To help celebrate the release of Zebra Nordsund, I thought I’d take a look at some of my favourite scores in the Nordic Noir genre, that I am so gently obsessed with.
Nordic Noir first started to establish itself globally in the world of literary fiction, through writers such as Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo and the genres originators, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. But it exploded internationally via the success of Stieg Larsson‘s posthumously published series of novels, most notably The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
On the back of this success, a thirst for Scandinavian television arose. Like much of the literary success, the subject most exploited was that of the dour, troubled detective solving complex and grisly murders. At the forefront of this sudden renaissance have been production companies such as Sweden’s Yellow Bird (ostensibly set up to create the Wallander series) and Denmark’s DR (effectively the Danish version of the BBC).
Now, series from Norway, Iceland and Finland are gaining popularity, and even occasionally branching away from the subject of miserable police officers and psychopathic killers.
All this amazing television has also provided us with some very fine music. Scandinavia is exporting its composers just as much as its TV series. Let me take you through some of my favourites…
5) Borgen – Halfdan E
Not strictly a Nordic Noir, as the subject matter is politics rather than police (although the two often overlap in Scandinavian fiction), Borgen tells the story of a popular, left-leaning female prime minister tackling a rather right-leaning world of politics (echoing a number of issues that genuinely face Danish politics).
Although politically charged, there are far fewer bodies on view than Nordic Noir usually dishes up, so the music has a much lighter, more gently dramatic feel. Halfdan E’s score is full of wistful electronica and ambient organics. The drama is driven by orchestra and simple percussion.
But, where this soundtrack really excels is when Halfdan’s music focuses on the conflict within the lead character, Birgitte Nyborg, as she struggles to juggle her political ambitions with her personal, family life. It is full of contrast, she is a strong character, with strong beliefs, but at the same time these strengths are turned against her both poltically and domestically, and turned into vulnerabilities. A fabulous contradiction, that the music does a great job of capturing.
4) Beck – Anders Herrlin/Jennie Lofgren and Adam Norden
The original Scandinavian detective series (the books were written in the 1960s and 70s), Beck is a fascinating study of Swedish society, told through the eyes of a world weary detective. The TV series modernised the setting, starting in the 1990s and running until the present, and also ignored the stories from the original novels. There are also regular characters from the novels who make no appearance, so it is effectively Beck in name, but not in substance.
Having said that, it is a very good series. The central character of Martin Beck is not the typical dark, drunken policeman. Sure, he’s divorced and surly, a reactionary to modern advancements, but there is a gentleness to his character and a warm, simple humour that steers everything away from too much cliche.
The music was written by the team of Anders Herrlin and Jennie Lofgren for many years and is very enjoyable. Full of subtlety and dynamism, it covers a broad sonic range without ever over-stepping into any moments of Hollywood-esque grandeur that might undermine the procedural simplicity of the style of the series. But, occasionally, it finds its space and is carefully sublime.
For the last series, experienced composer Adam Norden took over and has produced a score that, whilst not at odds with Herrlin and Lofgren’s scores, provides some neat, original touches. There’s a gentle, organic vibe, that occasionally breaks into some very tense action sequences.
3) Trapped – Johann Johannson/Hildur Gudnadottir/Rutger Hoedemaekers
Trapped was possibly my favourite series last year. A slow-boiling detective drama full of claustraphobia and shadows, as a snowstorm traps the investigating officers, suspects and entire populace of a town in the little port of Seydisfjordur. It’s quite quickly clear that the case is much more than the small police team are used to dealing with but, contrastingly, the plot opens up to reveal that a grand and terrible story can reveal itself on an intimate scale.
Most people will be familiar with the work of Johann Johannson’s music now that he has finally been discovered by the Hollywood machine. So it was nice to see him teaming up with director Baltasar Kormakur to work on an icelandic TV project.
The overall feel of the music is nice and subtle. As Johann has teamed up with regular collaborator, Gudnadottir, there is plenty of cello to the fore. The score is written in quite a sparse manner, to reflect the bleak landscape and the smallness of the setting that entertains a convoluted tale of murder and corruption.
