Hildur Guðnadóttir has been busy making history. The composer of the Joker soundtrack took home the 2020 Oscar for Best Original Score this week, making her the fourth woman composer to win overall and the first to win for a dramatic score. (She’s also the first Icelander to win an Oscar, period.) Guðnadóttir notched another first last month when she won the Golden Globe for Best Original Score, the first woman ever to receive the honor as a solo artist. Later in January, she also became the first solo woman to win a Best Score Soundtrack Grammy, for her score to HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries. And she’s merely a Tony away from EGOTing, what with her recent Emmy for Chernobyl.
While the 37-year-old musician might be best known for her film work, her soundtracks constitute a relatively small part of her output to date. Guðnadóttir, who picked up the cello when she was five, started sitting in with her countrymen Múm when she was just 15—that’s her, faintly, in the background of “Awake on a Train,” from the indie-tronic group’s 1999 debut, Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is OK—and quickly became a ubiquitous presence in the interzone between experimental electronic music and contemporary composition. She has played on recordings by Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Pan Sonic, Jamie Lidell, the Knife, and David Sylvian, as well as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtracks to Arrival and Orphée, and The Revenant score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner. As some on Twitter have noted with delight, she is the first—and quite possibly the last?—Oscar winner to have also performed with Throbbing Gristle and Sunn O))).
But it’s on her own, and in the occasional duo or trio setting, that Guðnadóttir has established her signature sound: a moving fusion of ambient drone and contemporary classical that places an emphasis on her exceptionally controlled tone; she’s capable of conjuring entire worlds out of just a few carefully chosen notes. Rarely has a melancholy so deep been expressed with such restraint.
Here are seven essential entry points into her discography.
Mr Schmuck’s Farm – Good Sounds (2005)
One of the first recordings to feature Guðnadóttir as a principal player, this one-off project pairs the cellist with Dirk Dresselhaus, better known as Schneider TM. (That they abandoned the unflattering alias of Mr Schmuck’s Farm after just one record is probably for the best.) A world away from Dresselhaus’ fetching electro pop, Good Sound is a shadowy, occasionally forbidding affair that pairs Guðnadóttir’s scraping, clattering bow work with improvised electronics. The three tracks run between 16 and 33 minutes apiece, eschewing melody and movement in favor of the resonant clang of tarnished metal. Despite that omnipresent gloom, it’s not a claustrophobic sound: In “My Favorite Caucus Airchamber,” Guðnadóttir’s held tones and flashing harmonics suggest an icy expanse of landscape. The duo would explore similarly austere territory on 2006’s In Transmediale, recorded live in Berlin and featuring Pan Sonic’s Ilpo Väisänen (who plays with Dresselhaus under the name Angel).
Hildur Guðnadóttir – Without Sinking (2009)
On her debut album, 2006’s 12 Tónar, Guðnadóttir wanted to “involve other people as little as [she] could.” She handled all the playing herself, weaving cello, gamba, zither, Mongolian morin khuur, and gamelan into welcoming, warmly minimalist meditations. On Without Sinking, her second solo album, Guðnadóttir pursues a similar aesthetic while reaching out to a trusted set of collaborators, including Icelandic bassist Skuli Sverrisson and the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom she would she would collaborate up until his 2018 death. As patient as they are graceful, Without Sinking’s 10 quietly expressive tracks are studies in the properties of layers; their closely harmonized voices move as naturally as tall grass in the wind.
Hauschka & Hildur Guðnadóttir – Pan Tone (2011)
Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann) is a German musician known for his work on the prepared piano—that is, an instrument he has modified by sticking bits of metal, wood, or plastic among the strings and hammers, yielding an unpredictable and quietly dissonant sound. The two musicians make for a complementary duo, with Guðnadóttir’s more somber instincts balancing out Hauschka’s playful rhythmic touch. For this 2011 collaboration, the pair crafted six pieces inspired by the ocean, with numbered titles (“#283,” “#320”) corresponding to Pantone’s proprietary color system. Curious synesthetes might be interested in comparing the sounds with the colors being referenced—I was surprised to find “#304,” with its dead-of-night cello creaks and hammered strings, meant to evoke such a cool, untroubled blue. And their “Black 6” may start out bathed in shadow, but as Guðnadóttir’s melody develops, I “hear” the reflection of red flames dancing on the water’s surface. But those interpretive discrepancies are all part of the fun of this unusual record.
