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Ludwig Göransson

Ludwig GöranssonPhoto: Magda Wosinska

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.

Starting Point

Ludwig GöranssonA 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.”

Göransson and director Christopher Nolan on the set of Oppenheimer.Göransson and director Christopher Nolan on the set of Oppenheimer.Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures

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.”

Make It A Double

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.”

Ludwig Göransson’s recent work includes the scores for The Mandalorian, the Black Panther films, Creed, and the Christopher Nolan‑directed epic, Oppenheimer.Ludwig Göransson’s recent work includes the scores for The Mandalorian, the Black Panther films, Creed, and the Christopher Nolan‑directed epic, Oppenheimer.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.”

The Freedom Of Limitations

Another limitation that the duo imposed on the score was that it would feature no drums at all. The thought process was clear: “We didn’t want to connect Oppenheimer with a military feel, and the feeling of no drums [in the score] was really good! Also, there were some really important sound‑design elements in the film, like foot stomps and bombs, for example, and having no drums and no big hits in the score really gave those elements more room.”

While the sound palette was minimalistic, the ideas were free to be as over‑the‑top as they liked. The cue ‘Can You Hear The Music?’, for example, has 21 tempo changes (starting at around 80bpm and ending at 360bpm), and was played in real time by live musicians. Göransson reflects on the evolution of the piece: “When I first sequenced it in Cubase, the piece didn’t have a tempo change; it went between 16th notes and triplets. However, when we started recording live strings playing it, you could tell, when we did the metric modulation and it switched to triplets, that the performance of the strings started to change and you really started feeling like it was in threes instead of in fours. So then we came up with the idea to have everything be 16th notes and to have double as many tempo changes instead.”

When it came time to record the piece with an orchestra, Göransson had his doubts about pulling it off. “I thought we were going to have to record it four bars at a time because I didn’t think it would be possible to have humans perform this live. But the musicians we were recording are the best in the world; they sit in the studio for eight hours a day with a click in their headphones. So we came up with a way to give them the new tempo two measures before the tempo changed on the page, and they were able to play with that and that’s how we recorded the two‑minute piece in one live take.”

Hybrid Arrangement

Göransson’s process of recording the complex arrangement in real time, instead of programming it on a computer, mirrors Nolan’s well‑documented affinity for painstakingly handcrafted in‑camera special effects. Göransson, however, isn’t interested in being an analogue purist, and his studio hosts a variety of digital tools to assist his hybrid workflow. “When I work in film, I sequence in Cubase and ReWire it with Ableton, and I have all my MIDI in Cubase linked with two computers that I use for Vienna Ensemble Pro, where I host my orchestra samples. Then I have a third computer where I only have the picture, the sound effects, the dialogue, and the temp track and this computer is also where I print all of my audio.”

Ludwig Göransson’s studio is a mix of real and virtual. His computer setup is based around Cubase, Live and VSL software, while the adjacent live room houses a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments.Ludwig Göransson’s studio is a mix of real and virtual. His computer setup is based around Cubase, Live and VSL software, while the adjacent live room houses a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments.Photo: Taiyo Watanabe

Since shaping and manipulating sound is a big part of his process, he lists a wide range of plug‑ins that are frequently used in his productions, ranging from ubiquitous third‑party ones like FabFilter Pro‑Q 3 and Pro‑C 2, which he uses for EQ’ing and compressing, to humble but effective stock tools like Ableton’s built‑in Auto Filter and EQ. He explains, “They’re pretty great when you just want to program; it’s super easy to draw lines. I like it especially because when I’m running Ableton as ReWire, obviously I can’t open up a plug‑in that doesn’t belong to the program.”

Also in his arsenal are two plug‑ins from the Los Angeles‑based software company Output: the granular effects processing plug‑in Portal, and Movement, a multi‑effects engine which, as the name suggests, adds rhythm and movement to any sound. For reverb, modulation and chorus effects, he enjoys the Valhalla plug‑ins, and for delay, he says, “it’s always EchoBoy by Soundtoys.” He’s a fan of Soundtoys in general and is all praise for Crystallizer (an Eventide H3000‑inspired pitch‑shifter and reverse echo processor), and Decapitator, for distortion. Göransson’s use of the Soundtoys plug‑ins can be heard extensively on the Black Panther score, with Decapitator being used on drums and on the flute in Killmonger’s theme, and EchoBoy on vocals. XLN Audio’s RC‑20 Retro Color, Antares’ Auto‑Tune (“on vocals, obviously, but you can put it on other instruments too”) and iZotope’s Trash and Ozone round up the list.

While the plug‑ins are used to shape tone, Göransson brings up the physicality of composing several times, and his studio is set up with a variety of instruments to allow for that. The composer is a talented multi‑instrumentalist and any limitations that exist are self‑imposed in an effort to foster creativity. “The last place I want to go sit down [when I’m inspired] is at the MIDI keyboard. I also try to not be in front of a screen because you can put in a lot of time and a lot of your ideas into the computer but it’s never going to give you anything back. At least with an instrument the body resonates — it’s talking, it’s singing if there’s something happening there.” A wall of guitars and a Eurorack setup underscore his point.

