• Ben Erickson


On April 26, 1986 one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, releasing high levels of radioactivity into the atmosphere and the surrounding 2,600 square kilometres of Ukraine and Belarus. Long regarded as one of the greatest catastrophes on the face of the planet, the calamity is depicted by Swedish director Johan Renck in the recently released Chernobyl miniseries as a damning criticism of the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution, demonstrating how the conceit of their administration directly and indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Hired to score the miniseries was Icelandic musician-composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has also been slated to score the upcoming Joker film. Something of an arthouse composer, Guðnadóttir is a rising star of the industry, using Chernobyl as a platform to further expand her repertory of idiosyncratic techniques. To score the project she traveled with field recording expert Chris Watson to Ignalina, a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Lithuania where shooting for Chernobyl was soon to begin. According to Guðnadóttir, Watson's presence and discipline involved in listening to every minute detail of the environment was an experience in of itself. The two were decked out in full HAZMAT gear for the occasion, observing and recording hours worth of material on location from the innate sounds of the plant that would later be manipulated and developed during post-production into a functional score. One could see how this extravagant gesture of travelling to Lithuania could easily elicit a rather romantic image of Guðnadóttir with her cello nursing the wide hollow of a massive cooling tower, visualizing the acoustic of an impossibly large hall, but reality is rarely so rewarding. What the composer and her accomplice did do was visit every inch of that facility and test for frequencies high and low, chronicle the sounds of spinning turbines, pumps, Geiger counters, particle emitters, and search for traces of invisible decay; the goal being to understand what it is to hear radioactivity. The score for Chernobyl presents Guðnadóttir's findings like a musical thesis, blurring the line between music and sound effects to communicate an austere musical image. With exception to the composer's voice the majority of the field recordings captured were localized sounds from the plant, disbanding with typical instruments for a conceptually authentic approach. Many of the cue titles are in fact derived from these very sounds, such as "The Door" and "Pump Room". In formulating the music the recorded sounds were used as the basis for constructing melodic elements, producing a largely ambient score that satisfies the existential dread of the account. The one real drawback was the ostensibly arbitrary application of these cues, most often appearing at the scene of the explosion, but elsewhere often enough that they did not have a unified distinction. Two cues that were conversely distinct in appearance were "Líður", a piece from Guðnadóttir's 2014 solo album Saman, and "Vichnaya Pamyat", performed by the Homin Lviv Municipal Choir. "Líður" enters with haunting vocals atop a persistent piano pedal, reworked here as a lament for the deceased baby of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife to one of the first-responder firefighters. The character sits on her hospital bed weighing the loss of her husband and newborn to radiation poisoning, with strings entering to comment on her unspoken grief. "Vichnaya Pamyat" (translation: "Eternal Memory") is performed during the season finale credits reel as alarming facts related to the incident are endlessly dispatched to the viewer. The male chorus cries in E-flat minor, moving across wide ranges of open fifths and octaves between voices in a sardonic, sorrowful plea to the pride of Soviet-era Russia. A recent condemnation by fellow reviewer Jon Broxton regards the score as completely inappropriate for its lack of emotional depth and musical worth, citing it as a "monochrome" exercise ("Líður" and "Vichnaya Pamyat" aside). It is true that though the story around the construction of the score for Chernobyl is remarkable, in no way does this guarantee success for its effectiveness in context. However, it was never the objective of the music to be emotional. Chernobyl is a bleak, grim portrayal of devastation, yes, but foremost it is an argument against incompetent leadership, not a case for humanity. It is about holding accountable those responsible for the incident, and so the score was made necessarily ambient as "emotional" music would have trivialized what the producers were trying to do. It seems to me this score has a great wealth of depth in any case. It may not be musically rich in the sense that many other scores are enriched by the traditions of Western classical music, but there is a horrifying, omnipresent beauty about the score for Chernobyl nonetheless. Besides, if it should be condemned for anything it is recording without context. Then again even this is forgivable given Guðnadóttir sifted through hours worth of material to find recordings that would work in context. And who could blame a composer for the obvious appeal in the simplicity of field recording, a practice wherein one does not have to go through the motions of writing the score note-by-note, instead taking pleasure in free composition? Continually pushing boundaries like this and redefining what it is to be a film composer is what will make Guðnadóttir's career worth following.