How Hildur Guðnadóttir shifts gears between ‘Tar,’ ‘Women Talking’

It’s almost impossible to hear the score in “Tar” – but that’s intentional. In a story about a first-class classical conductor who constantly leads a symphony orchestra, a traditional score would be “simply too confusing”, says the composer Hildur Guðnadóttir – “cream on cream”.

Despite this, Guðnadóttir played a fortissimo role in the film. She was the second person Todd Field hired after star Cate Blanchett, and she worked alongside him for a year and a half. (Your name will also be deleted in a meta dialog line.)

Her first task was to compose a piece of music for Blanchett’s character to tinker with throughout the film.

“Because this is a film about the process of making music, we never hear the finished version,” says Guðnadóttir. “When you write music, you hear it inside – you hear it inside yourself before it starts moving air. I felt it was really important that we understood what that internal music was to translate that into the film so they could translate that into the acting and the whole scenario.”

The full version of Für Petra – including the prototype voice memo sent out by Guðnadóttir after reading the script – is available in its entirety on Deutsche Grammophon’s soundtrack album, along with music she composed for the actors to accompany them to help you find your inner pace. That was all Guðnadóttir’s idea.

“She asked me questions that were really, really smart,” says Field. “Like ‘OK, how does she move? At what pace is she moving?’ So we literally scored the physical action for the characters.”

The actors heard their ‘tempo-mapping’ music on set, and all of this unheard but felt music that Guðnadóttir wrote before filming inspired her approach to scoring the film in post-production. In fact, about 40 minutes of score is used in Tár – it is simply subsonic and induces a sense of anxiety or fear subliminally felt in sympathy for Lydia Tár, for whom a noose is tightened.

A woman conducts an orchestra in one scene "Tar."

Cate Blanchett stars in Tar.

“There are so many points I assume you’re never aware of,” Field says slyly. “There are a few places where his absence impacts where you probably didn’t realize there was something there. But when it does, something happens. And that’s mostly late in the movie.”

“I really shouldn’t be talking about this!” he says, catching himself.

The film music “takes us into the subconscious realm of the film,” explains Guðnadóttir. “Because there are also a lot of things that happen in the film that are potentially otherworldly. So the role of music is to bring us to that troubled place where we don’t know what’s real, who’s there. The music is almost like a ghost.”

The composer’s other score this year is felt much more strongly – and to her surprise, warmly.

When Guðnadóttir read Sarah Polley’s script for Women Talking, she became furious. Based on the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews, the film stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley as women living in an isolated, patriarchal religious sect riddled with systematic rape and physical abuse.

Women gather in a barn to discuss critical issues in a scene "women speak."

In a scene from “Women Talking,” women gather in a barn to discuss critical matters.

(Michael Gibson/Orion Pictures)

“I was really paralyzed for a few days,” says Guðnadóttir. “There were times when I just couldn’t write music because I was so upset for these women. So the music I originally started writing was much darker and much more persistent.”

But Polley urged her to write music of hope instead.

“We needed to feel the characters’ relationship to their beliefs, their sense of what a real world might be like beyond the suffering they’ve suffered,” says Polley. “In short, the score should speak to us about the potential in women’s hearts – not what’s going on in their current lives.”

Polley knew that Guðnadóttir was the right composer for the job because “she is incapable of sentimentality. Her music comes from the wisest part of herself.”

Guðnadóttir has come up with a folk theme strolling down a country road of guitars and acoustic bass. Choosing instruments to suit the characters’ rural world, she played cello with longtime friend and collaborator Skúli Sverrisson.

The sessions were “half recorded music and half just friends and laughing together and crying together and going through life together with our connection,” she says, “where we find strength in connection. My way of navigating here was simply to pour real love into the score. We really put all the love of our friendship into this music. So I hope that can be heard.”

There is also a recurring motif for scenes that indirectly look back at the abuse, which Guðnadóttir referred to as “Doomsday and the call to prayer”. It’s performed by tinkling bells and rigged guitars – “so the percussion is also very earthy and folky.”

“Hildur’s original approach to music was great,” Polley says, “and it was also part of her process of shedding sadness and anger at what these women went through to land in a broader world of possibility.” How Hildur Guðnadóttir shifts gears between ‘Tar,’ ‘Women Talking’

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