Ludwig GöranssonA great example of his process can be heard in the theme for The Mandalorian. It starts off with the bass recorder, which in turn inspires a tom drum rhythm that leads to a piano part, and then an acoustic guitar line; a Mellotron part fills out the arrangement, and the piece finishes with delicate motifs played on a Fender Rhodes. All of this still leaves room for an orchestra to give it that classic Star Wars feel. Another great example of his method can be heard in T’Challa’s Theme from Black Panther, which is built around the talking drum, a traditional instrument from West Africa, whose sound can be manipulated to mimic human speech. A chorus of talking drum players was underscored with the 808 playing the same rhythm as the talking drums to emphasise the beat and create a powerful low end for the piece.

The Low End Whisperer

Göransson excels at shaping the all‑important low end, the bugbear of every new composer and producer who has spent many a long night trying to turn a muddy, messy low end into a powerful and propulsive foundational element. Göransson has figured it out and he’s happy to share his insight. Unfortunately, he says, there’s no magic button. “You are never going to solve any issues in the mix after you’ve written your song. What’s important is to always think about the bass sounds that you are going to use when you’re adding them to your composition — they have to match what is already in [the arrangement]. You can’t write it down on a page, hope it’s going to be good, and that the mixer is going to [solve] it. You need to have production in mind when you sit down and write parts. When you’re about to add bass to your composition, listen to it over and over again, and try to imagine, in your head, what the bass sound is that you want before you put it in; that’s a good way of feeling and knowing what’s right.

“Also, with experience comes the knowledge that it’s not about having 10 great sounds [in your piece] — if you have three great elements, you can see how far you can take them. That’s going to be much more important than just messing around with as many sounds as you have. It’s difficult on your computer and on the keyboard because you have access to everything — a hundred grand pianos, a hundred synthesizers, and 20 different drum kits; you have an unlimited sound arsenal, but I like limiting myself with sounds and limiting myself with ideas.”

The other key to a good bass sound, he says, is to have “good rapport, good communication and trust with the person who’s mixing your music. Chris Fogel has been mixing my film scores and we talk a lot about how I want it to sound. The demos already need to sound good and then what Chris Fogel does is see how he can elevate the demos. When I work on the low end in my studio, I’m sure it’s blasting out loud but then what Chris can do is probably take out certain frequencies that are not going to sound good in a theatre.”

With A Little Help From My Friends

With that he dispels the myth that a composer is a lone genius, crafting sounds that move millions all by himself. In fact, collaboration comes up repeatedly in the conversation as something Göransson desires and is good at. “What I think is most important is that you have to get out in the world and get out of your comfort zone. When you’re young, and especially if you’re studying at a music school or a conservatory, it is important to find other voices and start working with other artists, composers, or musicians that have a different music education, play a different instrument, or work in a different genre of music from you. A lot of people just tend to stay in their building [at university], but you can just walk over to the other house, go in there, knock on the door and someone’s going to open it. I think that collaboration across different genres and different backgrounds is very important. I started out in rock and metal and then got into jazz, classical music, hip‑hop, and all these different kinds of music that I love.”

He brings it up again when asked about how he navigates the world of big‑budget studio films where every aspect of the film is decided by committee, a process that some people argue stifles creativity and individuality. Göransson, who started out working in TV and on indie films, was thrust into the biggest of the big leagues — a superhero movie — with 2018’s Black Panther. He says he didn’t find that particularly jarring and there’s a good reason why: it all comes down to who your collaborator is. “I’m very fortunate to have some really great collaborators, whether it’s Ryan Coogler, Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, or Childish Gambino. The people that you work with the most, it is important that you feel like you can trust them, and that they can trust you, because when there is a big budget, when there are a lot of people involved, there are going to be a lot of voices and a lot of people talking. That can be stressful if you’re working with someone you don’t really know, or maybe with someone who doesn’t really understand music, and they have their producers and then executive producers in the studio giving them notes all the time. You can be in a tricky position, but for me, I’ve been very fortunate to work with collaborators that have been very respectful to me and know how they want their music.”

He views his other role — that of Grammy‑winning music producer and co‑writer who has worked with artists like Haim, Adele and Childish Gambino — as deeply collaborative as well and, therefore, not particularly different from his job as a film composer. “It’s not that different, because whether it’s a rapper or a singer or a director, you’re still trying to understand the vision of the artist. The biggest difference, when I produce music for another artist, is that you work a lot more closely with someone in terms of spending your time with them. I like both aspects of it: I like sitting alone in my studio when I’m writing music for a film, but I also like producing an artist’s album or song where we can sit together in the studio and talk about music; that’s the really important part of it, the social aspect of making a song together.”

