators.

Hildur worked closely with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (composer for The Theory Of Everything and Arrival), co-composing in the movie Mary Magdelene and performed cello on his last solo album Orphée. She also performed on movie scores for The Revenant, Sicario, and Prisoners and for her own solo albums.

Hildur Guðndóttir
Image via Hilduirness.com.

What I find specifically amazing about her work is that the wonders of technology have allowed many composers to be very self-sufficient. Going out to record natural sounds, in combination with your musical abilities, layering all of this with technology can create some of the most beautiful passages of music, and Hildur is at the forefront of this medium in the film industry.

Chernobyl: Beneath the soundtrack

After watching the first episode of the award-winning mini-series, I could have walked away after episode one and still grasped exactly why she won an Emmy and a Grammy award for this monumental soundtrack.

I did a lot of research behind this soundtrack as I was so captivated by the industrial sounds and the unique style she went with. An abandoned power plant in Lithuania was the location for the mini-series. Hildur had the opportunity to record the sounds of this power plant before filming started

In an interview on Score: The Podcast, she shares that every sound heard in the score is from those field recordings. She also shares that she was merely observing and listening to this specific space.

Listening is one of the most important qualities to any creative out there. To a composer, she states how it helps in the process of composing a score to tell a story. Submerging herself in that environment, even wearing the full hazmat suit, worked highly in her favor.

So why is it brilliant?

I am no stranger to compositional techniques that include long, drawn-out drones that slowly develop. But, Hildur reigns supreme in this particular style. Her ability to blend recorded sounds into the scenes makes this score so great. The music becomes part of the scenery but in the most realistic way possible. Those low mechanical rumbles, along with those high ringing frequencies, are heard in most of the score.

The helicopter scene is an excellent example of Hildur’s use of low drones. I found that watching this scene was very intense, with the anticipation of danger. The low pulsating drone heard throughout blends very well with the sound of the helicopter while also contributing to the scene’s tone.

When the plane crashes, you hear the sounds of the crash in conjunction with some higher drone sounds. These higher frequencies again reflect those sound effects of the helicopter’s demise. It’s as if Hildur is adding even more color and depth to those sound effects.

While it lacks rich harmony and memorable melodies, the simplicity and slow development of the material apply that realism to the sound environment. Furthermore, the emotions of fear, tension, and sadness match Hildur’s sound like no other.

If you notice throughout, the music doesn’t feel invasive. It’s very subtle and beneath the surface. There is always this subterranean humming like something is waiting to erupt. While the eruption has already happened, it’s more linked to the human tragedy that comes after.

Her handling of these drones is pretty great. While it may sound like a simple sound, she hones in and focuses on this powerful sound’s subtle changes and qualities. She sometimes allows the soundtrack to gel with the scenes’ sounds, which can be greatly effective. It adds extra tension and acts as a base for the music to grow to a striking moment.

I found this scene particularly harrowing. Hildur’s score writing even more heightened this. Again the low pulsating drone with the screeching tone above compliments the hosepipe sounds.

The music starts to change as soon as they make their way to the roof. The low drone makes a more violent sound, like a growl. It gradually intensifies with the constant high-pitched scream until all that’s left is that high tone. This moment lands when the firefighter realizes what he is looking at.

The stillness and simplicity work hand in hand for such a jarring scene.

Joker: A Character Study

Film composers all take different approaches to a movie score. It could be composing alongside the footage they get given after shooting, or sometimes composing beforehand. Or, the director can request you to compose music just by reading the script alone.

In this case, Hildur’s first conversation with director Todd Phillips required music before filming had started.

Interestingly, this approach is the interpretation of the script only from text. Taking those visuals away makes the approach more emotionally driven from the composer’s POV. Returning to the story of the Joker, it is more of a character study of the main protagonist Arthur.

Collider Interviews spoke to both Hildur and Director of Photography Lawrence Star and mentioned how the movie serves the opposite of the idea that a film needs more action. It’s a “human movie with real actors and no CGI.” The music highly reflects this, and here’s why.

The Bathroom Dance

Those who have seen the movie know about this poignant scene. I get chills every time I go back to it.

What I particularly find notable is that this music was written before filming this scene. Hildur’s music really leads that scene to life, dictating the pace. The very simple cello line sounds so alone.

If you listen closely, it alternates only between two notes. Beneath this is a set of strings that provide harmony, starting with lower strings. This gradually thickens in texture and dynamics. Once it cuts to him walking through the corridor, the orchestration gets larger.

The cello acts as Arthur’s inner voice, the music he hears in his head. During filming, Joaquin Phoenix, who portrays Arthur, is listening to this music. Seeing it the other way around is pretty amazing! The larger orchestration represents the outer surroundings.

In an interview with Tim Greiving for NPR, Hildur states how the solo cello is very present in the beginning. As the movie progresses, “the orchestra gets louder and louder, and then it suffocates the cello.” The suffocation by the orchestral sounds can also represent Arthur’s inner turmoil, and it all erupts in the movie’s final act.

Slow Burn

Overall, the movie is a slow burn. This goes the same for the score that’s embedded in the screenplay. Hildur discusses in the interview with Collider that Arthur’s thought process is linear on why he doesn’t fit into society. She mentions how she composed music that lacks harmony to represent this inner focus.

When we reach the final act, it’s as if Arthur finally understands himself. The music erupts, becomes more multi-dimensional, and is much more significant because Arthur feels complete. Lawrence Sher describes this ending as almost “operatic.”

Linking back to Chernobyl, the end credits show the real-life people involved in the disaster. The music for this section is a choral arrangement of the Ukrainian Orthodox hymn “Vichnaya Pamyat.” This is completely different to everything heard in the series, but it brings that moment of understanding, just like the final act in Joker.

Another great scene that is a key moment in the story is the subway scene. In terms of the score, this is where the brass is heard for the first time. In this scene, he turns violent for the first time, and the brass takes over Arthur’s theme we initially hear in the cue “Defeated Clown.” It is combined with electronic sounds that howl within, a blend that’s jarring but very effective.

The music, in general, has a lot of space. Hildur states that she wanted to give the audience an open canvas for their own interpretation. This goes the same for Chernobyl, albeit not as melodic. The moments where the music is present provide that open canvas. The slow pace of the movie also gives the viewers more time to digest those emotions, a chance for the audience to reflect on how they feel about the story.

Some Reflection Time

After diving into Hildur’s two greatest works, have a listen to the soundtracks, or better, re-watch both Chernobyl and Joker. Notice the impeccable blending of sounds with the atmosphere; can you hear the power plant material in her music? Can you follow the solo cello throughout as well as the orchestral interjections?

Hildur is a composer still on the rise. I believe her sound worlds are phenomenal but also very human. She completely channels the environment; the tone she possesses sounds so raw and so real to me, like she is deeply connected to the earth. She has a remarkable ability to bring those sounds to life.

That might sound deep, but maybe choosing less melodic and straightforward tracks can be more effective than you think.

For more on music, check out these articles:


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