Hildur Gudnadottir: 5 Essential tracks

Sam Davies

After her Golden Globe win and as she’s tipped for an Oscar, this is Hildur Guðnadóttir’s career so far in five tracks

She just became the first woman ever to win a Best Original Score Golden Globe award on her own for her Joker soundtrack. Many think an Academy Award is sure to follow. But Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music has been haunting listeners for over 20 years.

She grew up in Iceland, attending the Reykjavík Music Academy and later joining the Kitchen Motors Family, an Icelandic think tank and record label founded by fellow composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Other members included Sigur Rós frontman Jón Þór Birgisson and Múm, the Icelandic band with which Hildur played the cello.

Even to those of us who have never been to Iceland, the influence of Hildur’s homeland in her music is plain to hear. In 2006, Reykjavík label 12 Tónar released her debut solo album Mount A under the artist name Lost in the Hildurness. It’s a fitting moniker: Mount A is a sparse, bone-chilling suite with an effect similar to losing yourself on the edge of the Arctic Circle as the Northern Lights swirl overhead. Hildur later signed to British experimental label Touch Music and released a further three solo albums.

As well as Joker, Hildur’s film credits include scores for breathless HBO drama Chernobyl, US-Mexican border thriller Sicario: Day of the Soldado and first-century religious tale Mary Magdalene. Here’s how she became an Oscar favourite in five of her best compositions.

Mr Schmuck’s Farm “Not All Crows Are Black” (2005)

Before she was 20, Hildur had joined Múm, playing cello on their 2000 album Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is Ok, a cosy record crossing Scandi post-rock with IDM. Then halfway through the decade she and Dirk Dresselhaus (aka Schneider TM) formed Mr Schmuck’s Farm, a short-lived, headily experimental drone project whose 2005 album Good Sound remains their only release.

With Dresselhaus fiddling away on various FX boxes, Hildur adds cello, accordion, zither, saw and pearl chain. Imagine being trapped in a crevasse on the side of a glacier overnight, listening to the ice creak and split around you as the temperature plummets: that’s roughly equivalent to the unending tension created on “Not All Crows Are Black”.

Hildur Guðnadóttir “Self” (2006)

Hildur recorded her debut album alone, saying afterwards that she had tried to “involve other people as little as I could.” The result is a ghostly, frostbitten dirge of a record, a study in isolation that creeps up the back of your neck like a whispering voice you hear when there’s nobody else around. By contrast, the album cover depicts the artist as she often comes across in interviews: friendly, easygoing, giggly even.

But peer into that face a second too long and the image takes on an uncanny feel, as though the woman in the photograph is smiling about the havoc her music is wreaking on your mind. (For more eery Hildur album covers, check out 2007’s Second Childhood.) “Self” is the album’s evil centrepiece.

Hildur Guðnadóttir “Heima (feat. Skúli Sverrisson)” (2014)

While Mount A was all about solitude, the title of Hildur’s fourth album Saman translates as "together." It was recorded in Berlin where Hildur now lives and features several collaborators, including bassist Skúli Sverrisson, on beautiful highlight “Heima”. But don’t expect a party: this is music for making skin crawl, for listening to on your own while grinning like Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. The album is also the best showcase of Hildur’s voice, an occasionally deployed instrument reminiscent of Björk at her most sinister.

Hildur Guðnadóttir “Convoy” (2018)

Hildur has made music with Animal Collective, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sunn O))), David Sylvian, The Knife and Throbbing Gristle, but one collaborator feels more telling than any other: the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson. Having played with him since the early 2000s, Hildur assisted Jóhannsson on blockbuster film scores like Arrival and Sicario.

When he passed away at just 48 in 2018, Hildur gave quotes to jouunalists saying she was “swimming in tears.” She scored the Sicario sequel, Day of the Soldado, on her own. Released four months after Jóhannsson’s death, the film is never more thrilling than when Benicio del Toro transports a kidnapped girl across the Mexico-US border. Hildur’s “Convoy” makes the sequence almost unbearably tense.

Hildur Guðnadóttir “Bathroom Dance” (2019)

Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips weren't sure what to do with this scene. Searching for ideas, Phillips played one of Hildur’s compositions on set. Phoenix reacted instinctively, resulting in the expressive dance sequence that has come to define the film. Without Hildur’s score, Joker wouldn't work.

In some ways “Bathroom Dance” feels like a culmination of her career (just listen back to that aching cello at the end of “Self”). In other ways, it could constitute a new beginning. She will now have offers from most of Hollywood; what she does next is anyone’s guess.

 

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Feature image via Andy Newcombe