Hildur Guðnadóttir – Saman (2014)
Saman is Guðnadóttir’s most recent solo album and probably her strongest artistic statement to date. She translates the moodiness of her previous recordings to a more melodic style of songwriting, and a more varied set of pieces. Her expressive playing is elegantly controlled; she’s capable of saying a remarkable amount with a short run of notes and the slightest, almost reluctant touch of vibrato. There are fleeting echoes of Bach’s cello suites, medieval counterpoint, and even the spaciousness of Arvo Pärt. You can hear what’s special about her sensibility in tracks like “Rennur Upp”: Despite the simplicity of the harmonies, there’s something unusually captivating, almost bewitching, about the way it unfolds. Best of all are the pieces featuring her crystalline voice, like “Heyr Himnasmiður,” an Icelandic hymn. Her singing is as restrained as her bow work, and the fusion of the two elements—the album’s title translates as “together,” in fact—is quietly electrifying.
Hildur Guðnadóttir – Chernobyl OST (2019)
Some film and television soundtracks lurk in the background; others seem almost seamlessly integrated with the world being depicted, practically inextricable from the setting and the narrative. That Guðnadóttir’s score for HBO’s Chernobyl is an example of the latter has a lot to do with how she made it. Before she began composing, she and a producer traveled to the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, in what was then the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic. They donned protective gear and made field recordings on site, in the effort to let the doomed power plant “be a voice in itself,” she told The Guardian. “I wanted to understand the feeling of what must have gone through people’s head as they were trying to navigate through that disaster.” Back in her Berlin studio, she folded ambient crackle and hum into one of her most abstracted pieces to date, using seesawing cello to ramp up the tension while industrial throb suggests the deadly meltdown and its devastating aftermath.
Hildur Guðnadóttir – Joker OST (2019)
The patience of Guðnadóttir’s playing is so compelling, it managed to influence the very pacing of Todd Phillips’ Joker. No small thing, for a classical cellist to play such a major role in redirecting the energy of a Hollywood franchise, particularly one that was for years rendered in comparatively exaggerated, cartoonish tones. Before Phillips even began filming, Guðnadóttir was at work on her score, composing directly from the script. An unusual creative rhythm developed: She would send early demos to Phillips, who would play them on set. For one pivotal scene, the director and Joaquin Phoenix cued up one of her recordings for inspiration, and Phoenix proceeded to improvise a strange, moving dance in dialog with her sl0w-moving melodies; this bathroom dance scene has been celebrated as one of the key moments of the film.
What might be most striking about her score is how much empathy she brings to Phoenix’s character, Arthur Bleck. It would be comparatively easy for an experienced composer to flesh out Phillips’ grim, dimly lit world with more dread, more menace, more debasement. But there is an uncommon tenderness to even the most unsettling moments of her score, a kind of wounded grace.
Hildur Guðnadóttir – “Fólk fær andlit” (2020)
Like many European countries, Iceland has struggled to respond to the refugee crisis. In 2015, a group of Albanian refugees (children included) was taken from their homes in the dead of night and deported from Iceland. “It was deeply distressing to watch the series of events unfold,” says Guðnadóttir; “how people divided into two separate oppositions, for or against people.” “Fólk fær andlit” released in late January, is her response: a heartbreakingly beautiful choral piece in which her multi-tracked vocals swell above a simple pedal tone. The title translates as “People Get Faces”; it is, in essence, a requiem—timeless in sound, yet mournfully contemporary in its subject matter.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork