Artist Spotlight: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Composer

She comes from the land of fire and ice and her music, assuredly no less magnificent, reaps the qualities of her home country, Iceland. Her homeland boasts wonders such as the magma-spewing Fagradalsfjall volcano and the powerful Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Similarly her melodies embody characteristics of these natural phenomenons, overflowing with passion with the ability to ignite molten emotions in listeners with her scores. She became the first female composer in history to ever receive an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA award in the same season, also setting records as the female composer with the highest number of awards received in a single season. She boasts an Academy Award, two Grammy Awards, and a Primetime Emmy Award. Her name is Hildur Guðnadóttir. 

Guðnadóttir was born into a family of musicians in the picturesque town of Reykjavik, one of the most quaint and peaceful capital cities on the planet. With a large statue of Lief Erickson overlooking the city center, colorful cafes specializing in a plethora of steaming drinks, and no shortage of the aurora borealis dancing across chilly skies, this is where the composer grew her roots. Her father, Guðni Franzson, was a talented clarinetist, her mother, Ingveldur Guðrún Ólafsdóttir, an opera singer, and even her brother, Þórarinn Guðnason, a member in a band. It only made sense that she began to play the cello by the age of five and first performed professionally at 10 years old. She went on to study at not only the Reykjavik Music Academy but the Iceland Academy of the Arts as well as the Berlin University of the Arts.

On top of being a talented cellist at a young age, she quickly became well-versed in mastering the halldorophone, a traditional Icelandic string instrument, as well. The young artist also took up a brief stint in the choir, both singing and arranging choral music. She would go on to arrange a choral performance for Throbbing Gristle, an English music and visual arts group; the arrangement of which, was performed on stage in both London as well as Austria. Iceland’s National Theatre also put on a performance of Guðnadóttir’s score which she created for the play Sumardagur (“Summer Day”). But the composer didn’t break into scoring films until her work on the Danish film, Kapringen, which catapulted her into the world of albums and filmmaking.

Between her first solo album, Mount A, in 2006 and her work in multiple Academy-prospected films in 2022, her repertoire of work in film is extensive and impressive. It includes her scoring Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene, winning an Emmy for her work on HBO miniseries Chernobyl, and scoring Todd Phillips’ Joker, which lead her to become the first Icelander to ever win an Oscar. She now resides in Berlin, but has created music all over the globe from New York to London, and has partnered in business with people like frequent collaborator Denis Villeneuve. Her most recent projects though, include working with the filmmakers of two hot-topic films this awards season: TÁR and Women Talking, and their directors, Todd Field and Sarah Polley, respectively.

Guðnadóttir and Field joined forces to create the score for his latest film, TÁR, with Cate Blanchett in the titular role as Lydia Tár, a classical conductor at the supposed peak of her career. Her score in the film is ironic as it’s subtle, appearing unfinished, taking on “ghostlike” qualities, on purpose of course. Guðnadóttir has previously explained that, “Since this is a film about the process of making music, we never hear the finished version. When you’re writing music, you are hearing it internally — you hear it before it starts moving air.” But for those either not satisfied or too curious, they can hear the full and final version of “For Petra”; it can be found on the Deutsche Grammophon soundtrack album, along with accompanying pieces.

Her work in TÁR is indeed innovative and unique, but her real masterpiece this awards season is the score in which she created for Polley’s film Women Talking. When Guðnadóttir first read the script she has said she became understandably angry, as the film feature a religious group whose women suffer from systemic abuse and rape by the men in this patriarchal community. It’s undeniably a spectacularly important film, but is emotionally exhausting and powerful as well, leading the composer to initially creating a score full of heaviness and anger. That is, until it turned hopeful. 

Polley and Guðnadóttir worked closely together throughout the process, and it was though their bond and newfound friendship that the score began to find its light — its hope. In short, the score needed to speak to us about the potential in the women’s hearts, not what was in their current lives,” Polley previously stated. And by just simply tapping into human emotion and pouring hope love and friendship into her work, the Icelanic composer does it again. She’s created a memorable, haunting and gorgeous score that pairs immaculately with the film and is almost certain to become a classic, an awards contender, and a deserved awards-winner.

All of Guðnadóttir’s feats and accomplishments are indeed impressive, but what may be even more so, is the inspiration she has shared with her belief that music connects humans, across the globe. She recently gave a live performance in a fundraising concert for Ukraine, which was held at Berlin’s Kraftwerk this past May. She has showcased her kindness, her talent as a composer as well as musician, and truly earned her place in the contemporary music scene as well as her plethora of accolades, and here’s to hoping she is presented with her well deserved second Academy Award this upcoming season.

WatchTÁR on VOD now, and Women Talking in theaters on its wide release January 6th.

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