Home > Reviews > CHERNOBYL – Hildur Guðnadóttir

CHERNOBYL – Hildur Guðnadóttir

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, close to the Ukraine-Belarus border in what was then the Soviet Union, suffered a catastrophic accident in which one of the plant’s four nuclear reactor cores exploded. The explosion started a fire and released massive amounts of nuclear radiation into the atmosphere and across most of Eastern Europe; it entirely irradiated the nearby city of Pripyat and, although official totals are much lower, may have directly and indirectly lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The new mini-series Chernobyl, produced jointly by HBO in the United States and Sky in the UK, is a detailed look at what happened: the events leading up to the disaster, the work of the emergency services in the immediate aftermath, the work of the scientists tasked with finding out what happened, and the fates of those directly affected. Many people have taken Chernobyl to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear power, but director Johan Renck and screenwriter Craig Mazin say that is not what the show is about at all. Instead, it’s supposed to be a damning indictment of government corruption, lies, and abuse of power, with parallels echoing the current situation involving global warming and climate change.

Chernobyl has been the recipient of a great deal of critical praise. The writing, although it takes some liberties with historical accuracy for dramatic effect, is fascinating, and shines a light on the staggering amount of mis-management that existed within Soviet bureaucracy. The direction is impressive, especially when it builds up a palpable sense of tension and impending doom. The makeup effects are enormously effective, especially at conveying the reality of what radiation poisoning can do to a human body. And the cast – which is led by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, Paul Ritter, and seemingly half the cast of Game of Thrones – is across-the-board superb. The critical praise has also extended to its score, which was written by the Icelandic cellist and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, but I’m afraid that’s where I must diverge from the mainstream because, by and large, I thought the music was absolutely terrible.

Guðnadóttir first emerged onto the film music scene a couple of years ago, initially working with fellow Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson on scores like Mary Magdalene, and then taking over from Jóhannsson as the composer on Sicario: Day of the Soldado following his sad death in February 2018. Since then Guðnadóttir has become something of an art-house darling, but unfortunately nothing she has written to date has impressed me at all, and Chernobyl is very much the same. Many music critics and journalists focused in on the fact that, after she was hired to write the score, Guðnadóttir actually traveled to a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Lithuania and recorded ambient sounds there: clanking pipes, background hums, and so on. Guðnadóttir says that every single sound heard in the score is made from the recordings they captured on site, and that her aim was to ‘hear the sound of radioactivity’. There are no live instruments whatsoever – it’s all the sound of the plant, manipulated in post production – with the only human element coming from the sound of her own voice, which she used in certain key moments. I have to say that, conceptually, this is all great. A composer who goes the extra mile like this, who thinks deeply about what the score should sound like and feel like, should always be commended for doing so. It’s just a shame that end result is so disappointing.

My issues with the score are basically threefold, and are to do with its poor in-context appropriateness, its lack of depth, and its effectiveness as actual music. To address its in context-appropriateness, I find myself again returning to the argument I have made on several Trent Reznor reviews in the past, where I have asked ‘if you can’t hear it, and you can’t feel it, why is it there?” The vast majority of the score for Chernobyl is little more than an ambient hum. Really, that’s all there is to it. In scene after scene, it just sits there in the background, humming and buzzing, so that it is essentially indistinguishable from the film’s sound effects. This, to me, is the exact opposite of what an effective film score should set out to achieve. When you have a story set in a nuclear power plant, the entire sound scape of the show is industrial and mechanical: computers, switches and dials, and heavy machinery are all present all the time in the ambient background noise. Not only that, the sound effects often drown the ambient background noise out: throbbing helicopter blades, clicking Geiger counters and radiation measuring machines, the roar of truck engines, and so on. When you genuinely can’t tell the difference between the score and the sound of a nuclear turbine, I would argue that the score is almost entirely unnecessary and pointless, and contributes nothing to the project. It would almost be better if there was no score at all.

Ah, but what about the times when you can hear the score? I have read praiseworthy comments which point out how effective the score is at creating a palpable sense of existential dread, and how it adds a layer of looming inevitability to the terrible fates that are about to befall everyone affected by the disaster. Well, yes, the score does do that, and that would be fine if the show wanted to elicit just one single emotion from its audience, but it clearly doesn’t, and this is what brings me to my second issue about lack of depth. There is so much more to the Chernobyl story than ‘overarching existential dread’. Where’s the music that speaks to the heroism of the first responders, the firefighters who charged in to the flames without realizing what they were dealing with? Where’s the music that conveys the relationship between Vasily and Lyudmila, the doomed firefighter and his pregnant wife? Where’s the music that conveys the frustration felt by Valery, Boris, and Ulana, as they face constant pushback from the Soviet regime, despite their best efforts to save lives? These are all important cornerstones of the story, and they are entirely un-served by Guðnadóttir’s monochrome musical emotions. Guðnadóttir seems to think that the Chernobyl story is only about one overarching feeling, and because of that she fails to serve the true depth of the story in any meaningful way. In fact, the only time Guðnadóttir tries to convey something more is during the funeral sequence at the end of the third episode, when a bank of choral and vocal textures rise to sing a quiet, mournful lament for the dead, and it’s by far the most effective musical moment of the entire show.

