The craft of film scoring is fascinating in the way it plays with human emotions. Acting as a guide, music helps shape and support a film’s narrative. By utilizing and reinforcing ingrained cultural associations with sound, a well-crafted score can deliver powerful layers of sensory information. At the same time, this fact provides an interesting opportunity for composers to play with expectations and break down sonic stereotypes.
While internally debating which film I would profile for March Break Month, it was composer Jeremy Zuckerman who provided the perfect option. During our recent conversation about his incredible score for Natasha Kermani’s film Lucky, the topic just happened to meander to this very idea. It was then that Jeremy threw out Bobby Krlic’s boundary busting score for Midsommar as an example of what can happen when a composer perfectly pushes against conventional scoring expectations.
“[Ari] Aster listened exclusively to [Bobby] Krlic’s music while writing Midsommar. So when the time came to pick a composer for the film, Krlic was the natural, and only, choice.”
For many years, Bobby Krlic was best known as creative mind behind The Haxan Cloak. With his dark, experimental electronic soundscapes and frequent producing collaborations with artists like Björk, Goldfrapp, HEALTH and Atticus Ross, it was really only a matter of time before Krlic made the leap to film scoring. Then, after working with Atticus Ross on Blackhat, Triple 9 and Almost Holy, Krlic was finally truly ready to embark on a solo feature film score. Lucky for him, the first worthy opportunity that presented itself was none other than working with Hereditary director, Ari Aster. According to Pitchfork, Aster listened exclusively to Krlic’s music while writing Midsommar. So when the time came to pick a composer for the film, Krlic was the natural, and only, choice.
In the film’s dramatic and heartbreaking opening scene, Dani (Florence Pugh) learns that her entire family has died under tragic circumstances. Mirroring the subject matter, Dani‘s physical world is dark, dimly lit and cold. Working in tandem with these visuals is the eerie track, ‘Gassed.’ Overlapping drone-like tones performed on string instruments instantly ground the moment in deep emotion. As the layers of sound collide in an unsettling and agitating cacophony, the effect instills a palpable sense of overwhelming grief and shock.
With a single violin voice cutting through the noise, the progression of notes leads neither up nor down. Nothing makes sense to Dani in this moment and the lack of traditional melody supports this. Where does one go when all sense of reality has been wiped away? How does one begin to move on from such a loss? Sluggishly building and gathering strength as it moves along, rhythmic pulses serve as Dani‘s heartbeat while punctuated beats mirror her gasps in between sobs. Eerie, heartbreaking and intentionally expected, ‘Gassed‘ demonstrates Krlic’s keen self-awareness in creating a track that makes sense for this exact moment. In this exact place. And in this exact scene.
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As Dani and her ‘friends’ make their way to Hårga, the film makes some visual and audible shifts. Acting as a beautiful cinematic page turn, Krlic’s score supports the dramatic and stunning change in scenery. Flooded in light, flowers, blue skies and open landscapes, it is crystal clear that this space—this place—is different. As the gang approaches Hårga’s home base, flutes play repeating runs of ascending notes. Synthetic swirls of bright and crisp sounds provide the commune with an ethereal, fantasy sentiment. It’s also at this point that Midsommar begins to interchangeably use Krlic’s music as both diegetic and non-diegetic sound. In an almost fluid like fashion, what works as score in one moment is literally playing out on screen the next. By composing a score with true to life instrumentation, progressions and presentations, Krlic uniquely breaks the fourth wall, investing us further in Dani’s world.
“Eerie, heartbreaking and intentionally expected, ‘Gassed’ demonstrates Krlic’s keen self-awareness in creating a track that makes sense […]”
Once the group starts to settle within Hårga’s walls, the genius of Krlic’s approach starts to unfold (especially on a second viewing). Consciously ignoring the literal writing on the walls, tapestries and direct statements from Hårga residents, the music remains worthy of a Disney fairy tale. Where a lesser film would perhaps have been tempted to tip off audiences with foreboding progressions, sinister low hums or other traditionally eerie cues, Midsommar does not. Instead, these moments become peppered with beautiful swells of strings and harp. Peaceful, serene and surreal, the alarming undercurrent running through Hårga becomes that much harder to detect. While easy to subconsciously brush off in the beginning, Krlic’s motives become fully revealed in the track ‘Attestupan.’
For several reasons, this moment in the film signals a shift. Not only are Dani and her fellow Hårga outsiders shocked at the seemingly callous suicide ritual that unfolds in front of them, it becomes the first undeniable glimpse that something is a bit off. As they stand at the base of the breathtakingly stunning cliff, surrounded by white rock and sand, calm and bright layers of healing frequencies echo throughout the space. Peaceful and soothing, these elongated tones imbue the scene with a calm sense of purpose and sacred energy. It is only when blood has been shed (as a Hårga woman cuts her hand) that the emotional tone begins to shift. Integrating minor chords in with the formerly peaceful tones, slow and agitated strings build from beneath. Never overpowering the impactful moment, ‘Attestupan‘ frames the scene in a transformative artifice that hides the horror in open and plain sight.
This clever use of sound and imagery not only contributes to Midsommar‘s successful execution, it becomes baked into it’s very being. Consistently defying expectations, Krlic intentionally subverts conventional scoring techniques in ways that further Dani‘s journey, story and internal emotional dialogue. In an odd twist, the beauty and purity wind up unsettling far more than piercing violin squeals or synthetic bursts of static ever could. In truth, it is this subversion of boldly laying the horror out unbridled by convention that ultimately sends chills rippling down sunbaked skin. As a testament to this fact, there is no better example than the final climactic track, ‘Fire Temple.’
As Dani sits, drenched in flowers atop her May Queen throne, melancholic strings set the mood. Major chords, soothing resolutions and bright, sparkly trills compliment the pensive moment of reflection and preparation. Like the day after a major holiday, birthday or vacation, there’s a natural note of sadness in arriving at this celebratory climax. Guiding this emotional trajectory are low cellos that execute the melody while delicate upper strings scent the air. With the preparations continuing, the ominous puzzle pieces begin to fall into place. What could (and should) be seen as frightening is instead framed as a much awaited moment of beauty, tradition and release.
“This clever use of sound and imagery not only contributes to Midsommar‘s successful execution, it becomes baked into it’s very being.”
Doubling down on this attitude, Krlic organically adds layer upon layer of sound building to the ultimate moment when fire finally touches kindling. With fires racing up the walls, a line of violins burst into the track. Progressing upwards in melodic direction, this singing melody sets the emotional pace. Stripping away the expectations of fear and sorrow, this jarring juxtaposition incites an uncomfortable feeling of satisfaction and appreciation. It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of music and one that stands strong on its own outside of the film itself. Rarely has a horror film score stood in such direct defiance of convention and succeeded so beautifully.
Following the film’s incredible success, it came as no surprise when a release was announced. Put out by the LA based record label Milan, Krlic’s score was released digitally as well as physically on both CD and LP. Available in a variety of colors (including a marvelous Attestupa Pink Splatter version), there’s most certainly a vinyl version to please every taste. While online prices tend to creep up the more exclusive the release, odds are you local record shop has a copy waiting in the racks. Intensely pleasing, engaging and evocative from beginning to end, Bobby Krlic’s Midsommar score is an easy buy to recommend to fans of the film and film music alike.
What are your thoughts on Midsommar? Have a favorite Bobby Krlic project? Talk all things daylight horror with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! For more score talk, check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month!