The limited ingredients of fragile strings, organic soundscapes and pulsing analogue drum sequences do a lot of hard work. It’s a small soundtrack, but full of depth and character. Perfect for this gripping series.
2) Wallander – Adam Norden & Flaskvartetten.
Wallander is Sweden’s favourite detective. Henning Mankell’s novels are full of cultural and social interpretation, pitting the tired but deeply moral detective against a changing world that is finally getting its claws on a small, seaside town.
Giving the music to Wallander one space in this Top 5 is a little bit of a cheat, because Norden and Flaskvartetten’s music are very very different. Norden, the original composer, has a gentle, natural approach; often nothing more than strings and piano, with the occasional subtle, organic synth drone or texture.
It works very well with the first series of Wallander as there is a strong focus at the heart of the series between the detective and his estranged daughter, who he is dismayed to discover has become a polcie officer, and is assigned to his team. The simplicity of the strings and piano approach represents this awkward, amusing and touching relationship beautifully. The tales of dark crime that surround this father/daughter detective team are more of a bloody backdrop on which their relationship develops.
This is quite a contrast to series two, as Flasvartetten (an experimental band that consist of a string quartet and a drum/synth programmer) take a completely different approach. They are an experimental quartet because they primarily play electro-acoustic string instruments, some of which they design and build themselves. Essentially, if it can be bowed, it can be used for their music.
The second series took a more action-based approach, partly because the character of Wallander’s daughter was dropped after the actress sadly committed suicide.
The music is full of scratchy staccato rhythms, intriguing string sequences and psychoacoustic noises. It is a far more brash and dynamic affair, although there are many moments of calmer, more lyrical music that reflect Wallander’s character. However, even these are leant an esoteric air as Flaskvartetten flex their array of unusual musical toys.
Two very conflicting but enjoyable styles of music that warrant a long listen.
1) The Bridge – Johan Soderqvist/Uno Helmersson/Patrik Andren
Ah, now… this is going to very strongly look like favouritism isn’t it? Well, perhaps there is some bias now that I have worked on the series myself but, genuinely, the music for The Bridge is a truly terrific thing.
For those of you who don’t know, The Bridge (or Broen, or Bron, depending where you live) is a Swedish/Danish co-production about a very unconventional female cop and lots of complex and twisted serial killings. Saga Noren, the female cop in question, is spectacularly blunt and unemotional – the suggestion hinted at is that she has some form of autism. She’s one of the finest detectives ever created.
The bridge of the title is the Oresund Bridge, that spans the waters between Copenhagen and Malmo. In the first series, a body is found lying across the border between Denmark and Sweden, forcing their respective police forces to work together. As it turns out, the body is in fact the top half of one victim and the bottom half of another… and so the fun ensues.
Sadly, the music for the series is not commercially available (yet), so it can only be experienced in its intended form, during the show. In one way that’s great, that’s how it should be heard. But, you don’t get to hear the intricacy and complexity of the way it’s put together. I listened to a number of tracks from series three as inspiration for creating the bespoke patches that became Zebra Nordsund, and it really was utterly compelling and exhilarating.
The sound design is top notch. There are sounds and performances that you don’t hear in many other places, and there’s a care taken with the structure of the cues – with multiple layers intertwining – that shows a huge attanetion to detail.
It’s not always an easy listen, the content of the series is pretty damn dark and brutal (although not without moments of black humour), but is genuinely riveting and original.
If, as is possible, a soundtrack will be released in the near future, I heartily recommend grabbing a copy. There’s much to enjoy and learn!
Other Nordic Noir soundtracks I recommend checking out include:
The Killing by Frans Bak
Blue Eyes by Flaskvartetten
Case by Petur Jonsson
Department Q by Johan Soderqvist, Uno Helmersson & Patrik Andren
Unit One by Jacob Groth
The Team by Jean-Paul Wall
Jordskott by Erik Lewander & Ollie Ljungman