Nordic composers Gisle Martens Meyer and Sophia Ersson on cinematic soundscapes and the dark intrigue of Nordic TV

On February 13th the stars of Nordic Film and TV composing will gather in Berlin to speak about the fascinating world of creating music for the screen.

From the man behind the internationally acclaimed score of The Killing, to the young Nordic composers of the future, we’re looking forward to hearing about the challenge of staying true to local sounds whilst writing music with an international appeal.

Norwegian-born Gisle Martens Meyer’s work is preoccupied with the intersection between media forms and new technologies. When his pop-electronica project of the early noughties, Ugress was regularly requested for films, TV, and video games, he found a natural path towards composing directly for those mediums. At the moment he’s focusing his energies on commissioned works for contemporary stage and new live scores for silent film classics.

Sophia Ersson hails from Stockholm and is one of the nominees for this year’s Harpa Best Film Score. Already an accomplished singer, producer, and composer, her music can be recognized through its dream-like electronic sounds. In 2015 she scored the feature film Girls Lost, which premiered to great acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival that year.

“It allows me to incorporate elements of my national identity in my work from a conscious, external viewpoint.”

  • What drew you to become a composer for the screen?

    Gisle Martens Meyer: I release music as an artist, the music in itself is kind of cinematic, so it is often licensed for film, TV, video-games, stage, art. So this just naturally developed into directors or editors asking for custom edits of tracks, which then further developed into me composing commissioned tracks or whole soundtracks for films, TV shows, video-games, performances—and frequently, very early in the process, not coming in as the last person to “score” a finished production. I don’t see myself as a composer in the traditional sense, but more like an artist that is sometimes asked to create my kind of music for a larger production—in that role I then become the composer.

    Sophia Ersson:
    I actually ran into it. I’ve had this feeling that I’ve searched for a format and a platform for my music where my creativity could really bloom. And then I was asked to score a short, and then another one. When Girls Lost came along, me and the director knew we were going to make something magical together. I just love making music for visuals, especially film.

  • How important has the traditional music of your home country and your own national identity been in the music you compose?

    It is not a part of my expression or identity at all. My background, and “sound”, is totally disconnected from national identity, or at least that’s how I see myself. I left Norway seven years ago (for Germany), and since then I’ve become more curious and open to incorporate “Norwegian-ness” in my work, which in one way is a super naive reaction of emigrating—I simply miss Norway. But in another way it allows me to incorporate elements of my national identity in my work from a conscious, external viewpoint.

    S: I can´t really say it has been important at all. Maybe if I move abroad I will reflect differently. I guess water and beaches have been more influential to my identity and my expression than anything else. If my origin would hail from another Nordic country I guess Iceland feels the most close. Especially Icelandic music. It has always been more influential to me than any Swedish music although I do have some jazz favorites here.

“I’ve searched for a format and a platform for my music where my creativity could really bloom.”

  • Tell us a bit about your creative process—how do you go about writing music for the screen and does the process differ between film and TV?

    G: I usually come in very early in the production and in 90% of the projects I create most of the music before they start shooting (or at least before they start editing). I work with the directors, producers, editors, and level designers on building a concept, I then create some early sketches so we figure out a sound and a direction, or they already have ideas based on my previous work. From there on I often work quite alone, creating a kind of library of music for the production. Then the production does “their” work, they have my music already early in the shooting and editing, often in stems format, and then usually I come in at the very end again to fine-tune and optimize cues and sequences that would benefit from edits. I’ve found that editors often have great musicality and I have absolutely no problem handing over larger musical choices to them, so they often get stems and can mix elements of the music directly to scenes as they cut them.

    S: I haven´t been into doing a series yet, so I can´t tell. But my process is very fast at first. I do the research, I listen very carefully to the reference music, contemplate, discuss with the director and contemplate some more. Then I isolate myself in the studio for half a day, presenting almost finished material to bounce back to the director. And then the hard work begins with the milliseconds. I often mix along during the process of producing. I learned to be really fast with Girls Lost since there’s a lot of different themes in it.

  • Do you feel there’s a certain trend in film and TV music at the moment? Is this something you’d like to work with or move away from?

    There are many trends! Some of them are great—I really love the droney landscapes that seem to be popping up as a “tension-layer” in lots of scores, and I totally love the “retro” styles that many series seem to go for now. The genre and style of music is often a more aesthetic, conceptual choice rather than a symphonic score choice, like Stranger Things (with the fantastic retro synth score) and Vikings (using the Norwegian metal project Wardruna). Another observation is that I think there is way too much music in most productions—they’re musically over-saturated. And I actually really don’t like it when music tells you what to feel, except sometimes some films seem to be able to get away with it.

    S: I detect an opening for new trends with more women coming along and more electronic vibes. I love both orchestral and electronic, but I especially love them together in harmony—not always separate like today. I think series are a lovely platform for that kind of evolution.

“I detect an opening for new trends with more women coming along and more electronic vibes.”

  • What about the challenges you’ve faced as a musician?

    G: I am not a traditional composer and sometimes there are delicious clashes in productions when producers don’t realize this, or discover it too late. If a director brings me in because they want to work with me but the producer doesn’t know me and expects a traditional composer, and they’re like “But what about the violins! We need sad violins!” I’ve become better at communicating this early on, and then it’s usually no problem—if they want a proper composer (haha) they can easily find one.

    S: I see myself more as a producer than a musician. I have always done more of my own thing. Although I’m a pianist, a singer and bit of a guitarist. But as a female composer I’m aware that it is a very tough business. You need to have the courage to pull through and hold on to your integrity in this industry.

“I really love the droney landscapes that seem to be popping up as a “tension-layer” in lots of scores, and I totally love the “retro” styles that many series seem to go for now.”

  • Nordic film and television has gained huge popularity across Europe over the last few years—where do you think this interest is coming from?

    G: The simplest answer might be that it’s just really talented people creating really great works. And that a certain part of Nordic-ness seems to resonate with a lot of people, and these productions are really good at bringing that out.

    I think we in the Nordic countries are really good at many things when it comes to creating film. Nordic Noir has been huge the last couple of years. We create very dark and unique stories and directors tend to be very strong in their visions. I think that is very inspirational and you get a personal touch out of it, that sort of implements the finished production. Also, more female Nordic filmmakers have taken up a bigger space in both domestic and international filmmaking, which is of course very essential.

  • What is the most exciting project you’ve worked on recently?

    G: I did the music for a NRK docu-series about kids researching climate change and ecological issues in the arctics (Mission Arctic). That was great fun and the series has been picked up by lots of European networks. And I’m currently working on a contemporary art performance that creates music videos live on stage, which is fantastic fun and super interesting, creating the music and the visuals as one coherent, simultaneous expression.

    S: Girls Lost will top the projects for a while onward. It was a magical collaboration. I am very excited about an upcoming international project, though. It’s based on a huge European scandal with an Hitchcockian vibe to it.

Thank you, Gisle and Sophia, for shedding some light on the intriguing world of Nordic music.

If you’re Berlin-based and would like to catch up with our interviewees, as well as many more composers and musicians, you can sign up for the Nordic Film Composers Day on 13th February for free here.

Text: Alice Popplewell
Photography: Eivind Senneset

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