Composer Corner: Högni Egilsson Discusses Katla

By Vicky Bennett / GMS Coordinator

This month, we are excited to bring back our ‘Composer Corner‘!

We had the absolute pleasure to speak with Högni Egilsson to understand his work on the score behind the first Icelandic production for Netflix, Katla.

Högni tells us his role, process, how he ensured he enhanced the story through his music, and even gives us a sneak peek into what he is currently working on.

With this being the first Icelandic production for Netflix, How did you come to be involved with Katla and what was it that drew you towards working on the series?

Högni Egilsson:
Baltasar, the show’s creator, and I had been in touch for a while. He had shown interest in my work, listened to my albums and attended a concert of mine where I performed alongside a string quartet. One day he invited me over and showed me the mood board for the series KATLA and told me about the premise for it.  In our conversation, he emphasised that he wanted the music to have authority and presence, something to wrap the audience in mystery and hypnosis.  Baltasar’s passion was infectious and since the outlook was that KATLA would be quite a progressive piece of cinema where I had freedom to write a musical fairy-tale, I was excited from the start.  

I can imagine that this was a dark project to work on when you consider the plot of the series. Whilst listening to the soundtrack, Elegy is uplifting and feels almost angelic, but somehow still juxtaposed with fear and loss. Whereas when you move to the next song, Vivus, it feels like it is clear that there is an overcast of darkness looming closer.
— How did you find the balance of creating music that matches both the lighter and darker scenes and which instruments do you feel works best for creating these tones?

I believe that within music there should be a whole galaxy of sense and emotion and it’s beauty is due to its double entendre,  without it,  the music is worthless.  Its innate quality is its ability to portray what is behind the fleeting in this world, whether it is light or dark, and to remind us of whatever there is that might be surfacing.  
There is an agenda and a message that is still yet to unravel,  something that if successful, will never be explained.   So all efforts of using music as a brush to paint the “light” or “dark”  in the story are superfluous,  rather to use the music to help an audience or spectator make touch with the divine that is found in the piece and in the story and thus within themself.

How did you interpret what each of the directors, Baltasar Kormákur, Börkur Sigþórsson and Thora Hilmarsdottir wanted from a scene?   

I was only in touch with Baltasar and the series co-creator  Sigurjon Kjartansson.   The only real way for me to get in touch with whatever expectations they had from the music,  however intangible as it seemed, was with trial and error.  
There were certain folkloric concept attachments that I was given, but it wasn’t until I made different experimentations with tonal language,  using alternate modes of tone sequences that I got the reaction from the filmmakers I was seeking, I could really see that a certain series of notes gave them the “shivers”  and extracted the “coldness” we were looking for.   Pretty early on I saw that I needed to expand out of the common diatonic frame into a more astral plateau of musical notes.

How did you ensure that the vocals on some of these compositions complimented the music and helped enhance the story being told?  

Using my two main vehicles of composition,  counterpoint and harmony.   In the score, we decided that the voice would have two symbolic associations,  one being the voice of the mountain, portrayed by the Japanese vocalist Hatis Noit, and the other depicted the loss and seclusion of the lost mother, portrayed by the Soprano of Hallveig Runarsdottir.  So by fashion I crafted the melody when her spirit was present in the scene.

Have you ever incorporated obscure instruments or used alternative techniques with instruments in your work?

My modular synthesizer is definitely an obscure and chaotic musical instrument! I try to use the instruments that I have available in a traditional manner. I’m not so severely interested in jilted and distorted sounds, my love is for music and tonality and using musical language to write musical poems that carry a message.  If I’m to do an album of ambient music,  I let my dishwasher do all the work for me!

Are there any fellow composers, musicians and artists that you would love to collaborate with or that you look to for inspiration?

I would love to work with the wonderful Armenian Viola player Yuri Bashmet.

Are you working on anything new at the moment that you can share with us?

At the moment I am writing a Symphony to be performed by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra this November.  The program of the concert will also feature inspiring pieces of symphonic music by composers who are dear to me that I can’t wait to share with an audience.

A huge thank you to Högni for taking the time out to speak with us here at GMS, it was an absolute pleasure to dive further into the music behind Katla!

You can stream the full season of Katla now on Netflix where you can hear the full soundtrack from Högni Egilsson.

You can read more about Högni’s work at Erased Tapes, HERE

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