It’s easy to hear why Hildur Guðnadóttir was given the job of scoring TÁR, a film that explores the dark psychological spaces of a conductor simultaneously on the brink of mental meltdown and a creative breakthrough. The Berlin-based Icelandic composer’s track record in creating dark soundworlds is second to none. In her Emmy Award-winning score for 2019’s HBO series Chernobyl, she sampled the sounds of a nuclear power plant to powerful effect. When, in the same year, it came to Todd Phillips’ psychological thriller, Joker, her elegiac cello-based themes brilliantly captured the troubled psychology of a failed stand-up comedian-turned-narcissistic psychopath played by Joaquin Phoenix. Guðnadóttir’s score, which was played on set, helped Phoenix on his way to winning a Best Actor Oscar, and won an Academy Award for Guðnadóttir herself. Now it’s Cate Blanchett’s turn to feel the Guðnadóttir effect as she plays the eponymous Lydia Tár, and her commanding performance as the pianist, ethnomusicologist, composer, and world-class maestro is already being tipped for Oscar recognition. Written and directed by Todd Field, TÁR is an engrossing study of the creative pressures and processes involved in composing and performing music. When we first meet Lydia in the film, she is interviewed onstage by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (played by the journalist himself), and it’s via his introduction that we hear her remarkable list of accolades: a Bernstein protégée, she has conducted top orchestras across the US, in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and New York, before taking the helm at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She talks about musical time and about the female conductors who have paved the way before her, and it becomes clear that this is a film not just about the aesthetics of music but about the identity politics that surround it, too. In a later scene, Lydia rants at a student in her conducting class at New York’s Juilliard School after they dismiss Bach—that white, male father of 20—on ideological grounds. The world of classical music is interrogated from all directions. Some of the film’s musical cues are already suggested by the concert repertoire in Field’s script. The approaching creative challenge for Lydia is a live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon, which the real-life Dresden Philharmonic brings to life onscreen; Elgar’s Cello Concerto, performed onscreen by British cellist Sophie Kauer, is also a reference point in the film. Then, as well as scene-setting, there are the themes of musical time and the creative process that Guðnadóttir is exploring in her soundtrack. Her first creative discussions with the director were about tempo: “We had lots of meetings before they started shooting,” says Guðnadóttir, “mostly at locations in Berlin [where much of the film is shot]. We started by defining the main characters—which BPM [beats per minute] they were walking in, their inner musical landscape, their inner tempo.” What Guðnadóttir does so cleverly in TÁR is capture the music that Lydia is composing while also revealing the creative process by which it comes into being: “I wanted to capture the inner music before it becomes sound, before it starts moving air, what that feels like,” says Guðnadóttir. She looked to the experimentations of early-20th-century American composer Charles Ives for the soundworld of Lydia's composition, an atmospheric string quartet. “Her character is definitely quite torn. She’s got to the top of her field, and she comes across as this very self-assured musical genius, but we felt that she was neglecting a lot of her inner passions about the music that she actually wanted to be writing,” Guðnadóttir explains. “That conflict is portrayed in the way she is researching and going on field trips to explore music from other cultures; her musical character was more explorative and wanting to move towards experimentation, so the music she is wanting to write is softer, more explorative, than her conducting persona suggests.” Emotional conflict is at the heart of the film. Lydia is in a relationship and has a child with her first violinist (played by Nina Hoss); she is also rumored to be having affairs with the women on her scholarship program, where she is being stalked by a former mentee—and a new Russian cellist has caught her eye. As the inner tension mounts, Lydia begins to hear noises: “In the film, she’s working on a melody, and she’s having doubts about it and coming back to it. We see her ups and downs, and she’s very sensitive to sounds, so sometimes we’re not sure if the sounds that she’s hearing are internal or external.” One of the intervals (it sounds something like a doorbell) that seeps into Lydia’s consciousness was actually based on the sound of an alarm device used by Field’s father-in-law, which the director heard when he was writing the film’s script. It feeds into Lydia’s playing at the piano, and into Guðnadóttir’s score. Those watching the film will have to listen to this album to hear the results of Lydia’s hard work: “Like Lydia, I am conveniently also working with Deutsche Grammophon, so when, after reading the script, I realized we would never hear Lydia’s music in its entirety, I felt it was important the music lives somewhere outside the film.” That somewhere is on the soundtrack album alongside the performances of Mahler, Elgar, and outtakes of Lydia’s onscreen sessions, as well as Guðnadóttir speaking during the recordings, giving the players instructions on how to play. “The process of getting everyone together, or making or rehearsing music, is much more interesting than a final performance,” explains Guðnadóttir. “That’s where the real juice happens.”

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