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Stand with Ukraine

Deconstructing the factory: Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sam Slater on Chernobyl live

Hildur Guðnadóttir, Chris Watson and Sam Slater perform Chernobyl Live​ at Kraftwerk on May 7.

Sam Slater. Photo: Camille Blake

Hildur Guðnadóttir’s award-winning score for the acclaimed HBO TV series Chernobyl has not only become an epic live performance, but it has acquired new meaning in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We spoke with the performers ahead of their Stand with Ukraine Fundraiser Concert at Kraftwerk on May 7.

Your score for Chernobyl was made entirely from recordings of a Lithuanian nuclear power plant. Where did you find them? What was that process like?

Hildur, Chris Watson and myself traveled to Lithuania in 2019 to record an identical power plant to the one destroyed in the Chernobyl explosion. It’s the single largest space I have ever been in, with rooms so big they don’t really have reverb as the walls are too far away to create echos. We went through the cleaning process before entering, put on the white safety suits that the workers wear and spent the day searching around for any sounds that were of interest. We recorded room tones, hums from distant motors, the sound of people deconstructing the heavy machinery and many other sounds that appeared as the factory was slowly deconstructed.

When we originally conceived of performing the score live, Kraftwerk was actually the venue we imagined

The performance is taking place in the Kraftwerk, another former power plant. What are the opportunities and the challenges of performing in this enormous space?

When we originally conceived of performing the score live, Kraftwerk was actually the venue we imagined – so for us this will be an incredibly meaningful performance. The challenge of working in a space like this is that the PA system we bring in is 10 individual channels with six channels of subwoofers, and getting that to feel present and controlled in a space as large as Kraftwerk will be challenging. Thankfully, our sound engineer Francesco is a deeply creative and talented human with the uncanny ability to make industrial spaces sound better than many concert halls.

You’ve done lots of movie scores – Joker, Sicario – even some video games. What would be your ideal project?

We are very lucky that our ideal projects come our way increasingly regularly these days. We select projects based on the creative opportunities and the challenge involved and always aim to make something that we are excited by. Our ideal project is therefore one that we can look back on once it’s complete and feel that we have got better in the process.

You work collaboratively and use a lot of on-site recording and captured sounds. What is your process like?

When we work together our process is bursts of patience offset by periods of chaos. We like to sit with some recordings, almost as though we are surgically picking them apart to find the most interesting sounds. We then set about isolating these, bringing them to life in a studio and often that will point us in the direction we wish to travel. The recordings often dictate our direction, rather than us deciding which way to go and forcing the recordings to follow.

Hildur Guðnadóttir. Photo: Camille Blake

What’s your favourite track, or movement, from your Chernobyl score?

The Door is the opening track from the OST and both of our favourites. It features a recording of a machine room door that we recorded and, when we returned to the studio, we found this intense fluttering around 18KHz (very, very, very high pitched). We isolated this and slowed it down over and over using a tape machine and the resulting rhythm became the basis for this track – a slow, threatening motor with the reactor looming behind it.

The event is in support of Ukraine, against Russian aggression. Are there any Ukrainian artists you particularly admire?

At this point, anyone sustaining an artistic practice in the face of such unprovoked aggression is my favourite.

“Hildur Gudnadottir with Chris Watson & Sam Slater perform Chernobyl” is at Kraftwerk Berlin for their Stand with Ukraine Fundraiser Concert. Performances at 18:00 and 22:00