Wherever you land on Loki, there’s one element that has been met with universal acclaim: Natalie Holt‘s remarkable score, which has brought together unconventional instrument choices, homages to famous classics, and some deeply emotional themes to underline the show’s unique voice.
In a one-on-one interview with Collider, Holt revealed how and why she incorporated the iconic sound of the theremin into her work, why she focuses on character while writing, and her naming process for the music cues that eventually become the official soundtrack. Plus, she also details the collaboration which led to the drinking song performed by Tom Hiddleston in Episode 3, “Lamentis,” changing from an acapella ballad to a train-rocking delight.
Collider: So, in preparing to talk with you, I opened up the Wikipedia page for the theremin, and it turns out the theremin has a very complicated history.
NATALIE HOLT: Sounds like you should talk with my theremin player, Charlie Draper. He’s the theremin collector and enthusiast, who played all the theremin parts on the score. Yeah. He’s super knowledgeable about them. He has a theremin collection.
How did you two get connected?
HOLT: It was such good luck. I do the odd pitch for advertising agency and so does he. And in lockdown in the UK, they were just trying to their composers occupied, I suppose, and they were like, “Do you want to be part of a pass-the-parcel musical lockdown project?” So it was like, they came up with a theme and then passed it around to different composers to contribute to. And I think I got it just after Charlie had been doing it. And I was like, “Oh, that’s so cool.” I loved his theremin sound. And I just got his number from the guys at the agency. And I was like, “I’ll use that. I’m sure I’m going to use his theremin at some point in the future.” And it turned out to be like a month later, when I got the pitch for Loki.
What about the theremin spoke to you in terms of being appropriate for Loki?
HOLT: I’d heard this beautiful, unearthly, this performer called Clara Rockmore. She was very prolific in the ’50s and did some albums, and she did this piece, where she played “The Swan,” and it just looks like magic, just seeing her perform and the expression that she’d put into it. I didn’t realize that theremin had so much range before I’d heard that.
Kate Herron, the director, had also obviously had the same recording of “The Swan,” because she used it in her pitch, the director’s pitch for Loki, and it’s there. It’s in Renslayer’s office. We licensed the recording of it [in Episode 4, “The Nexus Event”]. So yeah, we’ve both independently been drawn to the theremin.
That’s wonderful. Actually, I interviewed Kate last week, and because I knew I was going to be talking to you today, I asked her if she had any questions for you. She mentioned the fact that you really focus on character when you’re writing score — what’s important about that to you?
HOLT: I just feel like, if I had to sit down, if someone said to me, “Write a symphony,” I would just absolutely fail. I would not know what to write. I find a character in a story and also the rhythm of the editing and a scene, it gives me the architecture for my theme. It gives me the pacing for what I’m going to write. And it’s like, I watch a scene without music, and I can hear what needs to happen. I don’t know whether that’s like some… It’s just, that’s my thing. That’s what inspires me to write music, that kind of empathy of getting inside a character and it just kind of comes out in music. If that makes any sense.
It totally makes sense if that’s the language you speak and that’s how you express how you react to something. It also makes me think about composers who write the music and then the filmmaker actually makes the film according to whatever they wrote, which seems like it would be a very different sort of process for you.
HOLT: That would be awesome. But yeah, I mean, I think when you look at the architecture of writing and script and acts within a play, there’s something very similar to the acts of a symphony. And I feel like we’re just musically telling your story. So I think the two things, storytelling musically and with words, they’re connected.
So something I want to make sure I ask about is the drinking song from Episode 3 [“Jeg Saler Min Ganger”]. The song is credited as being written by Benedicte Maurseth and Erlend Nødtvedt, but did you have any involvement in its creation?
HOLT: I did. I think I’m down as the arranger for it. Yeah. I just, I don’t get too drawn into that stuff. But basically, Tom [Hiddleston] was singing that song acapella, on his own, in the train, and it just felt a bit dead. It felt like he’d got pissed and everyone was a bit like, “Oh.” No one was engaging with him. And so, when I saw the scene, it did feel a bit awkward to see Tom singing that song, just kind of solo. So I suggested to Kate and Kevin Wright, the producer, I was like, “I’m going to accompany him. I’m just imagining that there were some musicians who had some instruments on the train and they just got pissed with him and started playing along.”
And Kate was like, “Yeah, that sounds great. Let’s do it. Anything to give that scene a bit more life.” So I played the violin to begin with and then sent it over to my Norwegian musicians. And it just felt then like it had that kind of energy. And then they re-shot the sequence with a woman playing an alien space violin. It was some instrument that they had in their props department, I think it was for Endgame, that didn’t get used. And they pulled it out and shot this person. And they shot a few more people drinking and singing along with Tom. And I felt suddenly that scene seemed to work, but it was a great song anyway. I just added a few bits afterwards.
Here’s a random question — the soundtrack for the first three episodes has been released, and every cue has a song title, essentially, at least on Spotify. Do you get to pick those? Do you write a cue thinking, “This is what it’s called”?
HOLT: There’s a labeling system, so that everything stays organized. So the film’s in reels, so it would be like One-M, oh, R-One, One-M-three, or whatever. And then I would call it something as well, just so we’d have a name, as well as that kind of labeling system, just so it’s double named. Because when you’re recording orchestral things, you’ve got 36 tracks lying around between soloists and engineers, you have to label things properly. So I just give things a quick name, so I’d remember what they were. I changed a couple to make them sound a bit more like album-ish, but most of those names were what we call things as we were going along. They’re cue names.
To wrap up, then, in terms of musical components, what’s one random detail that you were able to bring in for this, that you feel like you’re definitely going to want to reuse again in the future?
HOLT: I think the tape machine, the analog tape machine. That was kind of unexpected. I was just like, “Oh, I’ll try running this sound through a tape machine.” I’d heard another composer mentioning it, and I’ve never done that before, but I felt like it helped give the kind of faded analog quality to the TVA theme that really connected it to the images and the look of the TVA, with all of its analog notes and buttons. That felt like a good kind of addition and gave it kind of a quirky edge, I would say.
New episodes of Loki premiere Wednesdays on Disney+.
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