The sounds of Silo

The sounds of Silo

By Michael Pickard
June 3, 2024

Job Description

Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson reflects on his Bafta-winning work creating the soundtrack for Apple TV+ drama Silo, enhancing its themes of loneliness and isolation, and returning to the studio for its upcoming second season.

In Apple TV+’s dystopian thriller Silo, the last 10,000 people on earth live together one mile below the ground in an effort to protect themselves from the toxic and deadly world outside.

Created by showrunner Graham Yost and based on the novels by Hugh Howey, the series has a unique and immersive atmosphere that taps into its themes of loneliness, isolation and claustrophobia.

Those feelings are enhanced further by the show’s droning soundtrack, created with traditional instruments, synthesisers and voices that earned composer Atli Örvarsson a Bafta award for Original Music: Fiction at this year’s awards. Production designers Gavin Bocquet and Amanda Bernstein were also honoured, while further nominations went to Silo’s costume designer Charlotte Morris and its special, visual and graphic effects team.

“I feel like there was an opportunity on this show to really play a big role in the world-building,” Örvarsson tells DQ. “There’s a chance to really set the tone, and the music is necessary. It’s the oppression, the isolation, claustrophobia, all these lovely things that music can try to get across. It’s a bit like animation in a way, where you’re literally building a world from scratch and nobody knows what it’s supposed to sound like. There was an attempt to be a bit more different and creative than a lot of shows.”

Atli Örvarsson with his Bafta

In the series, no one knows when or why the silo was built, and anyone who tries to find out faces fatal consequences. Rebecca Ferguson (Dune) stars as Juliette, an engineer who seeks answers about a loved one’s murder and stumbles upon a mystery that goes far deeper than she could ever have imagined, leading her to discover that if the lies don’t kill you, the truth will.

Icelandic composer Örvarsson says there wasn’t a formula to creating the music for Silo’s dystopian world. Notably, he was inspired by the production design, which he describes as “almost art deco, old and not very glossy.” That helped Silo differentiate itself from other science-fiction series from the start, as he thought about the show’s sound design and initially compiled some drone effects before he wrote a single melody.

“That just felt somehow silo-like, that there had to be kind of a din in that place,” he says. “It’s almost like a sound that is very static and is a bit oppressive and just makes you very aware of a place like this. When you’re stuck inside a place [like that], it’s all-consuming, so it’s this idea that these sounds just sit there and they’re always there. Then I started building the tunes and melodies and stuff on top of that.”

Örvarsson’s work on Silo includes the main title theme, which is used in various ways across the series, particularly when it comes to moments relating to law and order deep underground; another melody featuring rising notes, which plays when a character wants to leave the silo; and a specific theme for Juliette. He also wrote some music for episode one that was never used again because two prominent characters were quickly killed off.

“The approach I’ve taken is to be quite thematic and try to repeat the themes, because I think it helps with the storytelling,” he says.

When it came to recording the music for Silo, Örvarsson developed what he calls a “hybrid score” that features a lot of live, acoustic instruments, voices and choirs, as well as some synthesisers to highlight the importance of technology in the series.

“It’s a technological world, and it’s that dystopian thing to make it feel a bit fake, weird and eerie,” the composer explains. “But when there’s an intimate, emotional moment, a solo violin will come in, a solo vocal or even a large string orchestra, depending on the situation.

Silo stars Rebecca Ferguson as Juliette, an engineer who lives underground with thousands of others

“It’s the micro and macro really; people alone in their little cubicles and then 10,000 people in a big silo. It’s finding a way to emphasise and delineate between the micro and macro on various levels.”

Örvarsson first read the pilot script, but as he started his work, he was able to see some of the early footage being recorded. “I came in quite late in the process, to be honest, but that was really helpful in this case, just because it’s the kind of script where, because the world doesn’t exist, you can’t really 100% imagine it without having a little bit of a concept of the design.”

Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) also brought some ideas of his own. For example, voices were important to him, and he wanted the music to create the impression of ghosts in the silo.

“But when it comes to music, Morten is quite hands-off,” Örvarsson says. “We talk about the intention of the storytelling and the characters and things like that, but specific things about the music, not so much. That’s one of the reasons I really love to work with Morten, because he actually does give me quite a bit of freedom.”

Örvarsson’s describes his work on the series as a “hybrid score” 

He recalls spending the first few episodes “learning” how to score the series, and discovering where music should be used and for how long. But each episode came with its own challenges.

Episode three, for example, can be compared to an action movie, while four and five are much “calmer,” Örvarsson says, requiring a completely different approach to the soundtrack.

“There’s the world-building, there’s the storytelling, the characters. The picture just has to tell you what it needs and what it wants, and sometimes you get lucky,” he says. “We went down the right path in the beginning, and as we kept walking down the path and learning what the show needed, it happened to be compatible with the initial path. Silo’s a dream project because you get to be inventive, you get to be quite a big part of the storytelling and work with brilliant people, a brilliant cast and great writing. It’s been a joy.”

With composers including Mike Post (NYPD Blue) and Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Interstellar) among his mentors, Örvarsson is no stranger to working in television, having previously earned credits on projects including Icelandic series Hraunið (The Lava Field) and another Apple TV+ series, Defending Jacob, on which he also partnered with Tyldum.

He is also firmly embedded in veteran producer Dick Wolf’s Wolf Entertainment and is credited as the composer on hundreds of episodes across the FBI and Chicago franchises.

It makes use of traditional instruments and voices alongside synthesisers

“It’s quite different being on season 11, 12 or 13 from being on season two, and my job is more like a creative director at this point on those shows,” he observes. “Wherever I’m needed is where I go, and there are always new things to do. A new theme here, new character there, things like that. But there’s just absolutely no human way I could do all these episodes, obviously, so I have a great team of people around m, and we have a pretty good system.

“At this point, we’ve done days of music, not hours, for Chicago Fire, for example. There’s a lot to draw from in terms of melodies and stuff like that. But that said, every cue is bespoke. They really want each scene and each episode tailor-made and bespoke, and it’s an enormous amount of work. So I have a really, really good team.”

Örvarsson is now back in the studio as production continues on the second season of Silo under the stewardship of new showrunner Michael Dinner.

“We’re in the process of spotting all the episodes now, just watching them through and talking about music,” he says. “Michael has his ideas but he also wants to honour what we’ve established in season one, so there’s plenty of opportunity to either reinvent what’s already been done or just come up with new ideas. It’s really exciting to be honest. Season two is shaping up to be really good.”

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