The illegitimate son of a Viking farmer and his slave must outshine and outperform his legitimate brothers to win his father’s love, and ultimately buy his mother’s freedom.
This is the brief outline for the story behind the movie Halfdanr, which is an entertaining and engrossing short released this year (2021). It is amazing that the movie has such an epic sounding score, considering it is after all a short. The music is by composer Jesse Haugen, who has fashioned an appealing and beautifully haunting yet highly adventurous sounding soundtrack. I just love the sheer symphonic scale and sound of it and thinking about it this could easily be from one of the latest blockbusters because of its grandiose and affecting style and sound.
When I hear scores such as this, I am hopeful that film music as we know it (from the 1940’s through to the 1990’s) with themes, romantic sounding tone poems and lush inspiring compositions will survive and not be lost to the dronelike soundscape sounds that are increasing in use nowadays.
Halfdanr is a wonderfully atmospheric work filled with emotion and overflowing with dark and driving dramatic cues, it is one of the most promising and pleasing scores of this year thus far, and the composer I think is certainly a name to watch out for. If he can create this powerful and commanding score for a short, what will happen when he gets a big budget movie, well I for one cannot wait to find out. In some ways I reminded of the style employed by composer Gaute Storaas on another Viking related movie Birkebeinerne which was released in 2016, this too is rich in haunting melodies and thick with attractive motifs, with the composer combining symphonic moods with choral passages.
Halfdanr is a score that I know you will return to many times after your initial listen, and it is one that you will also enjoy even more every time, because it has to it a freshness and an innovative musical persona which seems to allow us to hear new things each time we listen. The score is under thirty minutes in duration, but it makes the most of the time and is impacting as well as affecting. The soundtrack opens with I Will Return, which begins in apprehensive mood, and moves into an impressive string led theme that is inspiring to say the least, the opening is slightly subdued with low strings and percussive elements being employed to create a tense atmosphere, to this composer adds more strings and increases the tempo.
I love the second cue Honour with its anthem like lush strings and track number three The Hunters Return with the imaginative use of cello and I think there is a hint of cymbalom that laces it, being further enhanced by woods that usher in dark sounding voices, these are bolstered and supported by percussion and brass.
Most of the cues are a little over a minute in length with some being just over two minutes, but each cue each composition has to it a sound and style that makes it stand out as being inventive and above all entertaining. Available on digital platforms. I spoke with the composer about his music and the movie.
Jesse Haugen on Halfdanr the score.
1. How did you become involved on the film Halfdanr?
I first found out about Halfdanr through their initial fundraising campaign. I was excited about the film based on what I saw in their kickstarter pitch, so I reached out to the director, Lance Witmer, through a mutual friend. I shared my music with him and had several conversations over the course of almost a year before a final meeting where I got to see the film for the first time and landed the job!
2. It’s an epic sounding score considering it’s for a short, what size orchestra did you have for the movie?
It’s funny you say that. When I initially pitched my idea for the score, it was going to be something much smaller and more folk-y/traditionally Norse. As I dove into the score, however, it just kept getting bigger and bigger! By the end, we recorded a 40-piece string orchestra in Budapest. They’re layered throughout the score as well as an incredible solo cellist, Alex Thompson, who I like to say is the musician responsible for the entire “vibe” of the Halfdanr score. The rest of the sounds are synths/samples. All things considered, it’s a pretty big band.
3. The soundtrack is available on digital platforms will there be a CD release and do you have any input into what tracks from the score make it to the soundtrack release?
I have no plan for a CD release right now. If there’s a demand, I’d be happy to! Haven’t heard that from people yet, though. And yes, I did have input to what tracks made it onto the soundtrack. This is sort of a special circumstance too because I think every minute of music minus maybe 45sec in the score made it onto the soundtrack!
4. It is also a score that is very thematic which is something that is rare these days, do you think that themes in film scores are important?
I value themes quite highly. While I don’t think an outright melody is always what a film, scene, or moment requires, when I watch a film, my initial ideas are almost always melodic. This means my music is often very melody/theme heavy. The goal is always just to have something defined, intentional, and unique to that particular story, character, world, etc. Sometimes that’s a sound design texture, or a specific set of instruments, and other times it’s a solo cellist playing his heart out over 90% of the score haha.
5 Did you conduct the score, and do you work on your own orchestrations?
I love conducting when I can, although now-a-days I record almost entirely remotely (as was the case with this score). And yes, I do all of my own orchestrations! It’s a unique joy getting music ready for live players and enjoying them bringing that music to life.
6. What is next for you?
I’m always balancing about 100 things at once, but right now, the main thing holding my time and attention is a 10-part fantasy audio drama, “Tales of the Echowood.” It’s already started, and we’re about 5 episodes in, releasing every 2 weeks anywhere you listen to podcasts. It’s a fully scored show, with original music in every episode. I’m also in the beginning stages of an exciting video game project, and then working on my usual “daily” projects for web series, licensing tracks, other composers, etc.