Out of the Box: Hildur Guðnadóttir & Anna Þorvaldsdóttir

Feb 28, 2020

The tiny island nation of Iceland has a population smaller than the city of Boston, and yet has an outsized impact on the world of contemporary composition, as is evidenced by the two phenomenal composers who call Iceland home. 

WHAT: Vocal and instrumental works by composers Hildur Guðnadóttir and Anna Þorvaldsdóttir!

WHY THIS MUSIC: I have as yet never been to Iceland. But I feel I have a sense of the country just by listening to both of these composers' work. Each has a very different approach to incorperating the stark and potentially volatile landscape of their native home in their music. But both do so, and in that compelling way that has their music creeping into your soul and staying there for a while. 

This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand.

I know what you're thinking: "Chris, it's nice that you want to feature these two Icelandic composers but... how do I pronounce their names?!"

I'm glad you asked.

That "d" with a cross through it in "Guðnadóttir" is called an eth and indicates a voiced "th" sound, like in "father". The letter at the front of "Þorvaldsdóttir" is called a thorn and indicates an unvoiced "th", like in "thespian".

So, their names are roughly pronounced "HILT-ur GOOTH-na-doh-teer" with a voiced 'th', and "AH-na THOR-valts-doh-teer" with an unvoiced 'th'.†  

With that sorted, I now invite you to listen to and learn more about the two amazing Icelandic composers featured this week on Out of the Box, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Anna Þorvaldsdóttir!

HILDUR GUÐNADÓTTIR

To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters, who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices! - Hildur Guðnadóttir

Films and television would be nothing without the music. And, like many things in the film industry, the composition side of that world has been, by and large, dominated by men. But for the last few years, it's Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir who has been dominating the film and television composition conversation. 

In 2019, Guðnadóttir won a Primetime Emmy for her music to the mini-series Chernobyl. Now, in 2020, she took home an Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Critics Choice award for best film score for her work on the multi-award winning film Joker, as well as yet another award for Chernobyl, this time a GRAMMY.

(For those keeping track at home, that makes her a Tony Award away from the coveted EGOT.)

With all the successes coming her way this year, it would be easy to think of Guðnadóttir's as an overnight success story. But, just as a swan gliding gracefully across a pond is paddling frantically below the surface, in reality, Guðnadóttir - as she explained post-Golden Globes - has been at this game for just about 20 years! 

Like her fellow Icelander Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Hildur Guðnadóttir's music has a rawness to it that seems emblematic of her native Iceland. Stark harmonies, sparse instrumentation, driving rhythms, and an emphasis on hollow and low instruments like basses and cellos are all trademarks of her music. This sonic palate gives the films and shows she's worked on - like Joker and Chernobyl, but also Sicario and Trapped -  an added storytelling power that they might otherwise never have had. Indeed, when Joaquin Phoenix was working on his portrayal of The Joker, he made sure to listen to the music Guðnadóttir had written to help guide his performance.

So practice your Icelandic, because whether it's film music or some of her fantastic non-film works, I predict Hildur Guðnadóttir is a name that will be making frequent apparances for years to come.

Hildur Guðnadóttir's Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Critic's Choice Award winning music, as used in the film "Joker".

ANNA ÞORVALDSDÓTTIR

[In Iceland], you are really on the outskirts of something so powerful, you feel how small you are. We live along the shoreline for a reason. - Anna Þorvaldsdóttir

You could go so far as to call Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's music "topographical." Her sound world is deeply tied to the scenery of her native Iceland, evoking landscapes there even to someone, like me, who has never been to the island. 

This is very much on purpose.

As Þorvaldsdóttir discussed in 2015 on a sadly now defunct WNYC podcast called "Meet the Composer" (where I first heard of Þorvaldsdóttir and her music), her compositional process is distinctly landscape-based. 

"You can imagine the way you would look at a landscape from above," she says, "rather than from a horizontal view. And then you can think, ‘Oh, how can I listen to the music from a horizontal view. [And] the same view, how does it then sound looking at it from above?’”

This kind of compositional approach can be startling when you first hear it. It's certainly unlike anything else out there right now, and to me sounds as though Þorvaldsdóttir has tapped into a primal uneasiness, like being alone in the woods in the depth of winter. But after a few moments, that uneasiness gives way to a satisfying and unembellished tranquility, like the quiet beauty of untouched snow on a moonlit night. 

As Tom Huizenga put it in a 2015 review of her work 'In the Light of Air,' "Don't listen too hard for hummable melodies. While there are flashes of lyrical writing, the composer excels at weaving sound textures together to create distinct atmospheres." 

Couldn't put it any better. 

Watch Þorvaldsdóttir's 2018 work AIŌN, performed with choreography. 

†For more on Icelandic pronounciation, here's a handy guide.

Listen to native Icelanders prounounce Hildur Guðnadóttir and Anna Þorvaldsdóttir.

If you're wondering why both composers's names in "dóttir", that's because Iceland (like many Scandinavian cultures) is a patronymic society, meaning surnames are derived from the first name of your father. In Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's case, her last name simply means "Daughter of Þorvald". If she were male, her name would be Þorvaldsson, or "Son of Þorvald".