His association with Childish Gambino, the musical alter‑ego of actor/filmmaker Donald Glover, goes back to when he landed his first TV show gig, providing music for the show Community on which Glover starred. The two hit it off and went on to collaborate on several Childish Gambino projects, including the 2016 Grammy‑winning hit Redbone, and 2018’s visceral This Is America, which won all four of the Grammys it was nominated for, including the highly‑prized Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year awards.

He reflects on the success of the song, “What a moment! I first worked with Childish Gambino when we were 24 years old and we released [the mixtape] Culdesac online from a small little apartment in downtown LA. I remember feeling like, ‘OK, everyone’s going to hear this!’ But when you work on a project [like This Is America] that becomes such a huge thing almost overnight... I remember the day the video came out and the song came out; it was special.”

He is similarly quietly enthusiastic about working with Adele, one of the biggest names in pop music, leaving one to think that he measures his success by some personal, artistic metric. The pair worked on two songs for her last album and the highlight, according to him, was “just getting into a room with Adele and understanding why she is so brilliant and who she is; it was the first time I had worked with her. Socially, she is incredible to hang out with, but also writing music together with her and hearing her come up with these ideas and lyrics... She has an input in every aspect of the song, she really knows what she wants; she has such a good gut feeling and such trust in her musical self. So both of us were in the studio, we were focused on getting things done, and the musical conversations that we had were just really incredible.

Ludwig Göransson’s work often straddles the border between composition and sound design. His score for Oppenheimer, for example, includes the sound of a Geiger counter.Ludwig Göransson’s work often straddles the border between composition and sound design. His score for Oppenheimer, for example, includes the sound of a Geiger counter.

New Perspective

It isn’t just diplomacy and people management in the film and music business that is helped by having good collaborators. In Göransson’s case, he has embraced how it influences his approach to the very process of scoring a film — watching the visuals set to his music by a director changes his perception of the music itself. “For example,” he says, “when Chris Nolan starts editing a film, he might take a piece of music that I wrote and put it in a scene where I would not have thought to put it; or I wouldn’t have thought to write that if I had that scene in front of me. I think that’s really interesting because a lot of times if you just start to write music to the first cut... you’re sitting there with a keyboard and you say, ‘OK, I need to write a cue for this scene.’ If the scene is one and a half minutes long, you might end up writing a one‑and‑a‑half‑minute piece of music — you let the picture control what you’re doing instead of the opposite.

Ludwig Göransson: Sometimes it’s good to just turn off the cut, think about what you just saw and how it felt, and then write... When you’re trying to get at the emotional core of the movie — that for me happens, most of the time, when I’m not watching the picture.

“Sometimes it’s good to just turn off the cut, think about what you just saw and how it felt, and then write; you don’t base the music on the timing of the cut (which is probably going to change 10 times anyway), and you don’t think, ‘OK, well, I’m going to dip down here for the dialogue and then go up there...’ I work like that too sometimes, but I think when you’re trying to get at the emotional core of the movie — the big themes that you know you should get — that for me happens, most of the time, when I’m not watching the picture.”

Start From Scratch

In 15 years, Ludwig Göransson has gone from being a music school graduate to winning three of the four major entertainment awards — he has two Emmys, three Grammys and an Oscar. His body of work is eclectic, and if there is a pattern running through the diverse soundscapes he builds, it is that he likes to create his own sound libraries for every project. “I don’t want to use sound libraries or loops that I’ve already heard a thousand times; what’s fun for me is to create new sounds from scratch. It’s important to talk to the director about the world that he or she is trying to create, and to see how we can create that world together using ideas from the script or from those early conversations. They are creating this world from scratch, so why wouldn’t you do the same with the sounds? You do it with melodies, chords, and harmony, but also, especially with technology and computers today, you can really push things, through sound.”

Ludwig GöranssonThis has been a practice he has put in place since his first feature film, the award‑winning indie drama Fruitvale Station, where he recorded and used the sounds of the BART train that is central to the story, and it has continued in every project since. He recalls, “On The Mandalorian, we recorded musicians that played something organic and then took those sounds and loops that we made and ran them through modular synthesizers and effects. You can take familiar sounds, familiar instruments, and completely turn them on their head. For Creed, I knew that I wanted to record a full day of a boxer training in the gym, so [sound designer] Christopher Lane, who I work with often, brought his sound team out there and recorded the boxer. I didn’t know what I was going to use the sounds for, or how I was going to put them in the movie, but we ended up taking those sounds, manipulating them, and making them into beats.”

On Tenet, where he worked with Christopher Lane and Anthony Baldino, he used field recordings of sirens and truck sounds that were pitch‑shifted and side‑chained to provide the low, rumbling bass for the cue ‘Trucks In Place’. The score mirrors the movie’s themes of reversing time and inversion, he explains: “The way I was manipulating the sounds on that movie was definitely a step further in terms of inverting the sound — for example, I recorded a live drummer playing a cymbal crash, reversed it, had him listen to that reversed recording, then asked him to emulate the reversed cymbal crash, and then I reversed that again. There are so many ways you can experiment with creating new, unique sounds. That’s what I do; I’m trying to come up with my own world.”