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'Loki' composer on how her MCU score reflects the main character's flair for the dramatic
"My agent got a general call-out looking for a composer on a Marvel project," she tells SYFY WIRE during a conversation over Zoom. "So, I didn’t know what it was. It was [described as] spacey and quite epic ... I sent in my show reel and then got an interview and got sent the script and then I realized what it was for. I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ It was amazing ... Loki was already one of my favorite characters, so I was really stoked to get to give him a theme and flesh him out in this way."
***WARNING! The following contains certain plot spoilers for the first four episodes of Loki!***
Imbued with glorious purpose, Holt knew the score had to match the show's gonzo premise about the Time Variance Authority, an organization that secretly watches over and manages every single timeline across the Marvel multiverse. The proposition of such an out-there sci-fi concept inspired the composer to bring in uniquely strange sounds, courtesy of synthesizers and a theremin.
"I got my friend, Charlie Draper, to play the theremin on my pitch that I had to do," she recalls. "They gave me a scene to score, which I’m sure they gave to loads of other composers. It was the Time Theater sequence in Episode 1. The bit from where he goes up the elevator and then into the Time Theater ... I just went to town on it and I wanted to impress them and win the job and put as many unusual sounds in there and make it as unique as possible."
The end result was a weird, borderline unnatural sound that wouldn't have felt out of place in a 1950s sci-fi B-movie about big-headed alien invaders. Rather than being turned off by Holt's avant garde ideas, Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige embraced them, only giving the composer a single piece of feedback: "Push it further."
Holt admits that she was slightly influenced by Thor: Ragnarok ("I loved the score for it and everything"), which wasn't afraid to lean into the wild, Jack Kirby-created ideas floating around Marvel's cosmic locales. Director Taika Waititi's colorful and bombastic set pieces were perfectly complimented by an '80s-inspired score concocted by Devo co-founder, Mark Mothersbaugh.
"To be honest, I tried not to listen to it on its own," Holt says of the Ragnarok soundtrack. "I didn’t want to be too influenced by it. I watched the film a couple of times a few years ago, so yeah, I don’t think I was heavily referencing it. But I definitely had a memory of it in my mind."
After boarding Loki last September, Holt spent the next six months (mostly in lockdown) crafting a soundtrack that would perfectly reflect the titular god of mischief played by Tom Hiddleston. One of the first things she came up with was the project's main theme — a slightly foreboding cue that pays homage to the temporal nature of the TVA, as well as the main character's flair for the dramatic. "He always does things with a lot of panache and flair, and he’s very classical in his delivery."
She describes it as an "over-the-top grand theme with these ornate flourishes" that plays nicely with Loki's Shakespearean aura. "I wanted those ornaments and grand gestures in what I was doing. Then I also wanted to reflect that slightly analog world of the TVA where everything has lots of knobs and buttons ... [I wanted to] give it that slightly grainy, faded [and] vintage-y sci-fi sound as well."
"I just wanted it to feel like it had this might and weight — like there was something almost like a requiem about it," Holt continues. "These chords that are really powerful and strident and then they’ve got this blinking [sound] over the top. I just came up with that when I was walking down the street and I hummed it into my phone. There’s a video where you can just see up my nose and I’m humming [the theme]. I came home and I played it."
As a classically-trained musician, Holt drew on her love of Mahler, Dvořák, Beethoven, Mozart, and most importantly, Wagner. A rather fitting decision, given that an actual Valkyrie (played by Tessa Thompson) exists within the confines of the MCU.
"I would say those flourishes over the top of the Loki theme are very much Wagner," Holt says. "They’re like 'Ride of the Valkyries.’ I wanted people to kind of recall those big, classical, bombastic pieces and I wanted to give that weight to Loki’s character. That was very much a conscious decision to root it in classical harmony and classical writing ... There’s a touch of the divine to the TVA. It’s in charge of everything, so that’s why those big powerful chords [are there]. I wanted people almost to be knocked off their socks when they heard it."
With the main theme in place, Holt could then play around with it in different styles, depending on the show's different narrative needs. Two prime examples are on display in the very first episode during Miss Minutes' introductory video and the flashback that reveals Loki to be the elusive D.B. Cooper.
"What was really fun was [with] each episode, I got to pull it away and do a samba version of the theme or do a kind of ‘50s sci-fi version of the theme," she explains. "I can’t say other versions of the theme because they’re in Episode 5 and 6…or like when Mobius is pruned, I did this really heartfelt and very emotional [take on the theme] when you see Loki tearing up as he’s going down in slow motion down that corridor. It was cool to have the opportunity to try out so many different styles and genres. And it was big enough to take it all. It was a big enough story."
The other side of the story speaks to the old world grandeur of Loki's royal upbringing on Asgard, a city amongst the stars that eventually found its way into Norse mythology.
