Those of you that have recently watched the Sky/ HBO miniseries Chernobyl cannot have failed to have been affected by it in some way or another. I watched the five episodes over the course of two evenings and found myself thinking a great deal about the disaster. About how we didn’t quite realise at the time how we came to the brink of something far more calamitous. About how, at minimum, the whole of Asia and Europe could have been living, or not, with the effects for hundreds of years.
The simple act of turning on a tap on had me wondering about the purity of the water and what might be in there… paranoid feelings about what else was kept from us in the way that the realities of what happened at Chernobyl have and may, to an extent, always be shrouded in a cloud of unsaying.
A significant part of the way in which the events at Chernobyl were portrayed in this miniseries was down to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soundtrack. I remember thinking to myself that I really needed to check it out , because it really amplified what was going on on the screen in a way that I have rarely experienced.
When I started looking into it a little more I discovered that Guðnadóttir, a cellist and composer who has written on a number of soundtracks in the past for both film and TV; and, as well as being classically trained has also worked with the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Animal Collective and Sun O))).
Such a varied background arguably made her a bold and ambitious choice to do something that needed to be just right to score such an atmospheric work, and how she approached it is nothing short of fascinating.
Most of the filming of Chernobyl disaster itself took place in a decommissioned nuclear power station in Lithuania where Guðnadóttir, together with Chris Watson (who records many of David Attenborough’s series for the BBC), made a series of field recordings while wearing Hazmat suits. They listened to the building and put together the entirety of the score from these sounds.
For me this gives the soundtrack a real authenticity while avoiding many of the clichés that she could have fallen into, such at the integration of the crackle of geiger counters. It also emphasises the role and character of the power station itself in the miniseries, it feels far more organic and less passive as a result.
But what about the music itself. I’ll admit that I am not a massive fan of soundtrack music on its own. This is something different altogether. After discovering that the whole album had been released on Spotify (see link near the bottom of this piece) I went out for a walk listening to it and found the whole experience to be remarkable.
It was as if all my senses were somehow more focussed… more in tune with what was going on around me. I noticed far more than I usually do and found myself finding meaning in seemingly mundane things. Simple things like long grass blowing in the wind took me off on narratives that I had never considered before… the man in black standing by the factory fire exit 500m away suddenly seemed to take on a more sinister role.
The album itself opens with ‘The Door’, immediately plunging the listener into the dark, sinister and paranoid depths of the disaster. The deep throb of the power station is palpable as the danger seems to enfold around us… we are immediately there and overwhelmed by the whole experience.
This is followed by ‘Bridge of Death’, that hauntingly prescient scene in the first episode where the happy crowd were savouring the spectacle of Chernobyl burning in the distance, unaware of what was really transpiring… of how serious it really was. The music perfectly captured this mood of celebration while the spectre of death hung silently over those on the bridge.
After that ‘Turbine Hall’ returns to the scene of the disaster. There are sounds that we now seem to recognise that you could say make up the DNA of the building. There is a particular eeriness to this piece that, despite the constant sounds, suggests an absence… a silence which I found really voluminous. Out of this comes a series of massive throbs and drones which are almost overwhelming.
Then comes a track of sombre beauty, featuring the Ukraine’s Homin LvIv Municipal Choir. ‘Vichnaya Pamyat’ feels like it should be part of a requiem, and actually the whole of this soundtrack could be seen in that way to some degree. The use of human voices here adds some humanity to the glacial nature of much of the album, a warmth that brings you back into ‘remembering’. On it’s own it is a stunning piece of music which works so well because it is sung without accompaniment.
With ‘Pump Room’ we are plunged back into the disaster… into the claustrophobia of failed modernism… the confusion and disorientation of a building going haywire… yet behind it that hum… that drone… those echoes that are both musically and dramatically synonymous regardless of the calamity that is going on within it.
‘Clean Up’, ‘Dealing with Destruction’ and ‘Waiting for the Engineers’ are the first tracks where both the human voice and the sounds of the building come together. You get a real sense of humanity being engulfed by the power of the disaster… not just through the unending repetition of the drone but by the inevitability of outcomes of the disaster as the found sounds of the building become almost overwhelming.
I find ‘Gallery’ to be one of the most powerful tracks on the album, because of the particular way that Guðnadóttir fashions the field recordings into something that really makes the building somehow sing. There seems so much character here, as if the structure itself is speaking to us. This is evident elsewhere but, for me, most remarkably here.
It may be because I have already seen the series, but I found listening to ’12 Hours Before’ as offering some relief from the relentlessness of what had gone before. There is a lightness here, an almost naive innocence that seems totally aware of the horrors that are about to be unleashed.
This is certainly not the case with ‘Corridors’, which sees the return of that metallic drone… the heavy metal Om that underpins much of the soundtrack. Here you can really see the influence that Guðnadóttir may have got with working with such as Sun O)))… the heavy drones… the unrelenting slam of noise that just overwhelms you at the end.
In contrast ‘Líður – Chernobyl Version’ is a track from outside the power plant, featuring Guðnadóttir playing in a more traditional setting… her vocal, cello and piano nevertheless retaining the atmosphere of the soundtrack in a mesmeric manner.
Then by the time you get to the final track ‘Evacuation’ you feel as if you in some sense have got to know the sound and character of the power station a little. There is something strangely familiar about it… the little clicks and resonances take on meanings and you feel more in tune with it. Of course imagining the sheer graphic horror of what when on in Chernobyl can never really be imagined, but there is something about the character of this music… the way it leaves you transfixed.
There is a altogether suitable seriousness and gravity to this soundtrack. Like the series it is an experience from start to finish. As a piece of music it would be wrong to classify it as entertainment, but it does feel important. Moreover the way that Guðnadóttir has put it together is something quite remarkable, and perhaps unique. This is an album that somehow captures something very fundamental… an album that has resonance on many levels… and, as I said at the beginning, to listen to it is somehow to experience one’s surroundings more forensically in a way that is difficult to describe. Together with the miniseries, it has made what I think will be a lasting impression on me.
‘Chernobyl’ is released by Deutsche Grammophon on download and streaming sites (no physical release to date).
You can check out more of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music here.
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