Composer Ólafur Arnalds on building the perfect score for Broadchurch

BBC AMERICA had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ólafur Arnalds, the breakout Icelandic artist who composed the score for Broadchurch. He discussed how scoring for film and television differs from his other composition work and where he found inspiration for the elegiac compositions of Broadchurch.

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At the ripe age of 25, Arnalds has released three solo albums and achieved international acclaim. He’s toured with fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós, and like them his music is a mix of genres, falling somewhere between contemporary classical and avant-garde electronic music. It’s a style perfect for soundtrack work, and Arnalds has recently been venturing into the world of film scoring, writing his first Hollywood score for Sam Levinson’s 2011 film ‘Another Happy Day’ and landing a track in the soundtrack to ‘The Hunger Games‘ as well. He is currently scoring the upcoming film ‘Gimme Shelter,’ starring Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Brendan Fraser.

Arnalds spoke to us from the scene of his latest collaborative project.

Ólafur Arnalds: I’m in Berlin at the moment, actually, working on an art installation at [a] gallery here with a German artist, combining sculptures with music.

BBC AMERICA: You do keep busy! How did you end up getting the gig working on ‘Broadchurch’?

OA: Chris Chimbnall [the writer/creator of 'Broadchurch'] has been a fan of mine for a long time. He owns all my albums, and he told me he was actually listening to my music when writing the show, so therefore, in his mind, the idea of the music … even if they hadn’t hired me, the entire feel of the show was inspired by my albums. So he emailed me through my website [to ask me to compose].

BBCA: Did you have to disrupt your typical composing process for ‘Broadchurch’?

OA: Yes and no. I think the actual writing itself is very [routine] because I always just sit down at the piano and I write and improvise. But I think the difference is that you decide more beforehand what you are influenced by, or what you want to write. So I read the scripts, and you get yourself in a certain mood and then you start writing. So the writing is kind of the same, but it’s very influenced by the show. I wrote some different themes and sent them over to Chris and together we picked our favorites, and figured out character themes and main themes, and stuff like that. A lot of it is just playing melodies. I also did a lot of research with sounds, and the dark side of the show, like what kind of sounds we wanted things to have. Throughout the series there are sounds that recur quite a lot…. Like the cliffs have their own [sound]. So I spent a lot of time looking at the pictures of the cliffs, for example, and played around with electronics and synthesizers to figure out a sound that I felt fit with those images.

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BBCA: How much of the show were you able to actually see before or during composing?

OA: I started composing just off the scripts, the basic ideas. But I didn’t make any full tracks until I had seen the first episode. So after getting basic themes down I had to rearrange them and make new versions of the themes that fit directly to the imagery. So I had to wait for the episodes themselves to do that.

BBCA: A lot of your work is strictly electronic, but here it seems to blend with instruments. Did you score this specifically for an orchestra?

OA: The score was actually written for a string quartet, piano, and electronics. We wanted it to be minimal. With an orchestra everything becomes very large and perfect. We wanted the show to be the opposite of that. We wanted the music to tell of the personal lives where everything is very far from perfect. We wanted to do something very intimate.

BBCA: Is it easier or harder for you to meld that music into the background of something as opposed to it being the only thing that someone’s listening to in the room?

OA: I’m not sure if I would say it’s difficult, but it’s different definitely. I mean, you just have to approach it differently, and realize from the beginning that the music is not there for the spotlight to shine on me as the composer, it’s there to support the show and the story and to get a certain message across. You can’t make something too complicated because it disturbs the dynamic. If you approach it like that from the very beginning, in a way those limitations force you to be more creative about things, to come up with things that still get that message across without turning the music up real loud. It can be a very funny challenge.

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BBCA: How long did it take you to write the score? Were you on a deadline?

OA: (Laughs) Yeah, we definitely had a time limit. I had to work very long days at the end to manage that. I think I worked around four months on the show, with one and a half or two weeks per episode. And there’s usually more than a half an hour of recorded music per episode, so it was a lot of music within a very little time span.

BBCA: Did the recording process take as much time as the composing?

OA: No, it was actually the opposite. In total, we did like five days of recording. I had great performers who would do almost everything in the first take. So we were able to go very quickly.

BBCA: Did you write the song that plays during the end credits, ‘So Close’?

OA: Yeah, I actually collaborated with the singer on that one, Arnor Dan, and he’s also on my latest album. I was doing this show at a very similar time, and we decided we should do something more together. He wrote his own vocal melody, whereas I wrote the song itself, but the lyrics were written by Chris, the writer of the show.

Broadchurch premieres on BBC AMERICA Wednesday, August 7 at 10pm ET.

- Gina Scanlon