Interview with Hildur Guðnadóttir

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While not a movie specifically about immigration, 2015’s “Sicario” depicted the drug war and its effects on both sides of the Mexican / American border with a deeply unsettling truth uncommon to the multiplex – showing why a terrified Latino populace would do anything to flee. Hammering home the converging stories of victims and aggressors was the Oscar-nominated score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, his music comprised of nerve-jangling tonal effects and the haunted emotion of morality gone astray, tension that built with unbearably suspenseful power.

Now after the tragedy of Jóhann son’s sudden passing, it’s his fellow Icelandic collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir who picks up the nightmarish musical torch, expanding on the suspenseful, and emotional sound of “Sicario” for its sequel “Day of the Soldado.” Here, the hot button issue of illegals is flamingly front and center as the drug cartel’s aid to jihadists has an enraged American government decided to turn Mexico’s illegal empires against each other at all costs. Their two blunt instruments are government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his personally crafted weapon Alejandro Gillick (Benicia Del Toro), a lawyer turned punisher by the drug lord’s annihilation of his family. But when Washington’s plan to kidnap a drug boss’ daughter goes lethally astray, the resulting order to wipe the evidence suddenly gives a Sicario who thought nothing of wiping out a dealer’s kids an unexpected note of humanity as he tries to get his young target back across the border.

Having been an integral part of the first “Sicario” score, Guðnadóttir expands Jóhannsson’s mix of primal percussion, knife-cutting tension and brooding lyricism to new, subterranean heights with “Soldado’s” journey through the heart of darkness. Creating a veritable horror score, Guðnadóttir’s lurching themes, grinding metallic percussion and ever-escalating sustains throw the full weight of a government driven to murder and another country where corruption is a way of life down on characters where good and evil are one. It’s a sonic web of treachery, with melody creating a sad sense of morality lost, and just the sliver of redemption. It’s an uncompromising score for an action fictionalization of a reality that will only seem to get worse, but is no less transfixing for it as Guðnadóttir stretches the limits between melody and merciless sound design that gives “Soldado” its unbearable tension and sadness.

Like Jóhannsson, Guðnadóttir began her career in the alternative scene. Staring as a child prodigy on the cello, she’d parlaying her growing talents as a composer and singer into such conceptual solo albums as “Mount A,” “Without Sinking” and “Saman,” as well as playing with such bands as artists as David Sylvian, Throbbing Gristle and cello on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for “The Revenant.” Writing for theater and opera, Hildur’s made an impression on the stage of real world-based crime with her score for 2012’s acclaimed Somali piracy film “A Hijacking.” As she collaborated with Jóhann Jóhannsson on the mesmerizing, and sometimes confrontation soundscapes of “Prisoners,” “Sicario” “Arrival” and the forthcoming “Mary Magdalene,” Guðnadóttir’s own voice impressed with her work for the Oscar-nominated documentary “Strong Island” the biopic of the iconic S & M artist “Tom of Finland” and the World War I drama “Journey’s End.” But it’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” that not only represents the Icelandic composer’s biggest venture to Hollywood, but also how she’s so capably taken a score’s unique, often terrifying voice into her own melancholy domain, giving new direction into the no-man’s land that a people will do anything to traverse, let alone a killer following his own code of morality.

What particularly interested you in the cello? And what do you think makes its sound stand out among all the orchestral instruments?

It was certainly not the size of it! I think the width of sounds and colors it is capable of producing is what has made me stick with it. The cello can be a very lyrical and romantic boyfriend, but it can also be a very dry and husky aunt. It has been a part of me since I was a baby, so the connection has become very deep and engraved in me.

Through your classical training, what unique “voice” do you think you brought to the cello? And how did singing and choral music get added to your repertoire?

It never suited me to play the way I was “supposed” to play. It made me terrified of doing something wrong and it really got in the way of music for me. My last teacher probably taught me the most by hammering into me that I should “JUST PLAY!” That taught me there is no wrong playing. If I were bringing anything unique to the cello, it would probably be that. I´m just playing it.

Photo by by Antje Taiga Jandrig and Rune Kongsro

I sang in a choir for most of my childhood and my first job was as a solo singing child. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old when I started doing that. And I started singing in bands as a teenager. So singing has always been a part of me. When I first started making solo records, I felt the cello needed more space but the voice was always hidden in the back, to add color to the cello. If you listen carefully you´ll hear it. In my later works it felt like the voice needed a bit more space, so I allowed it to have that.

How did your alternative collaborations and solo work lead you to become interested in film composing?

In my practice I try to be open to what comes my way. I think that film found me more than I found film. I never had any ambitions to become a film composer. I got approached to make music for film about 10 years ago, and since I´m very interested in story telling it seemed like a fun thing to do. Music plays a big part in telling the stories in films and I still enjoy that a lot.

How did you begin your musical partnership with Jóhann Jóhannsson, and why do you think it worked so well?

