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Meet the Icelandic Composer Who Wrote Haunting Scores for ‘Chernobyl’ and ‘Joker’ at the Same Time

Emmy-nominated composer Hildur Gudnadóttir created a radioactive "Chernobyl" score by recording sound at a decommissioned power plant in Lithuania.

"Chernobyl"

“Chernobyl”

HBO

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Chernobyl” was the surprise drama of the season, which benefited greatly from the unique score by Icelandic cellist/composer Hildur Gudnadóttir, who earned one of the 19 Emmy nominations picked up by the HBO miniseries created by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck. Comprised of actual sounds recorded by the composer in the decommissioned Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Visaginas, Lithuania, prior to the shoot, the result was an eerie score that captured the creepy horror of the Soviet nuclear disaster and its aftermath.

“I tried hard to steer clear of any preconceived expectations of being inside the power plant,” said Gudnadóttir, who simultaneously scored Todd Phillips’ “Joker” (October 4), with a haunting theme that helped shape Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Gotham’s failed comedian-turned supervillain. “I had no idea what I was going to get out of it. I went in with open ears and open mind. I was willing to listen to what the space sounded like before I started coloring it with anything I wanted to do. I only knew that the radiation was so strong and really important that it had roots in reality and connected to the space.”

With only a day to record in the decommissioned plant, Gudnadóttir (wearing a protective hazmat suit) grabbed every tone and hum in the various rooms with the help of field recorder Chris Watson, best known for the BBC nature docs. “It was the largest space I’d ever been in,” she said. “The long corridors went on for kilometer after kilometer. The sounds created a wonderful symphony.”

“Chernobyl”

HBO

The greatest moment of discovery occurred, though, when the composer couldn’t find usable power outlets in the pump room, but noticed a fascinating low drumming sound coming from the engine room. So she set up mics against the door. Sadly, the actual drum part didn’t make it into the score because it sounded too much like a drum and director Renck was adamant about not using anything resembling actual instrumentation. “It wound up being a color used in some parts for movement,” added Gudnadóttir, who had to leave behind some cable equipment that had been contaminated by radiation.

Back in her Berlin studio, Gudnadóttir processed about six hours of recorded sounds, experimenting to make them audible, and spent seven months composing the score. She divided the score between the nuclear disaster and human suffering, adding her own vocalization as a choir sound for the latter. “Those were the two sides that were really important as distinct musical characters,” she said.

For the integral sound of radiation, Gudnadóttir used very heavy processing of the turbine and reactor halls. “The radiation was going to be connected to the space with actual sounds and the human side, which was the reason for all of this happening in the first place, [evoked] human error, loss, and grief. As I read the script, these feelings were really raw to me. And the best way for me to access these emotions personally was to use my voice for the choir parts.”

Composer Hildur Gudnadóttir

Renck also wanted a sci-fi vibe, so Gudnadóttir used more modular processing as well. “And then for the vocal processing, I’d recreate the space of the turbine hall or the reactor hall and digitally make impulse response reverbs… so they were still a part of the sound world,” she said.

One of the highlights was “Bridge of Death,” the first human track we hear. “It was the rawness of the scene that I really wanted to capture,” Gudnadóttir said. “There’s some sort of surreal beauty happening, with people standing on this bridge that actually exists. They’re admiring the beauty of what they think is a normal fire, but little do they know that this is something quite more horrible. It’s not only pure beauty and pure emotion, but also something a little bit ugly.”

“Joker”

Niko Tavernise

By contrast, Gudnadóttir’s score for “Joker” was by no means avant-garde but still experimental (backed by a large orchestra recorded in New York). “The Joker is more fictional and larger than life, obviously, and, for me, I took a more traditional, instrumental [approach], but not what I would call middle of the road,” she said. “I got a lot of space from Todd, who was quite brave with a lot of the decisions that he allowed me to go wild with.

“The character that we get to know is struggling a lot emotionally and trying to fit in with a world that he doesn’t understand,” she added. “And I really empathized with him a lot, and the music tries to connect with his inner, personal world. Actually, the main theme came before Joaquin’s performance and it played a big part in informing his performance. It’s definitely more lyrical and musical than ‘Chernobyl.'”

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