Film composer and producer Ludwig Göransson has earned a stellar reputation for sonic world‑building.
Ludwig Göransson has two guiding principles when starting work on a new composition: he never reaches for the same instrument twice to put down his initial ideas, and he likes to limit the sounds he uses. They might seem mutually exclusive — blue‑sky experimentation on the one hand, and a limited palette of sounds on the other — but when he explains further, it becomes clear why it works. “If you always put down your ideas the same way when you’re inspired — say you immediately reach for the guitar — there is muscle memory at work and your fingers are just going to go in a certain way. Same with piano. So I try to approach every project like I’m doing something for the first time.”
I try to approach every project like I’m doing something for the first time.
A quick examination of his film credits corroborates this. For his Oscar‑winning score for the film Black Panther, the Swedish composer literally went to a completely different place: the continent of Africa, where he collaborated with local musicians and learned the intricacies of their musical customs. “Music in Africa is different from music in the rest of the world; it’s not a performance, it’s part of the culture and the language. All the different drums mean something — you only play this type of drum when there’s a wedding, you only play that type of rhythm when it’s a funeral, you want to play this rhythm on the talking drum when someone is coming back from having been gone for a long time... so with Black Panther, it was always super important that we stayed true to the culture and used those instruments in a way that they would actually do in Africa.” For the sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, he went to Mexico City, immersed himself in the local music scene, and spent time with a music archaeologist to uncover the sounds of Mayan music that have been gone for over 500 years.
For The Mandalorian, he went online, bought a set of five recorders, and freestyled in a room by himself for hours until a soundscape emerged. “I chose the bass recorder because I had never played it before and it looked really cool. I started playing it and it was just beautiful; I ran it through some delays and some reverbs, and it sounded a little spacey. So for every project, I am trying to do something different with instruments and sounds.”
For his latest, the Christopher Nolan‑directed biopic Oppenheimer, the starting point came from one of the only suggestions the director gave him: that the violin be at the heart of the score. Göransson took that note and ran with it. “Chris Nolan wanted the violin to personify Oppenheimer’s character. I think he was interested in it because the violin, being a fretless instrument, is very responsive to performance; you can change the tone of it within a split second and go from something beautiful and romantic to something neurotic and horrific within a really short amount of time. Something that we also talked about was that violins and strings have been used so much in film, often as a horror effect with string clusters, for example, so [we thought] ‘How can you take those types of effects but play it in a beautiful tone?’ We also played around a lot with the dynamics of a traditional orchestra, going from a solo violin to an octet, and then to a string ensemble. You can grow throughout the story and sometimes make it very intimate and personal, and sometimes very operatic.”
In the early stages of experimentation, he explored how to use the familiar instrument in an unfamiliar way with his wife, Serena McKinney, who is an accomplished violinist. “We started experimenting with the performance of the violin and microtonal glissandos, and one of the first things I wrote was the Oppenheimer theme, which you hear throughout the whole film.”
Oppenheimer marks the second collaboration between Göransson and Nolan (the first being 2020’s Tenet) and to hear Göransson tell it, it was a truly collaborative and deeply involved effort. Even before a frame of film had been shot, based on their early conversations, Göransson had written three hours of music for the director, so when Nolan began editing, there was no need to use a temp score. Once editing was underway, the two met each Friday to watch the movie from start to finish and listen to the progress on the score. While instruments like the violin, piano, strings and harp form the bulk of the early part of the score, as the story moves forward, the music evolves to include electronic elements.
“Most of the time, the theme is played by a solo violin, but when you see Oppenheimer having a breakthrough, having these vivid images or dreams, there’s a synthesizer that takes over the melody; it almost sounds like a distorted horn ensemble, and we also doubled it with a brass ensemble to make it feel both real and synthetic — I call it ‘worldising’. Apart from that, I also brought in a lot of synthesizers and modern production. To me, those sounds foreshadow the impending doom.”
He describes a cue, titled ‘Ground Zero’, that underscores a pivotal moment in the movie. “All of a sudden it’s not theory, it’s not scribbles on a paper any more; it’s an actual bomb, they’re putting it together, the whole thing is up in the air, and the music takes a big shift there. There are only three elements in that cue: a throbbing, pumping bass that makes you feel like it’s your heart beating; there are radioactive nuclear sounds, a crackling in the speakers; and then there’s this little metallic ticking sound. It goes from lush, romantic music to having this really intense sound‑design feel.” Throughout the film, Göransson used sounds that he recorded especially for the project and incorporated them into the score, he explains, “like nuclear sounds or apparatus from that time, [that I made] sound modern by manipulating them in Ableton Live”.
Elsewhere, string glissandos were doubled with parts played on the Minimoog, the draw for Göransson being that you could play it live, with the pitch wheel. He elaborates, “If it’s a string quartet playing a glissando with four different voices, you can play it live with the Moog synthesizer too; I like how the performances are slightly different and how you can make it feel human but using the synthesizers as an orchestra.” The doubling technique can be heard all over the score, to achieve different effects, he says, “At times, we have parts played by a string quartet and overdubbed with four different synth voices; you can double it and have them weave in and out of each other so you don’t really know if it is the real instrument or if it is something else. People are unable to put their finger on what the sound is coming from, which is also something that’s very interesting to me — you can create something that maybe sounds familiar, but there’s something different about it, and it sounds new.”