Words by Emma Warren 

It’s minus one degrees, and Hildur Guðnadóttir does not wish it was warmer.

“I really appreciate the seasons and I really appreciate the darkness,” she says, explaining that the Icelandic climate requires everyone to go outside when the sun is shining and to do all the work during the hibernation periods of cold and darkness. “I’ve been asked a lot in the last few years when I’m moving to LA – but I don’t think LA is the place for me,” she laughs. “Surviving darkness by creation is a very classic Icelandic thing to do, which is perhaps why we have so many musicians and creative people.”

The multi-award-winning cellist and composer of – among many other things – Joker and Chernobyl is talking from her home in Berlin where she has lived since studying electro-acoustic composition at the Universität der Künste in the early 2000s. It’s where she sat out the pandemic, working remotely on Sarah Polley’s 2022 release Women Talking, which has been nominated for four major awards at last count, and on Todd Field’s Tár, which was filmed in the city.


Surviving darkness by creation is a very classic Icelandic thing to do.

Back in 2018, Guðnadóttir told Spitfire Audio that she had ten cellos. Since then she’s picked up a few more, including one – brand new, hand-built – which replaces the one that she’s played for the last 23 years. “It’s a really beautiful instrument,” she says. “I feel like I’m starting a whole new journey. It’s a new build so it will change a lot over the next months and years. It's really exciting to go on a journey with a new main instrument.” She also has a new Halldorophone, developed by Halldór Úlfarsson. “That’s also incredibly exciting. We did some big new changes on this instrument. I asked him to put two speakers – before it only had one – it has a pickup on every string and speakers on the back so now I can do polyphonic feedback, which is very fun to play with.”

Her friends who specialise in the physics of sound were very sceptical about this idea. “They said, ‘no! you’re going to have loads of phasing!’ No one really thought it was going to work. Stubbornly – I don’t really know anything about physics or electronics – I was like ‘I’m pretty sure it’s going to be really cool’. It’s amazing. I’m very happy.” 

Guðnadóttir is no stranger to the soldering iron herself. Recently, she’s found that her love of making instruments and dealing directly with circuit boards has been transmitted to the next generation. “My son built his first synthesiser last week,” she says. “He’s 10 years old. He joined a workshop with a friend from [electronic instrument builders] Koma Electronik who taught him to build a synthesiser. The soldering iron seems to be passing on, which is really great.”


Curiosity is such a huge part of my practice.

Using what she calls a ‘beginners mindset’ is an integral part of Guðnadóttir’s practice. “I’ve studied the cello classically since I was about three years old, I know how it’s supposed to be played, I know about orchestration – but there’s so much still to be explored with acoustics and different environments and recording techniques, and mixing together elements you know with elements you don’t know. Bringing the beginners mindset to the process – that’s one of my passions of how I work with sound and composition.”

A recent foray into a set of tanks in an old Berlin brewery makes the theory real. “It’s very important to explore something unknown, whether it’s a story where I learn something psychologically, acoustics, or instrument-building. Curiosity is such a huge part of my practice. It’s really the driving force.”

The recording session in question saw her inside one of the tanks, playing cello and sending the sound signal to other nearby tanks so that they resonated with what she was playing. “I activated the other tanks with tape machines and speakers and microphones so I was playing each tank through the tank I was in. It’s a pretty good example of trying to make a whole space resonate acoustically through music, sound, playing, to make a whole space activate.”

It was during Covid, she explains, laughing. “I just felt like I wanted to be by myself ... It seemed like the most logical thing to do – to find a tank and make a lot of noise.” She’s still figuring out what to do with the recordings (“I went in with no plan”) and recognises the value of keeping aspects of her work exploratory – especially when she’s in such high demand by Hollywood’s top players. “I’ve been working on a lot of projects and deadlines and it’s important also to keep exploring for myself. Keeping up the energy of allowing myself the space to explore and not just be bogged down by deadlines.”


It’s important to allow myself the space to explore, and not just be bogged down by deadlines.

