The Haxan Cloak on the intricate score and sound design of Midsommar

The Haxan Cloak has an ear for narrative. His 2011 self-titled debut and his second album, Excavation, released in 2013 by Tri Angle complete a continuous sound-story. “The first record is just about a character and his descent into death, the second record was a limbo period, leading up to an afterlife,” the composer and producer born Bobby Krlic says. “If you listen to them both together, the minute that the first record ends is where the second record begins. You can listen to them straight through and it’s like one piece of music. I’ve always been more led by imagery than music really. Before I even really knew that I wanted to do music, I thought I wanted to be a film director and I used to write scripts and make little movies.” It made him a natural choice for director Ari Aster, who tapped Krlic to score his follow-up to 2017’s nightmarish family grief film Hereditary.

That film, Midsommar, looks to be about a summer vacation gone awry but it is so much more than that. It is a revenge fairytale that contemplates death as a decision instead of eventuality. It looks at the darkest ideas of identity and tradition, legacy and isolationism, community and continuity in a white linen landscape where the sun never goes down.

I had been taking a class on the art of film – not about how to create it or appreciate it but about the various discrete art elements that go into the whole of a film – when Krlic and I spoke back in June. Like so many other writers, I had a tendency to overlook the art in cinema, favoring narrative over the intricacies of sound and vision. It changed the kind of conversation I had with Krlic; so much of what wows in Midsommar is about performance and so much of the performance in the film is linked to sound. Deep breathing, gasping, moaning, and shrieking leads the characters and the score; moments of movie music transform seamlessly from background score to on-screen performance. The way sound is used in the film is a reminder that every single decision, from the constructed ambient sound of a room to the editorial transitions from scene to scene, matter just a much as story.

FACT: What’s your relationship with horror?

The Haxan Cloak: BBC 2 and Channel 4 would run late-night programs and when I was 12 my parents bought me one of those combo TV-VCRs. Unbeknownst to them, I used to set the video-record timer for 1am and record a Michael Haneke film or something like that that’d be on Channel 4. Then I’d wake up before school to watch it. 

When I was that age, it was just about finding the most subversive, shocking sort of stuff that I could. I remember seeing Evil Dead for the first time, I remember seeing The Shining for the first time, I remember seeing Dario Argento for the first time. You don’t really have the moral compass that you have when you get older. I’m a little more sensitive to those kinds of things now but when I was younger I just wanted to soak everything up.

Ari Aster said he was listening to your music when he was writing the script. Tell me a little bit about how he got you involved.

I got a mail from my agent in January 2017 saying there’s this director with all of these awesome shorts who has a script that he wrote while listening to your music and he wants you to do [the score]. I watched [Ari’s] shorts and I thought they were really amazing and kind of reminded me of Todd Solondz, who has a lot of work I really love, the majority of his work. Ari came over and we just sat in [my studio] for three hours and completely geeked out about films. It was just pretty obvious from our meeting that we should just do it.

The resources of scoring vary from job to job but I can imagine this was very hands-on. There are moments where it seems like the music or sound is non-diegetic and then, all of a sudden, it’s coming from something that’s happening on-screen. What was the process like?

I had everything I could’ve hoped for because Ari and I met so early. I have the script, the first-ever version of the script. On the second page, Ari actually wrote, “I want you to play The Haxan Cloak and I want you to continue reading for the next three pages.” He’d literally written that in the script.

All the music of the Hårgas that they’ve seen and they play in the film, I had to do all that. We did want them to have something separate but also to be a little ambiguous as to what could be diegetic in the score. That had to be conceptualized and scored before filming even started because it needed to be performed on set. I did a lot of research into old Scandinavian and Nordic music and Icelandic music. We were getting all these special instruments made. We went pretty deep into research for that. I made all these melodies, some bits based on old Nordic folk songs.