Jóhann and Hildur

As you can imagine, the Icelandic music scene is pretty tiny. I met Jóhann through mutual friends in Iceland about 20 years ago and our ideas about music and sound instantly resonated very well. From the very first time we worked together we were very much in tune with each other and we ended up working together on almost every single project we both did in some shape or form. If not directly involved we´d always lend each other an ear. We became a bit like each other’s extra set of ears. When you work together so closely over such a long time you form a bond that is like nothing else. You’re able to communicate with a non-verbal ease and trust that only comes with time and practice. I think we also complemented each other in the difference of our personalities and musicality. His strengths were my weaknesses and vice versa.

Right from your own solo composing start, you dealt with real-life, international crime with “A Hijacking,” which was about a Danish ship hijacked by Somali pirates. What particular talent do you think you brought to the genre?

Communication is key in any kind of collaboration and I had an incredibly good and effortless dialogue with the director and editor of “A Hijacking.” Right from the start we were in agreement about what we thought was right for the film. I think it´s always a good sign when you don´t have to fight for your ideas, when things just fall naturally in place it feels like the story is being told in the way it wants to be told. I was just one element of telling that story.

Do you think there’s a natural mournfulness to your Icelandic homeland that adds to your darker works?

Where you come from is naturally always going to influence who\ you are and what you do. But I haven’t spent much time in Iceland in the last several years, so it is definitely not a conscious influence.

What was it like for you and Jóhann to first collaborate with director Dennis Villeneuve on “Prisoners?” especially when it came to developing a dark sound that would evolve for “Sicario?”

It was a really lovely experience and the dialogue was great and effortless. I wasn´t in contact with Dennis Villeneuve myself, but I was in very close contact with Jóhann about the process and music. It seemed evident that dark strings were needed for “Prisoners” and I think “Sicario” was a natural evolution of those dark strings. They got darker and the tonal material was stripped down.

How did you get the solo assignment of scoring “Sicario: Day of the Soldado?” And given how much of Hollywood hit that film was, did the expectations for a sequel make it particularly challenging?

Jóhann was unable to do the score for the sequel, so he suggested that I would take that on since I was a big part of the first score. The first “Sicario” score was obviously a massive success and it´s being copied in such a vast amount of films these days. I definitely did not want to make yet another copy of its cue called “The Beast,” but still wanted to stay true to the sound world we had created for the first film. So in a way it was both challenging and not challenging, if that makes any sense!

How would you say this films’ director Stefano Sollima differed from Dennis? And how much of the original “Sicario” sound did he want to continue with while exploring new musical dimensions for the characters?

It was important to Stefano that the emotional side of the characters was drawn out. So there is more emotional underscoring in “Soldado” and it is also twice the length of the previous score. It is obviously a very different way of scoring, since the music in this film has a very different function. Stefano wanted to keep elements of the heavy dryness of the previous score but he was very keen on adding “romantic” and sweeter elements to the mix. This decision was based the characters showing more emotion than in the previous film, with Alejandro´s unexpected emotional side probably being the best example of that.

How important was the score in tying together the film’s various stories, especially when contrasting the Mexican daughter of a drug kingpin an American-Mexican teen pulled into human smuggling?

It was a pretty important part of the story telling using the tried and tested way of scoring so that each character has a sound and/or theme. That can often help the audience following who is who and how they connect.

If anything, “Soldado” throws us deeper into the world caught between sound design and score. How did you navigate between them?

I´m very happy to hear you say that. I think it´s hugely important to connect the music and sound design, especially in a film like this where the sound design often takes up a lot of space. You really don´t want to fight it, but try to compliment it. So for example in the very big shooting scenes with a lot of percussion, it was important to me that the percussion resonated with the types of guns being shot.

There’s often a distorted, lurching quality to the score that could easily be mistaken as belonging to a horror movie. What do you think that says about playing a situation of real, unimaginable terror that’s being inflicted on two countries, but particularly in Latin America?

I am in no way an expert on the situation in Latin America, but watching from afar what is going with drug wars and how immigrants are being treated it often does seem like a horror movie. But it is real.

What was your approach to keeping the onscreen violence “real” without delivering the kind of “fun” that audiences would want from the genre?

I don´t think either of the “Sicario” films have a lot of space for “fun,” so it was quite an easy decision for me to steer away from that. I suspect that the audience will gather from the first film that there is no “hasta la vista baby” equivalent in this film either.

There’s an unbearable amount of musical tension to the score, particularly in the way the score builds with sustains and rhythm. What’s the art to that?

The only way that I can explain the art of any element of scoring is that you try to follow and enhance the story that is being told. There is a lot of tension building up from the get go in “Soldado,” so it felt natural that the music would help enhance that. Exactly how you do that is of course different between films. You just try to listen to what kind of sounds will help the image and try to create that with any means possible.

How did you want to capture the high-tech weaponry, and military planning that goes into the drug hit squad?

For me it feels very cold and merciless. So I tried to use only sounds that I feel are of that quality, played in quite a ruthless way.

