Composer and vocalist Christine Hals has certainly made a big impression on film music fans around the world with her atmospheric and expressive music for the movie Kampen om Narvik. The music for the movie not only supports and enhances the storyline and its images, but becomes an important and integral component of the film. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix and the score is available on digital platforms. I would like to thank the composer for taking time out from her busy schedule to answer my questions.
You are a respected vocalist as well as a composer, you performed on the score for Frozen, as well as working with Christophe Beck on other scores and did the kulning in God of War – Ragnarök, can you tell us something about your involvement on the score for Frozen, and did singing lead you into a career as a composer of film music?
Singing made me realize I had talent for music. As singing just came naturally to me and I could sing very high notes from an early age, I thought everyone could sing. I would sing along to Kate Bush, Alanis Morissette, Maria Callas and Whitney Houston while milking goats in my youth, and some of the neighbors heard me and said I had talent. And I took music classes in school at 14 and again some of my classmates heard me and encouraged me. I was still determined to become a veterinarian though. After high school I studied art for one year and moved to Sweden to study singing for one year before my planned veterinary medical school. Instead I was accepted to a music production school that I applied to in case I wasn’t accepted to the singing course I had applied to. I was very new at music production and didn’t follow any musical rules, so perhaps that’s why I got accepted, for my untamed creativity. About 10 years later I had finished my masters degree in film scoring and got a scholarship from Sweden to move to LA and study at the SMPTV program at USC, actually after advice from Swedish Ludwig Göransson who did the same program.
At USC I would sometimes sing on my scores and always in ancient Norse, the extinct Viking language. Being Norwegian I wrote a lot of Nordic sounding music to epic landscapes and this got noticed by Peter Rotter who not only was the music contractor for USC, but for most of the Hollywood composers as well, and he recommended me for Chris Beck. First I tried to help them find Norwegian musicians, but when they found out I had been singing goats down from the Norwegian mountains using Scandinavian herding calls they got ecstatic. This singing technique is not only ancient, but it really describes the Norwegian landscapes and our national history. It was used by animal herders to call the animals down from the high mountains but was also used to communicate with each other across the fjords.
They even scared wild animals with it as it had a very strong and piercing sound. When Disney chief John Lasseter heard these calls he said it was snow calling and as you may know they ended up writing the plot for Frozen 2 around this distant call that Elsa keeps hearing, so I might be the only goat caller who ever inspired a Disney script.
One of your recent scoring assignments is Kampen om Narvik, which is a great soundtrack. How did you become involved on the project, and was there any specific instructions from the producers regarding the score as in style or where the music should be placed?
Thank you! I’m very happy you like it, it’s my biggest achievement this far and I am very grateful and satisfied with that collaboration. I started pitching for the film already late 2017 when I heard that Nordisk Film, Norway’s leading production company, was working on telling this story. My grandpa fought and almost lost his life in this very battle, the biggest to ever take place on Norwegian soil. A battle that strangely had gotten very little attention, so the film was important to me on many different levels. I told the producers about my grandad’s involvement in the battle and asked if I could pitch for it. As it was important to them to involve people with a close relation to the area and this battle they welcomed me, but I still didn’t dare to dream that I would actually land this film. It’s one of Norway’s biggest productions to this date and it was a film that not only Norwegian composers wanted, but apparently over 30 well established composers from all over the world had tried to get the film. To me it was a big deal to even get the chance to pitch, so I gave it all I had and wrote tons of music.
They hired director Erik Skjoldbjærg and I tried to figure out his style and he also comes from the North of Norway like me. The northern Norwegian nature is a very big part of my sound and Erik could hear this and nature actually played a big part in this battle. The Germans were completely unprepared for the harsh and unwelcoming Norwegian winter. The Norwegians knew the landscapes very well and got an upper hand because of this. Me and Erik spoke a lot about how nature needed to be part of the sound and music, and also that the Germans were this unstoppable war machine.
So that’s why the music in a way became nature vs machine. I sampled lots of sounds of me walking in snow, I used overtone singing as a way of portraying the wind and I sampled old train horns and weapons from the 40s that I stretched out and turned into synths to symbolize the war machine. You don’t necessarily hear this, but I think you can feel it.
You recently wrote the theme for the game League of Legends, which I think you are also involved with as a vocalist, is it hard to establish a musical identity in a theme for a game, film, or TV series in such a short time window?
No, because they hired me because they wanted my Nordic style, this is very much part of my sound and personality. They had hired me as a singer before and knew my style as a composer when they contacted me. I knew the style of Freljord very well as I had sang for several of their champions there. It was also a successful track because of very good collaboration with Colm McGuinness and the Norwegian folk musicians that we hired and good guidance from Kole Hicks and Sara Blandy from Riot Games. I really enjoyed the process, so I hope I get more gigs like that.
