HOLLYWOOD HITS

How ‘Joker’ Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir Ventured From Iceland’s Underground to Hollywood’s Red Carpet

April 6, 2020

When For the Record connected with Hildur Guðnadóttir at her Berlin home, it was a few months after the Icelandic composer had accepted the Best Original Score Oscar for her soundtrack to Todd Phillips’ anti-hero epic, Joker.

On its own, the Oscar win would be a life-altering event, but for Guðnadóttir, it’s merely the exclamation point for a remarkable awards-season run. It’s not just her iconic work for Joker that’s earning her trophies—her score for the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl netted her an Emmy and a Grammy. Essentially, in six short months, this unassuming artist from Iceland’s avant-garde fringes has swiftly moved three quarters of the way to an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).

But for those who’ve been following Guðnadóttir’s career for the past 15 years, the most amazing thing about her Oscar win isn’t that she’s the first Icelander to ever win an Academy Award, or that she’s only the fourth female composer to take home the statue. It’s that she’s the first Oscar winner who has also collaborated with electro-punk provocateurs The Knife, industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle, and experimental metal band Sunn 0))). 

From a young age, Guðnadóttir was positioned to pursue a composing career—her father is a clarinetist who leads a chamber ensemble, and her mother is an opera singer. But if Guðnadóttir’s parents provided her with the tools and training to become a musician, Guðnadóttir found her true artistic calling when, as a teen, she fell in with the ’90s Reykjavik indie music scene—a close-knit, creative community that spawned the groove ensemble GusGus, post-rock maestros Sigur Rós, and electronic experimentalists Múm (with whom she’d become an on-again, off-again member over the years).

“When we were starting out, none of us really saw any career opportunities in music,” Guðnadóttir recalls. “None of us started to make music because we thought we could live off of it. We were just making music to hang out with each other. So there was a lot of exploration that happened through that.” By the mid-2000s, Guðnadóttir had moved beyond the Reykjavik scene to become part of a global community of artists blurring the lines between neoclassical composition, found-sound experimentation, and post-rock grandeur. On top of establishing her own solo career, Guðnadóttir had become an in-demand session player for boundary-pushing artists like Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, and Pan/Sonic. But her forays into film scoring were abetted by another Icelandic native: the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. 

Best known for soundtracking Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and Arrival (on which Guðnadóttir performed), Jóhannsson was instrumental in building the bridge between Hollywood and the avant-garde that Guðnadóttir would later traverse. “We came from basically the same scene in Iceland,” Hildur said of her long-time collaborator, who passed away suddenly in 2018 at age 48. “Then we started working together in 2003. He was super influential in opening people’s ears in Hollywood. He did an incredible job of bringing more inaccessible sounds to film-scoring.”

As Guðnadóttir has attracted more high-profile projects, Jóhannsson’s influence on her work has become more evident, especially when it comes to her methods for capturing those “inaccessible sounds.” Her approach to Chernobyl was not so much to complement a scene as seep inside of it, building her unsettling score from field recordings captured inside Lithuania’s decommissioned Ignalina Power Plant (where the series was shot) and investing her dread-ridden drones with a degree of claustrophobic unease.

“Radiation is such a strong character in the story, and I thought it was really important that the music was the radiation … I basically tried to make a musical instrument out of a nuclear power plant, and really root the music in the facts of this story.”

Naturally, a fictional work like Joker demanded a considerably different treatment. “The music has more space to make bigger statements,” she said. The results are no less effective, and Guðnadóttir’s Joker score—all trembling cellos and marauding percussion—deftly mediates between the melancholy and the frightening.

Needless to say, no one was more surprised by the score’s success than Guðnadóttir, but her journey from the underground to the red carpet has been a pleasant experience. Even before her award wins firmly established her as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand composers, the Icelandic outsider found a welcoming scene in L.A. not entirely unlike the one that nurtured her in Reykjavik. 

“I imagined Hollywood to be this competitive world, but I’ve been so wonderfully surprised to see a sense of community between film composers—people seem to be really happy to support each other’s work and cheer each other on.”

Tune into This Is Hildur Guðnadóttir to experience the avant-garde composer’s Oscar-winning scores.