How the composers of The Northman imagined a different kind of Viking film music
The man from the north, as Carolan puts it, is “muffled by music.” In addition to medieval instruments, the composers recorded a large string ensemble, a choir and a group of percussionists. But unlike, say, the heroic soundtrack for the 1982 viking classic Conan the Barbarianthe music of The man from the north can be quivering, strident and nightmarish. Carolan and Gainsborough worked on the score non-stop for around 18 months, writing while in lockdown. “I’m constantly amazed that we did it,” says Gainsborough. “And we weren’t fired.”
Carolan agrees. “I’m really proud that we were able to come up with something Rob liked. I wouldn’t say he’s easy to please.
Pitchfork: Robert Eggers is very dedicated to primary source research. To what type of material did he direct you to inspire you?
Robin Carolan: He made us a huge playlist that would have taken us about 18 months just to listen to – lots of really weird two-instrument drone music, and then more classic stuff like Ligeti and Penderecki.
Sebastian Gainsborough: There was also a lot of Tuvan music, like throat singing.
Carolan: We recorded some throat singers. Some were doing more gritty, growling stuff. And then the Tuvan throat singing…
Gainsborough: There are more overtones, so it can sound really rich. It’s a bit higher too, a bit like a whistle.
How have you tried to differentiate your score from similar epics?
Carolan: We did a lot of experimenting with horns. It’s a bit of a trope in a lot of period pieces to have that sustained horn note as a battle cry. But we did some research and came to the conclusion that the opening signal should be loads of horns sounding everywhere. They all do something slightly off with each other. And it has to do with the theory that they wouldn’t have played a single long note, because it wouldn’t hit your enemies very effectively. So they have this cacophony of sound, and your haters couldn’t miss that.
There are also many great orchestral moments in the score.
Carolan: Initially, we weren’t going to use modern strings. But because the nature of the movie kept changing, and it was getting bigger and more emotional, we thought, “Well, we have to write some big string ensemble stuff for at least minus a part of that.”