Why you should be paying attention to composer Hildur Guðnadóttir right now

The Icelandic musician scored 2 of 2019's most successful projects: Joker and Chernobyl.

The Icelandic musician scored 2 of 2019's most successful projects: Joker and Chernobyl

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir poses with her award for best original score (motion picture) in the press room during the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards. (Getty Images)

At Sunday night's Golden Globes, film composer Hildur Guðnadóttir made history as the first solo woman to ever win in the category of best original score for her work on Joker. (Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer won in 2001 for Gladiator.)

For some, this might have been their first time noticing the Icelandic musician, but this win is just an extension of years of standout work by the rising composer. 

Guðnadóttir started off releasing solo albums in 2006, but began working on music for film in 2011. In 2013, she struck up a working relationship with acclaimed composer and fellow Icelander Jóhann Jóhannsson, performing cello on his scores for Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival. When Jóhannsson died in 2018, Guðnadóttir stepped in to finish his score for the Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara film Mary Magdalene. She also took on the music for the Sicario sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Last year, Guðnadóttir created two of the year's most lauded scores: for the HBO hit limited series, Chernobyl, and for director Todd Phillips's dark comic-book adaptation of Joker. Guðnadóttir took home the Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding music composition for a limited series, movie or special for Chernobyl, making her only the third woman in the award's history to win that title.

In a recent interview with CBC Music, famous film composer Howard Shore said he was "interested in the sound of Chernobyl," noting it as an example of the type of experimental score that is moving the art form forward. Guðnadóttir's use of cello, specifically, has formed a new signature sound of dread and tension that feels particularly eerie, almost veering into horror territory, where strings have historically been employed to build a sense of unease with viewers. 

On Joker's most thematically resonant musical moments, "Defeated Clown" and "Bathroom Dance," Guðnadóttir leads with cello, but fills it out with choral and orchestral elements to illustrate the protagonist's internal transformation from isolated human to iconoclast murderer. 

"I wanted this feeling of energy coming from behind him, like a feeling of his past he doesn't know about, yet still influencing him," Guðnadóttir told Film Music Magazine, of the hundred-piece orchestra that lurks in the shadow of some tracks. "So the orchestra is kept in the background at the beginning of the score. And as [Joaquin Phoenix's character Arthur] realizes more and more about his past, the orchestra steps forward."

As awards season moves full steam ahead toward its finale — the Oscars on Feb. 9 — expect to see Guðnadóttir's name on the nomination ballot. But, just like the other titles she took home recently, the Academy Awards also has a shallow history of women winning in the original score category. In its 86 years, only two women have won that award: Rachel Portman in 1996 for Emma and Anne Dudley in 1997 for The Full Monty

Awards only depict part of the gender imbalance in film composition. As a 2018 study by the University of Southern California pointed out, only 16 female composers were hired for the top 100 fictional films at the box office from 2007 to 2017, compared to more than 1,200 men. 

But a 2019 New York Times feature optimistically notes that those numbers could gradually rise soon, as composer Laura Karpman told them: "The numbers are bleak, but the landscape isn't. People are reaching out in a way that I've never seen it my whole career." 

So even if awards offer a sliver of insight into the inequalities, the Oscars, which averaged 29.6 million viewers last year, are an important place to see this representation — to not only encourage more women to enter the field, but to show studios and directors seeking out talent that diverse composers exist. 

In an interview with Epicleff Media, Guðnadóttir spoke about the discrimination women get in the film composition world, a problem she admittedly "ran into quite a bit." 

"The best way to change this kind of myth is to set an example," she said. "And if I can be a part of just setting an example of, 'Hell yes, women can score films,' that's just such a privilege and I really hope that that helps." 


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