The vocal language was developed with this really incredible woman called Jessika Kenney, she’s a great vocal artist and scholar. She has a degree in interpreting sacred texts into music and we went pretty deep into ancient languages. There are elements of old Persian languages, all sorts of stuff. Then I went out to Hungary while they were filming to be there for that and we recorded with traditional instruments [we had made] in a studio in Hungary.

Were you scoring from the music you had composed for the action in the film? Or was that influenced by the the Hårgas music?

I wanted it to be pretty separate because the more that we kind of delved into the real meat of the score, it was so apparent that it’s not really about the Hårgas, it’s about Dani. It all had to be from her perspective. And they do … that just staying with the presence of strings, they can quite easily coexist. Which was definitely something we thought about. But yeah, they were in pretty separately.

There is so much breath — moaning, chanting, gasping — in the film. Did that influence you in any way? How did that work for you?

There’s probably more score in that film than most people realize. A lot of the score is sound design, it’s almost wall-to-wall if you listen carefully enough. I did a lot of recording with really high register strings and gongs and cymbals, putting them all to tape and slowing them down. You get this breathy wind and room-tone drum kind of thing. That first gets introduced when they get on the plane. I devised that to be like the sound of the hivemind of the Hårgas, the brainwashing that they’re gonna do to these people. There’s a lot of these textural wind things and breathy noises and just this general uneasy tone throughout the whole film. That’s representative of the influence of the Hårgas on the Americans.

The Hårgas call their sacred text, the Rubi Radr, “emotional sheet music.” Did that idea resonate with you at all?

That book is really heavily referenced in the script, probably a lot more than you actually see in the film itself. A lot of the songs that they sing in the film were from that book. It was written in the script that they have this kind of wordless, almost atonal language that was extremely emotional that they would sing from that book. That’s what we were looking when we were trying to develop this vocal language for everyone to sing. We were really trying to get to the guttural core of the people.

Let’s go back to the tapes. What were you using from your own arsenal of gear?

I made a pretty definitive pact [with myself] that I wanted all the electronics in the film to be analog. Nothing was done inside the computer, it was all modular synthesizers. A lot of stuff was recorded to cassette tape or reel-to-reel. I wanted to treat it like a musique concrète kind of thing. All the pitch shifting and warping was done by hand. I would watch and move things around. Ari came here for a week and we worked from 10 in the morning till seven everyday. The first thing that we did was to sit and watch the fire temple scene together at the end. I sat at the piano and played while Ari sat beside me and came up with the main theme. He would just be so gestural and emotional.

You must have been responding to a lot of heightened and heavy emotions on-screen, too.

There was some music that I made that was working and was in the film but we really wanted to go deep and encapsulate all the emotions of the film that are expelled in that last nine minutes. It’s a real catharsis after everything that Dani has gone through is – you get the whole range of emotions in that scene. Unlocking that piece of music and then extrapolating from there, thematic elements from it kind of crack the rest of the score. When she has her first real trauma at the beginning of the film, there’s a piece of music that plays that was an intentional red herring, in terms of what the score is going to be. It’s all incredibly misleading – Ari does kind of set you up for this big, tense horror film. Once the characters get on the plane it becomes a little bit more electronic.

Later, when they see the main house for the first time with that amazing painted ceiling and all the tapestries, was when we really wanted to introduce the orchestra because everything Dani has been going through evaporates at that point. It’s the first time that we really get this sense of this magical universe that she’s been invited into and she really can, for the first time in a long time, just get lost and be lost in wonder. We [were listening to] a lot old Disney soundtracks and Nelson Riddle.

The opening music is intentionally anchored to that place of grief and then throughout it’s about lifting that and tying everything together so that the Hårgas music is in the same key as Dani’s music. There’s a scene where they are at the dinner table and it’s the first time that people really start clocking that somebody is missing every time they sit down. We really had a lot of fun weaving together all these different things, like Ulf’s music and the piano that introduces Maja. You know it’s a central scene to the film when everybody’s themes come together.

Claire Lobenfeld is FACT’s managing editor.

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