When composer Natalie Holt takes on a soundtrack she has to write without ever truly being able to fully predict the final product. She may have a story and script, but the actors are a huge variable. A major exception to this procedure is her score for Marvel’s widely anticipated series Loki.
Update: Like composer Natalie Holt, director Kate Herron also joined host Colleen Phelps to talk about how the soundtrack played a crucial role in telling Loki’s story.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Loki.
Over a video call, careful not to drop any spoilers while the show is still being released, Holt described how relieved she was to anticipate Tom Hiddleston’s Shakespearean take on the role, which she could watch in advance.
“I could completely kind of get into the character and engage with it before I started writing,” she said, “which is a gift, I think, to have that insight.”
Loki continues the journey of a fairly complex antihero from Marvel’s cinematic universe. Previous films featured him in a place of power and royalty as a sometimes-villain. In Loki he is no longer unique or powerful – stripped of his agency and a complete fish-out-of-water, using time travel to pluck him directly out of the film’s trajectories.
As with most time travel stories, this weaves a complex plot with plenty of Marvel’s signature twists. Holt was able to approach the show out of order, as director Kate Herron thought it best to let her in on the dramatic twists – some of which are still to come. With Holt working backwards from episode 6, and taking interruptions due to the pandemic halting production, she still had more time than a composer generally gets for a television show.
“Kate’s vision for this was it’s a six hour film. It’s just all got to feel like it’s a Marvel film.”
It had the generous resources of one as well. Holt was told not to limit herself – an extra brass section here, full strings there, and even a choir to come later. A choir that recorded all together (once vaccinated) – the height of luxury in these times.
What Is Modern, Really?
The power Loki faces is known as the Time Variance Authority (TVA). An organization seeking to preserve what they call the “sacred timeline” – the destinies of all of existence, as stated by a deity-like trio known as the Time Keepers. While it sounds magical or futuristic, their organization exists in a compound that could believably be in an episode of Mad Men.
The TVA has the familiar aesthetic of a building where you know the equipment is old and out of date, so none of it works. What’s so unsettling is that everything works – it just isn’t doing what anyone thinks it’s doing. It’s a vibe that is largely achieved through Holt’s orchestration and sampling techniques.
She describes the TVA as a “timeless place.” And indeed the main offices are perfectly decorated in mid-century modern, the screening room that harkens to the 1980s, and everything one has ever said can be verified via a printout in dot matrix.
Holt had been listening to a lot of recordings from the BBC Radiophonic workshop when she got the call to work on Loki. The institution was created in 1958 as a source of sound effects, but it wound up acting as a center for experimentation in electronic music. Holt even studied with Peter Howell, who was part of the team at the workshop. The group scored many shows, especially horror and science fiction – most notably the 1963 theme song for the show Dr. Who – another show that travels through time and space with reckless abandon. A theme song that, like the one for Loki makes excellent use of the Theremin.
Holt and director Herron were of one mind in their pairing of the Theremin with scenes from the show. Herron even brought up the idea of using a choir of the otamatone, a Japanese toy which plays with a similar gesture and sliding sound. But Holt brought in performer Charlie Draper, whose instruments are part of the original line of Theremins.
“In the Loki theme, I think I used three different layers of Theremin blended with a huge brass section. Blended with some tape loop synth stuff.” This is, appropriately, the stuff of Valkyries – note the strings sweeping upwards followed by an intense low brassy melody like in Wagner’s Ride.
Note: The “Ride of the Valkyries” evocation becomes far more clear and direct in the heroic climax of episode 5.
Holt confessed that her use of the short-short-short-long fate motive (think of the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony) may have been subconscious rather than deliberate, but it works. And what is Loki’s fate? The “long” end note of the motive sometimes moves lower and lower as he gets a little too deep into his own web of scheming. But also, true to his mischievous nature, it jumps all over, ever the surprise. Unlike the TVA’s motives, which seem to suspend midair.
And the lovable holographic tool Miss Minutes even let the Theremin shine in her quintessential “training video” music.
The Theremin’s soprano tones screamed “future” for TV watchers in the 1960s, so it pairs perfectly with the TVA. After all, the TVA office is what people in the 1950s and 60s thought the world would look like in the future, while being completely unrealistic with themselves about the sinister motives behind every development in technology. It’s bureaucracy in action, both seen and unseen.
For the love theme Holt found a more mellow yet still analog electronic sound from an even more rare instrument – the Ondes Martenot, which still has an oscillator but is less likely to set your teeth on edge. Though the scene on doomed planet Lamentis turns deadly quite quickly. After all love is, as Loki says, an imaginary dagger.
Like Holt’s radiophonic predecessors, analog processes of recording, sampling, speeding up, and modifying fill in the various musical effects. Most notably, a church bell chiming the hour, and the ticking clock that pervades in the opening. So, like Loki himself, Holt’s score literally plays with time.
When She Sings, She Sings ‘Come Home’
“I always like to use realness as an origin.”
While Marvel’s Thor and Loki aren’t completely true to Norse mythology, their appearances are always grounded in a bit of their heritage. Holt takes advantage of that quality in scenes that recall Loki’s home on Asgard.
This so-called variant of the title character is once again mourning his mother, as TVA agent Mobius (played by Owen Wilson) has shown him his role in her death. Frigga is represented by the nyckelharpa, which looks fairly similar to a dulcimer. In addition to its strings it has keys, and is played with a bow.
The evocation of his mother as he contemplates his own self-stated “glorious purpose” shows that Frigga is not the only target of his grief. Hear her theme fade away here. Frigga is already just a memory. The fate of which he was so self-assured? It disappears along with his hope of ever seeing what he loves again.
The moment we’re sure that Loki has once again found companionship is when he sings to a sleeping Sylvie on a train. The credits call the song “Very Full,” which is how Loki describes his drunken state. But he’s singing in Norwegian, describing dark mountains and glaciers – possibly Svartalfheim and Jodenheim, two realms from the Thor films.
In addition to bringing the audience the revelation that Tom Hiddleston can sing, it gave me one question about the “mischievous scamp” we’ve come to love. So I asked Holt, if Loki chose to learn an instrument, what would he play?
“Well there’s the funny joke that in Asgard there’s no candy, so I feel like I don’t think you’d be able to play the electric guitar growing up. Maybe the hurdy gurdy.”
That can hopefully appear in the rumored season 2.
Loki is available for streaming on Disney+. You can hear more of Natalie Holt’s music in the BBC/PBS show Victoria.