Halfdan E: A somewhat gentle composer

The Black Nights Film Festival

We owe Danish composer Halfdan E, one of Scandinavia’s most successful film composers, the music for the hit political TV series Borgen, A Somewhat Gentle Man (Hans Petter Moland, 2010), The Bouncer (Jesper W. Nielsen, 2003), The Inheritance (Per Fly, 2003), Okay (Jesper W. Nielsen, 2002) and Store Planer! (Jesper W. Nielsen, 2005), among many others. Halfdan E’s signature style fusing electronics with classical orchestral sounds has indeed been featured in more than twenty feature films, five TV series as well as several documentaries and short films. His work has won four Danish Academy Soundtrack Awards, two Danish Grammy’s and the prestigious Fipa d’Or Grand Prize for Best Original Soundtrack 2011 for music on Borgen. In addition to his work as a composer, Halfdan E is also is Chairman of the Danish Federation of Film and Media Composers and is a leading campaigner for composers, working on the protection of his peers’ creative rights and intellectual property as an active member of the Nordic Composers’ Network, encouraged by the FFACE.

Ever so humble, modest, self-conscious about his work, sincere and somewhat vulnerable, he tackled the challenges and rewards of film composition and shared his know-how at a workshop titled “The Whys and Whens of Film Music” held during the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.

Halfdan E started his career in music as a bass player in a wide array of Danish rock bands in the early 1980s before joining the group Laid Back, and signing to BMG records. He later teamed up with the Danish poet extraordinaire Dan Turèll with whom he recorded two hit albums and won two Danish Grammy Awards. Halfdan E was already an established rock star before studying at Copenhagen’s Academy of Music, where he majored in playing, composition, orchestration, arranging and sound engineering. He admits going into music thanks to Jan Berry whose fan he is. But, his stumbling into film music was slightly unconventional, as he has no formal training in that particular field of music, “The way I got into film music was actually by mistake… Everybody was saying ‘Could you produce our record? I think what you did was smashing’ and another kind of people said ‘Could you do film music? Because to us it sounds like film music…’ and I said ‘Let’s give it a shot!’”, he confessed.

According to E, the ‘Why’ of music composition is important as it carries an obligation for an individual as a composer, “I’m really trying to be that myself because I think I owe it to people because they are basically defenseless to what we bring to them”, adding that composers have the power to give people something, be it music in a feature film or a TV series. For him, composing is analog to preserving energy in small jars that, once opened, whatever springs out of them, has the ability and power to make our lives more valuable, “Whether it is an action film, a horror film or a romantic adventure we open the glass and life takes on a different color”. As a film composer he feels it is his responsibility to find a way to work with that energy and make it last. And that, in his opinion, is applicable not only to film composers but to everyone working in Film. Reminiscing his beginnings as a film composer, E admitted rushing and wasting this energy extremely swiftly, “The idea is to work with less and gradually increase that energy curve – your agreement with the audience”, he advises. “Everybody expects this from film. You expect it from music. You expect it from a good dinner. You expect it from sex. You expect it basically from everything.”

Halfdan E recently gained international recognition with the internationally acclaimed Danish political TV series Borgen from the producers of the even more popular series, The Killing. The composer still cannot fathom the worldwide success of the series, “It became a craze for some reason I can’t really understand. I still don’t understand it. If Borgen can become a success in eighty countries then anything can”, adding that Borgen wasn’t expected to enjoy such a tremendous international success. People would ask him whether he would have done anything differently had he known that it would be aired in eighty countries, and luckily he can say no, “I am very happy that the few things I did sound very much like Hans Zimmer but I took them out. You look for inspiration in other series and films, and you’ve got only so many films with political content…”

While he was working on A Somewhat Gentle Man with the Norwegian director Hans Petter Molland, the two could not seem to click on the direction the film’s music should go in, “It may be the last film I’ve done with him because we spent the first two months just trying out stuff and I think I used all my energy trying out different stuff and we never got it right. But I think that at least some of the stuff I did was fine.” In that regard, he deems important the existence of a risk-free zone of sorts between a director and a composer, where both would be able discuss their ideas freely and work together in perfect harmony. He loves working with directors who know what they want. Otherwise, he finds it terribly frustrating when his hands and creativity are both tied, in a manner of speaking.

E’s next on-screen credit will be Iqbal by Tilde Harkamp. It is the first installment in a planned franchise based on Manu Sareen’s popular children’s books. E showed us Denmark’s a thriving family-film market as well as a bountiful source of work for the country’s tune-smiths.

Today, due to the ever-changing landscape of cinema and the novelties it brings, film composers are also facing a new, uncertain period of which Halfdan E is well aware. But, we are sure that whatever those changes may be in the field of music composition, he will be able to enchant us with more great music such as the memorable ‘sound logo’ – as he himself calls it – of Borgen’s misty opening credits.