Sussex PhD student creates musical instrument featured in the soundtracks of Joker and Chernobyl

Halldor Ulfarsson with his hallorophone (credit: Thor Magnusson)

Halldorophone (credit Halldor Ulfarsson)

A PhD student at the University of Sussex has invented an eerie-sounding musical instrument which is heard on the soundtrack to Joker, currently in cinemas and receiving critical acclaim.

Halldór Úlfarsson invented the self-named halldorophone which produces a beautiful yet unsettling sound. There are currently only four halldorophones in the world.

As well as featuring in several prominent film and TV soundtracks (Joker, Chernobyl), the instrument has also been used in the music of bands The Knife and Sunn O))) while Welsh musician and producer Leon West (also known as Secondson) has recently produced an album featuring the halldorophone.

Halldór, based in the School of Media Film and Music, is not a musician and does not play his creation. He is a visual artist by training and originally invented the instrument as part of his arts practice, gradually developing a craft and design skillset to further refine the project as musicians showed more interest in it.

In developing the instrument he has collaborated closely with musicians who continually inform the project. Dedicated collaborators seem fascinated by the way it “pushes back” to them, as the instrument is a very sensitive system which picks up and responds to the tiniest of their own movements when they play it. The halldorophone is a cello-like, electro acoustic string instrument; with four main strings and four sympatethetic resonance strings and a built-in speaker that creates a feedback loop producing its other-worldly, drone like sound.

Halldór Úlfarsson, PhD student at the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex and inventor of the halldorophone, says:

“String feedback has been around since early experiments with string amplification. It took a while for it to be considered something besides a problem though - a little known fact is that electric guitars have solid bodies to counteract feedback - but gradually it has found a place in music, mostly as colour with association to metal and experimental music. There is, however, a latent beauty in the physics of vibrating strings and resonating bodies which warrants exploration. The strategy I have chosen for the configuration of the halldorophone pits these different acoustic elements together, so that through electrical amplification they affect each other, pick up each other's idiosyncrasies and, in a sense, fight for prominence in the resulting drone. There is something natural in that manner of system and we can sense it, it is complex but comprehensible often yielding little surprises in how it evolves and generates tones and harmonies.”

“I love the fact that musician Hildur Guðnadóttir, who plays the halldorophone, has continued to use the instrument as she has come into her strength as a musician. Hildur was the first musician-collaborator to take this project seriously and immediately liked the dynamics of the instrument. It's especially cool to see her put it to good use in these high-profile projects such as Joker and Chernobyl and I would add to that list her contribution to the most recent Sunn o))) album Life Metal which still blows my mind in terms of music made with this instrument.”

The Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir scored the soundtrack for Joker and the mini-series Chernobyl (for which she won an Emmy). A cellist by training she has recently referred to the halldorophone as her main instrument.

Hildur can be seen playing the halldorophone in this collaboration between her and Halldór

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By: Anna Ford
Last updated: Thursday, 10 October 2019