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About this Piece

Film music, as we know it, is only about a century old. An infant compared to the timeworn classical genre, and it has often been treated as such inside the concert hall—too derivative, too commercial, too... childish. The first generation of film composers largely came from the concert hall themselves, and contended with internal conflict and external derision of adapting these techniques to a new art form, making up the rules of film scoring on the fly. In time came innovators like Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone who broke those rules and established new models of minimalism and sonic experimentation, without ever losing their grip on beauty and emotion.

Emotion has always been the core of film composition, and even as the style has fluctuated away from and back to an orchestral, symphonic approach, the jazz cats, rock ’n’ rollers, synth wizards, samplers, and beat-makers who subsequently rushed into film never abandoned that core. Scores can play many roles, of course—provide subtext, orient audiences in a particular place and time, enhance drama, underline action, even try to liven up a dull scene—but, fundamentally, film music exists to feel.

In the past decade, a new generation of composers has arrived in film to disrupt the old order even more. Practitioners used to be almost exclusively male and white, for one thing, and a wave of color and female power is slowly smashing that foundation rock. These new composers, too, are proving that any musical language can work in film if it supports the story, that music can be an integral part of the filmmaking process at the earliest stages—and that soundtracks still have the power to shock and surprise as well as to move.


Hildur Guðnadóttir seemingly came out of nowhere when she took the Academy Award for Joker last year, the first female composer to do so in nearly 25 years and only the third in the Academy’s history. But the Icelandic cellist had, in fact, been steadily building a reputation as a sonically adventurous performer, recording artist, and composer for theater, dance, and European film for the past 15 years. And before that, she was in pop bands playing music that, she has pointed out ironically, was “quite cheerful.”

There’s a duality of darkness and light at the heart of this bright, constantly laughing woman whose Icelandic name literally means “War, Daughter of God.” Born in the town of Hafnarfjörður to a clarinetist father and opera singer mother, she came to earth with a mission: her mother claims to have had a premonition while she was pregnant that this little warrior would be a cellist. “I’m Icelandic,” Guðnadóttir laughs. “We’re all so dramatic.” There was some drama with her prophesied instrument, which she began playing at the age of six, as the little girl lugged this giant wooden contraption to school every day, sometimes getting flown into the air by the cold Nordic winds. “It was sometimes a bumpy ride that we had,” she says.

That’s partly what drove her into composition and electroacoustic experimentation—far less schlepping involved—making loud and dangerous music. She attended the Reykjavík Music Academy, and she studied composition and new media at the Iceland Academy of the Arts and the Universität der Künste Berlin. But a mysterious thing happened, and she “accidentally fell in love with the cello again”—something about the immediacy of expression, about the relative quietness and calm. The cello became an extension of her body, as she puts it, and these two streams merged to put Guðnadóttir on her current path. She found her unique voice combining the human cry of the cello and the untold possibilities of warm expression found in cold electronics—which she frequently explores with the halldorophone, a cello with a feedback mechanism in its heart that was invented for her by a childhood friend, Halldór.

As a solo artist, she has explored the beautifully bleak and cryptic spectrum of music with several acclaimed solo albums. She has frequently performed with other simpatico recording artists, and early on, she teamed up with a band of musical troublemakers in Berlin—among them fellow Icelander Jóhann Jóhannsson, whom she first met as a teenager. When Jóhannsson ventured into film scoring, he brought Guðnadóttir along: she performed on all of his major Hollywood scores, including Sicario and Arrival, and they co-wrote the score for Mary Magdalene in 2018. When Jóhannson died unexpectedly at the age of 48, Guðnadóttir took up the mantle of scoring the Sicario sequel.

That was the formal moment of her introduction to Hollywood, even though she’d been scoring her own film and TV projects overseas for several years. (Her music was also used in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2015 film The Revenant, which featured an original score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.) But Hollywood was poised and ready for her dark and elemental sound, as well as her slightly unconventional way of working. Many directors and producers today are listening to records, not classical or film music, and want an individual personality to score their films as opposed to a trained symphonist shapeshifter. That’s what brought the makers of the HBO series Chernobyl to Guðnadóttir—inspiring a bittersweet score built from sounds she gathered at a decommissioned power plant—as well as Joker director Todd Phillips. She wrote her solo cello theme before production, which Phillips then played on set, most prominently in a pivotal scene (“Bathroom Dance”) where Joaquin Phoenix sways in response. Guðnadóttir’s music not only set the tone, it inspired the main character in his moment of transformation.

The fact that she was an all-too rare woman to win an Oscar for that score was only one of several achievements. Guðnadóttir is demonstrating a new way of thinking about film composition—that it can be an extension of an individualistic voice, that it can probe the boundaries beyond a traditional acoustic palette and still find powerful emotion and drama, that music can be as fundamental an ingredient to the filmmaking process as a script or an actor’s performance.

Among her work for installations and concerts is the 2013 piece Under Takes Over, commissioned by the Iceland Symphony. (It came about, she wrote in her program note, after “my subconscious took over from my typical conscious state. I don’t particularly recommend losing consciousness, but it can be very effective to ... focus the sense organs in a different way.”) Her latest experiment is scoring a video game, a storytelling medium that has eclipsed film in popularity (or at least in revenue). Battlefield 2042, which she co-scored with her partner Sam Slater, is the latest chapter in the Battlefield franchise produced by Electronic Arts—and it finds Guðnadóttir, once again, creating dark and icy moods that defy easy categorization. —Tim Greiving