Hildur Guðnadóttir
Photo by Gareth Cattermole

Hildur Guðnadóttir: “That’s when things come alive”

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Short Profile

Name: Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir
DOB: 4 September 1984
Place of birth: Reykjavík, Iceland
Occupation: Musician, film composer

Kenneth Branagh's new film, A Haunting in Venice, with score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, is in theaters now.

Ms. Guðnadóttir, would you say that these days, there’s more interest in film music than ever before?

That’s a really interesting question, and I don’t really know why, but I think that’s true. It’s been interesting to see that shift happening, where people seem to genuinely be interested in film music. I've been a composer for 20 years, and honestly, I never felt that much interest in what we’re doing! Then all of a sudden, everyone was very interested! It definitely took me a while to get used to that.

Your name in particular came into the limelight around 2019, when you scored Chernobyl and Joker in quick succession.

Absolutely. It was so surreal and it changed a lot because more people all of a sudden knew what I was doing and who I was. I had a lot of events all of a sudden, which was very unusual for me — because I mean, my happy place is really just being in my studio. So for me it was weird to have to meet people all the time. I look back on that time like it was someone else’s crazy life!

“When you get to translate your thoughts into something to be performed with others, or weaving your thoughts into a storyline with a director... That is such a beautiful part of the process because it opens it up even more.”

Some parts of your job — collaborating with the director, working with an orchestra or other musicians — seem like they're very social, and then the other pars seems like it might just be you alone in the studio. How do you grapple with that?

I really love the balance as a classically trained musician, you do have to spend so much time by yourself, practicing your instrument. It’s such a wonderful space to get to know yourself, to contemplate and sit with yourself — the bad and the good stuff. But then that communication aspect is really fantastic and really fun, when you get to translate your thoughts into something to be performed with others, or weaving your thoughts into a storyline with a director or an actor… And that's really such a beautiful part of the process as well. It sort of opens it up even more through that process of dialogue. You end up with a better understanding of the process that you had just been contemplating, and there’s this bond that keeps on unrolling and adding on to itself. It’s a privileged way to work.

What else can you tell me about your composition process? Apparently you like to work a bit more slowly than your contemporaries…

I think probably everyone is faster than me! (Laughs) I’m probably the slowest person!

Is that the only way you can work?

I can write fast if I need to write fast! Sometimes when you have a deadline and you just need to deliver, then you just need to deliver, so I do that sometimes. But my preferred way of working is much more slowly, and that’s simply because I just enjoy that working pace. I think it has a lot to do with how I listen, I really like to listen to the details of the sounds that are happening, to just take time and be able to sit with whatever I'm doing, and to really listen deeply. I think listening takes time, and it takes patience. If you're being rushed, or if you're stressed, you listen with a completely different impact. It’s sort of like walking or riding a bike, I prefer to go slower and to experience what's around me rather than to just run towards where I'm going. And in order for me to truly enjoy what I'm working on, it’s better for me to take time with it. But I know that a lot of people would kill themselves if they had to work at this pace because it really is ridiculously time consuming and that’s not for everyone!

Does the pace change when you bring your score to the orchestra to record it?

Actually, I'm the same also when it comes to recording! Rob Ames, who does a lot of conducting for me, he explained to the orchestra: “There’s normal recording time, and then there's Hildur time!” (Laughs) I really just like to make sure that we have the right atmosphere for the performance, and we’re not rushing through things, like, “Okay, how many minutes do we have?” I need time to speak to the musicians and understand what we're doing, and really set the feeling or the tone. That’s really where the music is, it's when things come alive.

“I’ve never really made any conscious decisions or conscious effort to get to this place. I chose music because that was the normal thing to do in my family. I started playing, and I just never stopped.”

In terms of setting the tone, do you think you have an edge with darker, more sinister music? Many of the films you’ve worked on from Joker, to Tár, to Women Talking seem to have that in common.

That’s very much up my alley. With A Haunting in Venice, for example, the director Kenneth Branagh was very clear that it was going to be very different from his recent films. They wanted this to be much darker, more mysterious and much more like a horror film than an adventure film. It’s set in 1945, and I found that really exciting to explore because it’s incredibly interesting time in musical history. There’s this push and pull between the use of melody and structure and instrumentation. Composers were really breaking the boundaries and barriers of the old pre-war Romantic use of melody. I thought it was really interesting to explore that and to write a really classical score in this very classical genre. I really thought a lot about it because the music is really there in a supporting role, to set the tone of the time, to set this unconscious feeling.

You typically get involved a film earlier on than most other composers, right?

Yes and for this film, I came in what would be earlier than normal for most people, but what was actually little bit late for me. They were already shooting when I joined but I know that they were playing my music and stuff so that there was a kind of omnipresence… I ended up writing a lot of the music as they were shooting, and Kenneth had a very strong sense of the tonality and the direction that he wanted to go, and he really stuck with that the whole time. It’s a joy to work with someone who has such a clear vision.

Has film composition specifically always been your goal from the start, or was it more of a general interest in music?

I've never really made any conscious decisions or conscious effort to get to this place. My parents are both musicians; everyone in my family is either in music or medicine! I chose music because that was the normal thing to do in my family. I started playing, and I just never stopped. I studied the cello, and I was singing in choirs, and eventually I started making music for myself. It gave me a place to be a bit more introspective, to have kind of a dialogue with myself through music. And that's how I started composing my solo work. One thing led to another and I ended up here!