January 31, 2023

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Hildur Gunadotti’s ‘Woman Talking’ is ‘her’ composer

5 min read

He may have an Oscar, an Emmy and two Grammys, but composer Hildur Gunadotti is uncomfortable in the spotlight. She would rather be practicing her cello in her Berlin studio, taking her son to school or making dinner for her family.

The Icelandic composer of “Joker” and “Chernobyl” is in Hollywood to talk about his two awards-season projects, Todd Field’s “Tar” and Sarah Polley’s “Woman Talking” (the latter of which is on the Oscar shortlist for the score). And he does it so easily and candidly with a friendly demeanor and an infectious smile. But it was clear that this was not a place he would normally choose.

“I was carrying my music for 20 years and no one took it seriously,” he says with a laugh. Her bracing, emotionally powerful score for 2019’s “Joker” — which made her only the third woman in Oscar history to win an original score — changed everything overnight.

“It was a huge change for me to have so much attention,” she says. “Of course, Covid hit right after the Oscars. So it was a complete U-turn from all the events to just not seeing anyone. And it made the whole thing a bit surreal – me being by myself, then being around all these people, and then being alone again.”

The Fields film came first in late 2020. What drew him to “Her” was the focus on the music-making process. “I’m more interested in standing on stage or performing than in the final product,” he says—an unusual attitude for a composer.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

“Hildur is a composer I’ve admired for a long time, before he started doing any television or film scoring,” says Field, a classical-music lover who calls Guðnadóttir his second calling (after Cate Blanchett, who plays the film’s title character). After writing the script for his film about a powerful symphony conductor whose troubled personal life permeates his very public career.

“We had an unusually long process together that started long before prep and went all the way through the film,” notes Field. “Our first conversation really started about noise and noise. How does he hear? How does he listen? He ended up writing music for all the actors to listen to as they walked onto the set.”

“Women Talking” director Polly added: “I’ve long been in love with Hildur’s work. There’s never any sentimentality in his work, and this score needed to be concerned with hope, faith and the idea of ​​a possible future that never seemed manipulative.” I needed his steady hand to make sure.”

Yet the composer from “Joker” did both these films. “I’m very picky,” admits Gudnadottir. “It’s very important for me to be present for the project I’m working on, to have the time and space and emotional energy to be inside the story I’m telling.”

And, as Guðnadóttir makes clear, she’s not just a “film composer”. “It’s very important to me not to be stuck in one medium,” he declares.

His musical interests are wide-ranging: in July, he premiered a 16-minute work for choir and orchestra at London’s famous Proms (“The Fact of the Matter”, his musical response to the state of the world), and he recently performed another concert piece in Krakow, Poland. , which he calls a “robotic reaction machine”.

Experimental music – some of which was performed by the LA Philharmonic in November 2021 – played a huge role in his career. His haunting, Emmy-winning score for HBO’s “Chernobyl,” for example, was constructed entirely from sounds recorded at a Lithuanian nuclear power plant, processed in his studio with tape machines and electronic gear.

“There’s so much to explore in music,” she muses. “My mind is much more driven by the process than necessarily knowing what the outcome is going to be.”

He loves his life in Berlin, where he has been living “in the state” for the past 20 years. Born in Reykjavík, the daughter of a composer and opera singer, she began playing the cello at age 5 and went on to study electroacoustic composition at the Berlin University of the Arts.

He fell in love with the city and its thriving classical and pop music scene and decided to stay. “It’s a place where I can listen to my thoughts,” she says. “There is something very grounding about the city. It’s very easy to disappear. You don’t have to see anyone if you don’t want to, which is mostly what I do.”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Guðnadóttir has spent several years collaborating closely with fellow Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose music for “Sicario” and “Arrival” won widespread acclaim in 2015–16. “We were very much on the same musical page. He moved to Berlin to work with me and we shared a studio until his death (in 2018).

His custom-built instrument, the electroacoustic holodorophone, played a prominent role in nearly all of Johansson’s scores and for the “Sicario” sequel “Day of the Soldato” caught the attention of his original music director Todd Phillips, who directed “Joker.” ” score from him.

She and her husband, English composer-producer Sam Slater, collaborated on the acclaimed videogame score for “Battlefield 2042” (and she composed his scores for “Joker” and “Chernobyl”). They are currently converting an old Berlin restaurant into a new 2,500-square-foot studio; They hope to complete the work in February.

They married in California in September 2019 (“a very spontaneous decision,” she commented) hours before the Society of Composers and Lyricists reception they attended to celebrate her Emmy nomination for “Chernobyl.” “Brexit was just around the corner, and he was a bit nervous about what would happen. So it was a sort of Beverly Hills Brexit escape,” he says with a laugh.

The international nature of their lives and careers becomes more apparent with an anecdote about an epidemic. Her 10-year-old son’s father is French, and he had to be homeschooled in that language for a year and a half during the Covid lockdown. “Nobody speaks the same language at home. It’s very confusing,” he says with another laugh. “It’s a big mess.”

He finds solace in his daily routine. Yoga, meditation, practicing her voice and cello (usually Bach) in the morning, composing in the afternoon, bringing her son back from school, home to cook dinner in the evening,

Now 40, Guðnadóttir thinks it’s the best time of her life. “I have a better idea of ​​what I need to work on as a person – which helps me maintain my body, my mind and my creative process. I think I’m starting to learn it now. I’m not very strategic about how I choose new projects. It’s usually clear pretty quickly whether a project will resonate with me or not.”

He’s just starting work on “Joker 2,” a reunion with director Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix, whose soft-shoe score to the composer’s “Bathroom Dance” music likely won him an Oscar. Lady Gaga joins the cast as Harley Quinn.

Yet this happy, successful musician shuns the limelight and insists: “My life is pretty boring.”

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