"I went to a concert in London three years ago and I heard these Norwegian musicians playing in this group called the Lodestar Trio," Holt recalls. "They do a take on Bach, where they’re kind of giving it a folk-y twist … [They use] a nyckelharpa and a Hardanger fiddle — they’re two historic Norwegian folk instruments. I just remembered that sound and I was like, ‘Oh, I have to use those guys in our score.’ It seemed like the perfect thing. I was like, ‘Yes, the North/Norwegian folk instruments.’ It just felt like it was the perfect thing for his mother and Asgard and his origins."
That folk-inspired sound also helped shape the music for Sylvie (played by Sophia Di Martino), a female variant of Loki with a rather tragic past. "Obviously, we’ve seen in Episode 4 what happened to her as a child," Holt says. "I just feel like she’s so dark. She’s basically grown up living in apocalypses, so she has that Norwegian folk violin sound, but her theme is incredibly dark and menacing and also, you don’t see her. She’s just this dark figure who’s murdering people for a while."
And then there were all the core members of the TVA to contend with. As Holt mentioned above, fans recently lost Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson), may he rest in prune. We mean peace. What? Too soon? During a recent interview with SYFY WIRE, Loki head writer Michael Waldron said that he based Mobius off of Tom Hanks's dogged FBI agent Carl Hanratty in 2002's Catch Me If You Can.
"There’s this thing that he loves jet ski magazines," Holt says. "I had this character in my head and then when I saw Owen Wilson’s performance, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s actually a lot lighter and he plays it in a different way from how I’d imagined.’ But I was listening to Bon Jovi and those slightly rock-y anthemic things. ‘90s rock music for some reason was my Mobius sound palette."
Mobius is pruned on the orders of his longtime friend, Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), after learning that everyone who works for the TVA is a variant who was unceremoniously plucked out of their original timelines. A high-ranking member of the quantum-based agency, Renslayer has a theme that "is quite tied in with Mobius and it’s like a high organ," Holt adds. "It doesn’t quite know where it’s going yet. But yeah, we’ll have to see what happens with that one."
Wilson's character isn't the only person fed up with the TVA's lies. Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) also became disillusioned with the place and allowed Sylvie to escape in the most recent episode
"Hunter B-15 has this moment in Episode 4 where Sylvie shows her her past, her memories. I thought that was a really powerful moment for her," Holt says. I feel like she’s such a fighter and when she comes into the Time-Keepers and she makes that decision, like, ‘I’m switching sides,’ so her theme is more like a drum rhythm. I actually kind of sampled my voice and you can hear that with the drums. I did loads of layers of it, just like this horrible sliding sound with this driving rhythm underneath it. So, that was B-15 and then her softer side when she has her memory given back to her."
Speaking of the Time-Keepers, we finally got to meet the creators of the Sacred Timeline...or at least we thought we did. Loki and Sylvie are shocked to learn that the red-eyed guardians of reality are nothing but a trio of high-end animatronics (ones that could probably be taken out by a raging Nicolas Cage). Even before Sylvie manages to behead one of them, something definitely feels off with the Time-Keepers, which meant Holt could underscore the uncanny valley feeling in the score.
"When they walked in for their audience with the Time-Keepers, it was like this huge gravitas," she says. "But you look up and there’s something a bit wrong about them. I don’t know if you felt that or if you just totally believed. You were like, ‘Oh, this is so strange.’ I just felt like there was something a little bit off and musically, it was fun to play around with that."
Holt is only the second solo female composer to work on an MCU project, following in the footsteps of Captain Marvel's Pinar Toprak. Her involvement with Loki represents the studio's growing commitment to diversity, both in front of and behind the camera. This Friday will see the wide release of Black Widow, the first Marvel film to be helmed solely by a woman (Cate Shortland). Four months after that, Chloé Zhao's Eternals will introduce the MCU's first openly gay character into the MCU.
"I just feel like it’s an honor and a privilege to have had that chance to be the second woman to score a thing in the MCU and to be in the same league as those incredible composers like Mothersbaugh and Alan Silvestri. They're just legends," Holt says. "Another distinctive thing about [the show] is that all the heads of department are pretty much women. Marvel are showing themselves to be really progressive and supportive and encouraging. I applaud [them]. Whatever they’re doing seems to be working and people seem to be liking it as well, so that’s awesome."
Holt's score for Vol. 1 of Loki (aka Episodes 1-3) are now streaming on every music-based platform you could think of. Episodes 1-4 are available to watch on Disney+ for subscribers. Episode 5 (the show's penultimate installment) debuts on the platform this coming Wednesday, July 7.
Natalie isn't able to give up any plot spoilers for the next two episodes (no surprise there), but does tease "the use of a big choir" in one of them. "Episode 6, I’m excited for people to hear it," she concludes. "That’s all I can say."
For SYFY WIRE's official recaps of everything we've learned so far, make sure your reset charges are safely turned off and check out the links below:
- Episode 1 ("Glorious Purpose")
- Episode 2 ("The Variant")
- Episode 3 ("Lamentis")
- Episode 4 ("The Nexus Event")