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Icelandic Artist Drew Sounds From Power Plant to Compose 'Chernobyl' Soundtrack

Hildur Guðnadóttir
Antje Taiga Jandrig

Hildur Guðnadóttir

Hildur Guðnadóttir went “treasure hunting” with her ears to build disturbing & melancholic soundtrack for the HBO miniseries, nominated for 19 Emmy Awards.

OSLO -- On the first track of the score for HBO’s chilling Chernobyl miniseries, a jazz drummer seems to jam away on a long and complicated drum solo. But no jazz drummer ever performed that. A door did.

In August 2018, Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir found herself desperately, and unsuccessfully, trying to plug her European electric equipment into a Soviet-era power socket. She was alone, dressed in radiation protection clothing, including a little white hat and overalls, at a decommissioned Lithuanian power plant. She was there in search of sounds and noises to use in her compositions.

The situation, it turned out, ended up revealing to her one of the most significant musical elements later used in the Chernobyl soundtrack. 

The five-part production, centering around the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in Soviet Ukraine and the cleanup efforts that followed, has been praised by critics all over the globe since it premiered in May. Chernobyl has earned 19 Emmy nominations, including one for Guðnadóttir for her work on its ominous soundtrack.

While waiting for an engineer to come help her get power access that decisive day in Lithuania, Guðnadóttir randomly leaned onto an engine room door. Always alert and at work, she almost subconsciously started listening in to the sounds coming from the door’s surface. She was thrilled at what hit her eardrums.

The door “was creating this symphony of sounds,” Guðnadóttir says. “It was really exciting.”

The noises she heard at that moment were close to inaudible, Guðnadóttir adds, but she put a microphone onto the surface of the door, nonetheless, hoping to be able to pull the frequency down to an audible range once back in her Berlin sound studio. Listening to the material after returning home, she detected the “jazz drum solo” and orchestrated it into a piece of music.

Guðnadóttir, who is a singer and cellist as well as a composer, had worked on numerous theater, dance and film projects before being asked to compose the music for Chernobyl. She had also published solo work and won highly acclaimed prizes. Still, she says, once she began reading the Chernobyl script, she was “quite overwhelmed” by the task given to her.

HBO & Sky
A scene from Chernobyl.

“I felt an oppressive fear,” she says. “I realized I had to go as close to this feeling as possible and try and portray the sense of it with my music. The music needed to say how it felt to be there. And it needed to tell the story of loss and fear and human error.”

With this in mind, she decided to travel to Lithuania and the decommissioned power plant Ignalina. The plant looked and sounded almost precisely like the one in Chernobyl before the dramatic nuclear accident, and most of the HBO series was shot there as well. 

In Lithuania, Guðnadóttir begun “treasure hunting” with her ears. She approached the project from “ground zero,” she says, bringing no preconceived ideas, no instruments, and no pre-recorded material. Instead, she began recording the sounds of reactor halls, hallways, turbine saws, the hums of machinery and walls, including the engine room door. 

Back in Berlin, she began composing based on what she had collected. She also used so-called reverbs, playing her own voice back into her recordings and thereby making it sound like she was singing in the rooms of the nuclear power plant and not in her music studio. Apart from Guðnadóttir’s own voice, all sources of sound used in the series' score came from the power plant itself. The result: A simultaneously disturbing and melancholic soundtrack focused on sound-building rather than classic orchestration.

To support a story as undoubtedly tragic as Chernobyl’s, Guðnadóttir says she wanted her music to match the script’s subdued and non-mythologizing tone. In Guðnadóttir's way of thinking, the audience should be allowed to have its own personal and intimate experience with what it saw on screen.

“I did not want manipulation to happen,” she says. “If you are underscoring (music) in film, you are telling the audience to feel a certain way. I wanted people to feel the fear themselves.”

Guðnadóttir decided against writing theme music for the series and instead created an individual soundscape for each episode. She also worked hard to make the sound design and music work smoothly together, aiming not to distract viewers but rather to keep them focused on their feelings.

Chernobyl “was a real story, these were real events,” she says. “It was important to just be with it, feel it.”

The process of composing the Chernobyl score took seven intense months, Guðnadóttir says. But an exceptionally positive reception for both the series and her soundtrack made it all worthwhile. “People have really been seeing what we wanted them to see,” she says.