Finally, as an actual listening experience, the Chernobyl soundtrack album is an auditory nightmare. I am personally drawn to thematic, orchestral, emotionally-driven music, and so I guess I am genetically predisposed not to appreciate the score for Chernobyl, but even with this caveat in mind, I still found the whole thing to be virtually intolerable, more so than most scores of this type. I find that I’m not really capable of describing it like normal music, and so instead I am left turning to onomatopoeias. It throbs. It bangs. It hums. It whines. It groans. It shrieks. It rattles. Sometimes it does these things slowly, sometimes it does these things quickly, sometimes it does these things loudly, and sometimes it does these things quietly. Sometimes these things have been distorted so much in post-production that they are, quite literally, painful to listen to.

Once in a while we hear Guðnadóttir’s vocal effects – during “Bridge of Death,” and later in “Clean Up,” in “12 Hours Before,” and at the end of “Evacuation,” for example. Elsewhere, “Vichnaya Pamyat” is the cue which is heard during the poignant funeral scene, and is performed with grief-stricken solemnity by the mixed voices of the Homin Lviv Municipal Choir. “Líður” is a new re-working of a piece which originally appeared on her 2014 solo album ‘Saman’, and is a stark, bitter composition for piano, cello, and haunting voices. However, these few cues are the scant highlights of a score which is, for the most part, a truly horrendous way to spend 39 minutes.

Since the show premiered on HBO in May I have read so much commentary online, from writers I respect, and from composers I admire, who have been praising this score to high heaven, and I cannot for the life of me understand what they are finding to praise. This is the sort of film music I dislike the most; music which dispenses entirely with any sort of emotional content and simply presents a relentless background whine of electronic nothingness, music that is either so indistinguishable from sound effects that it’s rendered pointless, or is so terrible when you can hear it that it becomes an irritating distraction. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that this score is receiving genuine Emmy buzz; it bothers me no end that it is music like this which receives so much attention and praise, not only because it undermines everything that brought me to film music in the first place, but because it has the potential to perpetuate a circle, whereby future showrunners of important TV projects think that this is the sort of music that’s required in order for their projects to be taken seriously by awards panels. If this score receives official recognition ahead of significantly more worthy TV music (like, The Orville, for example), I may explode like a nuclear reactor myself.

Buy the Chernobyl soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Door (2:43)
  • Bridge of Death (4:44)
  • Turbine Hall (2:36)
  • Vichnaya Pamyat (performed by the Homin Lviv Municipal Choir) (4:07)
  • Pump Room (3:43)
  • Clean Up (1:41)
  • Dealing With Destruction (1:54)
  • Waiting for the Engineer (1:31)
  • Gallery (2:23)
  • 12 Hours Before (2:31)
  • Corridors (3:13)
  • Líður (Chernobyl Version) (2:48)
  • Evacuation (4:44)

Running Time: 38 minutes 42 seconds

Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 6364 3 (2019)

Music composed and performed by Hildur Guðnadóttir. Recorded and mixed by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Chris Watson. Edited by Timeri Duplat and Gunnar Tynes. Album produced by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sam Slater.

  1. Tom de Ruiter
    June 19, 2019 at 9:20 pm

    I completely agree.
    I couldn’t even finish the album. I stopped it after halfway through track 5 and never listened to it again, deleted it and I not going to ever maybe listen again.

    Like you said, if this music wins awards and The Oriville does not. I will explode with you.

    I know what Guðnadóttir put into this score, because I listen to her on Score: The Podcast. But the end result is not something I can master.

    I like Dunkirk, not all of it, but after that there is a line, with all kinds of atmospheric, synthesized music that my ears just can’t bear.

    Love your reviews, by the way!!!

    • June 20, 2019 at 2:34 am

      Thank you! I love writing them (usually) – this one tested my patience somewhat.

  2. JBW
    June 20, 2019 at 6:00 am

    “initially working with fellow Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson on scores like Mary Magdalene”.

    From what I understood, she emerged onto the film music scene far before that. She already worked with Johansson on Prisoners and not “just” as the cellist, but as a composer. As is and often was the case, people tend to put the bigger/male names on the front.

    Beyond that I’m also not a fan of her score for Day of the Soldado or this score.
    But listening to the previous scores in collaboration with Johansson or her solo albums, I’m still looking forward to listen to new scores (e.g. Joker) by Gudnadottir.

  3. Steve
    June 20, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but I couldn’t disagree with you more. The score was the best thing about the show.

  4. Camille
    July 24, 2019 at 3:12 am

    I absolutely do not agree with you. The score is great as the background for studying as well as not overwhelming set of ambient sounds leaving you with kind of metallic taste at the tip of your tongue, with the sense of comfort and discomfort, too, yes, I know it’s hardly imaginable. But the score is, and this, I think, is also for the great advantage.

  5. Ian
    October 4, 2019 at 9:08 am

    “Finally, as an actual listening experience, the Chernobyl soundtrack album is an auditory nightmare”

    Thats why it is so perfect lol. I cant imagine anything worse than a traditional score for this series. I really wish fans of traditional scoring were a little more open minded.

    • June 30, 2020 at 6:51 pm

      Did you even read the review? The problem was that it is only one note.

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