Tell us how you used metallic effects and percussion in the score. And just how merciless did you think you could be with them?

We basically used any sort of scrap metal we could find for the percussion. There´s not a whole lot of “regular drums” in the score. One of the star instruments is an old metallic film casing that was beaten to death and bowed to pieces during the recording process. We played a vast amount of objects and instruments with various bows for a lot the higher register elements and percussion; pianos, harps, kalimbas, pizza boxes, shelves, left over pieces of wood and random bit and pieces of metal. The biggest star instrument is the Halldoraphone, which was built by Halldór Úlfarsson. It’s a cross over between a cello and a soaring feedback monster. It is one of my main instruments these days and is responsible for a large amount of the ruthlessness of the score.

How did you want to play the innocence of the youths caught up in this nightmarish world?

Those were drawn out with simple and naive melodies.

How did you want to gradually bring melody into the score? Do you think it would have been bearable without it?

The melodies were brought in to help us sympathize with the emotional side of the characters and underline the helplessness of a young innocent child that is forced into this hellish drug war world. I think the use of melodies probably does help with that.

In a way, do you think “Soldado” fools you into thinking what kind of score it will be, especially in the way it develops to reveal the unexpected use of the orchestra?

I think I am not the one to judge that. I am sure people will already have their expectations based on the original “Sicario” score before even going to see “Soldado.” The only thing I can hope to have achieved is to have served the story in a way it deserves.

What was it like to work on the film from your homebase, and how important was it to have an LA-based music editor?

Photo by Antje Taiga Jandrig and Rune Kongsro

I really love my studio in Berlin and I feel very much at home here which allows me a lot of freedom while creating. It was really great to be working with Lee Scott, who was the film’s music editor in Los Angeles, because he could be my connection to the editing room when things started to heat up closer the end. That was very helpful.

Does scoring relentless subjects like “Sicario” take a psychological toll as you often capture the worst of humanity?

I think it probably does in some ways. But you also detach yourself a bit from the subject in order to get through it. I think you to put up a bit of a shield when you are working for months on end on a scene where 50 people are being killed, because at the end of each day, you still need to go home and cook dinner for your child with the hope that your tears are not going to be the only salt in the dinner. I prefer sea salt.

How do you see your scoring of “Soldado” in the greater international fight to bring more work to female composers, especially when it comes to dark, aggressive material that producers might not see a woman scoring?

It makes me unbelievably happy that women are finally being heard in the film industry. I feel like there´s an actual change happening at the moment and if I can be a part of that of that change nothing would give me greater joy. I have lost the count of times that it has been said to me that I couldn´t possibly have written “this kind of music being a woman”. Music should in my opinion be free of gender. It is simply a form of communication. I think everyone has a soft side and a darker side and all genders should be free to express both sides. Its just freedom of speech.

Would you like to continue working as a featured soloist on other composer’s scores, as you did with Ryuichi Sakamoto on “The Revenant?”

I choose projects based on the communication I have with the people involved and not the title I have. I absolutely loved working with Sakamoto on that score. He is such an incredible person and wonderful musician.

Had Jóhann heard your own “Sicario” work before he passed? And if so, what was his reaction to it?

Yes he had heard most of it. He really liked it. His first reaction was actually giggling and saying “Jesus Hildur, you make all of boys look like kittens!”

Can you tell us about “Mary Magdalene,” which is your final collaboration with Jóhann?

Her story is such an incredible one and it is heartbreaking how she was judged and portrayed as an evil prostitute. The score is the polar opposite to “Sicario.” It´s much more based on melody than texture.

Do you think it’s ironically fitting for a spiritual score to represent your lasting musical bond? And in your way, do you hope to capture the music that would have kept evolving from Jóhann, especially given that he likely left unfinished projects?

I guess there is some irony in that. We were musical soulmates for so long. Growing up together as we did, he will always be a big part of me. I will never be able to capture his music. I can only hope to capture the music that is given to me. But I think he was too stubborn to leave me for good, so I am sure that he´ll be dropping by. And knowing him, he´ll definitely have a thing or two to say about what´s being made.

What’s coming up for you? And what kind of film and performance work would you like to explore?

There are quite a few exciting things on the horizon. I´ll be writing the music to an HBO series about Chernobyl, which is just the most incredible and terrifying story. They are shooting it now. I also have a few pieces I´m working on that are not film related – a new record, an opera and a composition for organ and strings.

Would you like to see your composing branch out for Hollywood movies with “Soldado?”

I would like to see my work continue branching out for projects that I love and find interesting. Those are not necessarily Hollywood movies. A good story is a good story whether it is made in Hollywood or not.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” opens in theaters on June 29, with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score available on Varese Sarabande Records HERE

Listen to Hildur and Jóhann ’s soundtrack for “Mary Magdalene” HERE and Hildur’s “Without Sinking” HERE

Visit Hildur Guðnadóttir’s website HERE