The tanks also shine a light on Guðnadóttir’s interest in sound spatialisation. “Sound is communication and its movement, in one format. You don’t have sound unless you’re moving air or water. It’s such an important part of sound existence. I really love that. It’s been a hugely important notion to me. Working with acoustics and spatialisation – it’s part of the sound.

With spatialisation you have more space for the sound to move and to experience the sound in a more amazing way. There’s so much to explore. It’s an exciting time because spatialisation and surround techniques have become much more commercially available, not just venue-based.” It’s also interesting, she says, to see what’s happening with binaural recordings and surround simulations, and in the psycho-acoustic world more generally."

Hildur Gunadottir Sam Slater C Camille Blake 11
Hildur Guðnadóttir & Sam Slater (Photo by Camille Blake)

She’s been mixing more in Dolby Atmos, in surround – ‘because releases are Atmos-based’. The live performances of her Chernobyl score began at Unsound festival in Krakow in 2019 and most recently took place last May as a fundraiser in support of Ukraine in a former power station in Berlin, with the BBC’s top nature recordist Chris Watson. Spatialisation is a large part of the performance, she explains. “We have a multi-channel surround system and electro-acoustic components happening outside of the PA. It’s an electro-acoustic surround and comes from the percussion instruments based around the audience. I think that’s really interesting to explore.” 

The LCO’s Rob Ames recently orchestrated the music she co-wrote with husband Sam Slater for EA’s 2021-released Battlefield 2042. The Dice event, in Stockholm, celebrated thirty years of video game music. “It was fun to do this game and I learned a lot — but I feel a bit more at home in the film world, in linear composition,” she says. A video that promoted the event showed a clip of her working on the score, capturing the sound of metallic fabric and letting off some energy with a bit of chair-based dance release. Is she someone who tends to move about when she’s making music?


I feel a bit more at home in the film world; in linear composition.

“Yes, definitely!” she says, adding a caveat – that the cello doesn’t allow a lot of movement. “If I’m practising the cello or recording the cello I’m more stationary but if I’m doing something that’s more spatial or exploratory, then a pretty classic recording session for me doesn’t look dissimilar to that clip: Microphones everywhere, lots of moving parts.” In that kind of setting, or if she’s working with other people, she describes herself as ‘very physically engaged in the process’.

Music – or ‘sound moving’, as she puts it – is a magical experience. “One part of that is its ability to completely transform a space or your mood. Music will, without fail, bring you with it, whether you like it or not. That’s one of the great powers of music and the more you allow yourself to be overtaken by it, physically, the more you can get into it. The more you experience it, which I think is incredibly exciting and fun. It’s one of the perks of the job.”

This ability to bridge, or transport, is something Guðnadóttir uses when she feels far from home. “I listen a lot to music by my friends,” she says, naming Skúli Sverrisson who plays on Women Talking and Ólafur Arnalds. “If I’m homesick or if I want to feel a connection to my friends, I’ll very often listen to something my friends have written, just to feel them.”


When you have success, it’s all the more important to be really clear and honest about the things that are important to you.

It’s worth mentioning here Guðnadóttir’s background playing in bands, including with Múm, Sunn O))) and Nico Muhly. “Music is so powerful when you have this opportunity to develop such deep, long relationships,” she says. “You form this kind of telepathy with people you’ve played with for decades. It’s a form of communication that is beyond words. You don’t need to say much – you can feel what the other person is saying. I don’t have the luxury all the time to see these friends but I feel them really strongly through their music.”

Success of the kind that Guðnadóttir has experienced – an Academy Award, two Grammys and numerous others – might make it difficult to maintain deep, long relationships. It does, she says, come with ‘a lot of noise’. “When you have success it’s all the more important to be really clear and honest about the things that are important to you [and] to cultivate those things that are the most meaningful. Maintaining these strong relationships is one of the most important things to me, so I make sure I stay in touch with my home people – by which I mean people who are close to my heart. To bring them into the projects. That’s something I’ll always be aware of.”

TÁR will available in UK cinemas from 13th January.