The score for Kampen om Narvik is a powerful one, I think I’m correct in saying it’s a fusion of conventional instrumentation and also electronic elements, what percentage of the score was synthetic and what percentage was realized by live performances?
Thank you! There’s orchestra almost all over the film and we recorded about 85 min orchestra and used 79 min of it in the film. I used synths mostly in action scenes or where the Germans were part of the drama.
The choir is about 15% according to CueDB, which I used to keep track of my work process. Choir and orchestra were something I needed to know the exact timing for because I was recording them, so having CueDB was very helpful in that regard. I’d have to estimate how much I used the synths, perhaps about 35-40%? But there’s orchestra mixed with it all the time. I prefer using live instruments, so whenever I used synths it was not due to budget, but because the scene called for synths.
Do you conduct at all, or is it better to supervise any recording session and have a conductor?
I am not a conductor, but I’ve taken conducting lessons, as conducting allows me to see the music from a different perspective and also better understand how the music is received by the musicians. I think it’s a very good skill to have and every composer who writes for orchestra should at least try to conduct just to understand the process.
I prefer to let experienced conductors do the conducting in the studio, as they do a way better job than I could ever do, and I can focus on listening and supervising the session. Sometimes the director is in the studio with you as well, and then it’s good to be aware of his or her reactions to the music as it’s being performed. So there are many reasons to not conduct the music yourself. The end result is the most important, so if I felt I had something to add by conducting I’d probably conduct, but as of now I do a better job just supervising.
You wrote the title track and performed on the album Illusions with Canadian metal band Boraelis, is writing and performing for a project such as this less restricting than scoring a movie with all its timings and fx etc?
I think there are always certain restrictions or frames that you compose or create within. A song for a metal band calls for certain things and there are expectations to meet even there. The singer Matt Borealis contacted me many years ago after hearing Submersive that I co-wrote for a trailer album in 2014 with Michael Maas. He really liked that sound and how I used my voice in that track. So, when I worked on this track I used my voice in the same way and we had the same build up and structure as in Submersive.
I read that your first scoring assignment was in 2010 on a short film entitled Juana, how did you become involved on writing the music for this?
I scored Juana as part of my studies. I had just started at the Master’s program in film scoring at the Royal College of Music and the Dramatical Institute in Stockholm. I recommend any aspiring composers to reach out to film schools, scoring student films is the perfect learning process and you connect with up and coming filmmakers.
Going back to Kampen om Narvik, how many times did you sit and watch the movie, before you began to formulate ideas about the score and did you have any input into what music from the score would be included on the soundtrack release?
I actually started writing music already when reading the script. When I pitched for the film I wrote the Narvik theme which both the producers and the director thought sounded like Northern Norway. So that theme was there from the get go and then I got a few scenes that they filmed before the pandemic put a hold on everything.
I wrote the love theme in the summer of 2020 and in the fall as I scored the first trailer I wrote the hero theme «Heroes of Narvik» and this theme can also be heard in the film where there’s called for extra heroism. For instance you can hear it played by a piano in the cue «Out of the Trenches» when the male lead and the other soldiers need to gather whatever strength there’s left in them to fight. It’s played by the piano because heroism can definitely be fragile and in this scene and the next you can see what sacrifices have been made by both soldiers and civilians.
Your music is ethereal, innovative, and wonderfully haunting, do you think it important for characters in films etc, to have specific themes or at least a musical sound so the audience can identify with them?
Thank you. Yes, definitely. I think the leitmotif it is an important tool in musical storytelling. It can subtly guide the audience and make them understand things that otherwise can be difficult to show.
How do you work out your musical ideas for a project, do you use a keyboard, or another instrument?
Yes, I use a keyboard and often with string samples or piano at the very beginning when I’m trying to set the mood and figure out what chords to use.
What artists or composers would you say have influenced you?
There have been many. Before I discovered film music I was very inspired by Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Pink Floyd and Bjørk. It was Bjørk who inspired me to learn music production and Kate Bush and Tori Amos who inspired me to compose.
I discovered film music in 2008 when I wrote my first orchestral piece, Snow. I needed inspiration and looked for orchestral music that to me sounded like winter and found Lady in the Water by James Newton Howard and Narnia by Harry Gregson-Williams and a whole new world opened up to me. In film music you are free to write music in so many different ways and the style is often very dreamy and ambient which my music already was. I had been told my music wasn’t commercial enough for me to make it as a pop artist, but for film music it felt like a perfect match. And so I decided to learn more about the orchestra and to study film music and I never looked back.
What is next after Narvik?
I am now working on my first symphony which will be written to a film that I am co-producing. I can’t say too much just yet, but the concert is planned to be in the fall next year.