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Play It by Ear: Hildur’s Musical Intuitions
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

Seeing this young Icelandic woman, one would not expect to hear the intense psychological music she composes. Hildur Guönadóttir has gained enormous recognition for her creative compositions for film and television scores. She said it takes a certain level of trust to follow your ideas. From a musical family and because Iceland is small, everyone participates in supporting each other’s projects, music, sport or otherwise. Being born in Iceland has a huge influence on her: the shear vastness of the landscape, bringing forth a dark psychological feeling in her compositions.

Hildur’s first composition that was heard during her lecture still haunts me today: The score for the psychological thriller JOKER (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, and starring Joaquin Phoenix. She says that people are often surprised that she produces such music because she herself has quite a different personality. The apex of her creativity was an Academy Award for Best Original Score, whereby she was only the fourth woman to have won in this category. She described slipping her recording to the director— and being thrilled that he recognized her potential. What intrigued her about the film script was that it went behind the Joker’s mask and revealed how someone could turn into such a character. Phoenix was given the space to develop further, just as she was with her composition.

For the HBO drama CHERNOBYL, she visited a nuclear power plant to listen to the varying frequencies, collecting these interesting sounds to use in her compositions. Her favorites came from an electrical metal door to a room with many switches, whereby the door never made the same sound twice. She received a Primetime Emmy Award and a Grammy Award for this HBO drama, and won not only the Golden Globe Award but also a BAFTA Award, making her the first solo female composer to win, leading the way for more women to follow.