Last fall I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Herdís Stefansdottir about her work on the original series Y: The Last Man, adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel series of the same name. This was actually my second time getting to speak with this composer and I was really excited to get some insight into her work on this series, which unfortunately as of January 2022 is still cancelled and has yet to find a new home somewhere else.
Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a composer of music for multimedia, a songwriter, and an electronic musician. Her compositional endeavors — installations in museums, dance, theatre, and a successful electronic music duet she is a part of – are establishing her as an expansive artist. Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films.
Her scoring work includes Ry Russo – Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBO series We’re Here (which I previously interviewed her about).
I hope you enjoy our conversation about Y: The Last Man!
Were you familiar with the story of Y: The Last Man before working on the series?
Actually I was not, I had never heard of it before. I received an email that had details about [the story] and I was really intrigued by it. It sounded like a very interesting concept, how they decided to adapt [the story] to television and go to those philosophical questions like, how do you decide your identity in a world that has changed so much?
How closely did you collaborate with the producers while working on the music for Y: The Last Man?
The producers were pretty cool, because they actually left me alone. They didn’t have any idea of what they wanted [the music] to be, they just said “What’s your idea?” When I started writing, there was a music supervisor and music editor working with me on the team. Before sharing [the music] with the producers and the show runner, I would ask them both “What do you think of it? Am I heading in the right direction?” And they both loved it. Having their experience helped a lot.
It doesn’t happen that often to find the musical identity [of the show] so early on, but it happened with this show that they loved [the music] from the beginning. So I was left alone and kept expanding and experimenting, doing something that I found exciting.
Did that make the process easier?
In this case I think it did. I felt really free and inspired and I enjoyed writing like that. Sometimes if you are glued to a temp track or an idea that they decide they really want, then you’re working in a more narrow frame, it can be quite challenging as a composer.
Was it always a given that the music for Y: The Last Man would be centered on the female voice or did that idea come about gradually?
It was my first small idea, like “What is the sound of this world?” When I had seen a rough cut of the first episode and gotten into the first volume of the graphic novel, I’d gotten a feel for the aesthetics they were going for, which involved a lot of realism. I didn’t it feel it was a very sci-fi or futuristic sound. It immediately spoke to me as being organic, in a human way. So my first tiny idea that I went with turned out to work really well with the picture.
Besides the female voice, what other instruments or sounds did you decide to include in the music for Y: The Last Man? How did you decide which instruments to include (or exclude)?
Well, this is during COVID so I was working alone in my studio. I have a stack of synthesizers and I’m an electronic musician apart from film scoring, so I used my own voice and whatever I could record in my own studio. I also got some friends to come over, including one who built a magnetic harp, an electro-acoustic instrument and there’s only three of them in the world. I thought it would be interesting to record that instrument to see what would happen. That ended up becoming the sound for one of the main themes of the show for the Amazons.
What was your general process for scoring Y: The Last Man, as in, which themes were created first and how was the music for the show built up?
I actually didn’t touch individual episodes. I wrote the entire score to script, and I went by inspiration and feeling. I think I wrote 85% of the score in the first couple of months and I’d only read the scripts. The music editor would actually edit [the music] to the episodes. The themes I was developing were longer and bigger than if I would have been writing to the picture. It was a really free experience of creating. I always knew what was happening in the production but I did not write to the picture.
Did the pandemic affect the recording and composing process at all?
I was lucky to be in Iceland, I think it’s one of the few places that allows recording. Well, strings are being recorded but not vocalists, because you’re breathing air, and it wasn’t allowed in a lot of places. I got lucky to be here and up north where there’s an Icelandic film composer called Atli Örvarsson, he founded a film orchestra that’s going well and it’s one of the few places where you can record during Covid. There’s also a beautiful professional choir up there that I recorded with and they became the foundation of the female voices in the score.
I like how there’s almost a tribal sound to the modulated vocal melodies in ‘Kimberly Campbell Cunningham’ and other tracks, was that done on purpose?
What I was doing was imagining the sound of the world and imagining a group of female voices talking to each other in the moment of the world collapsing. I heard this resonance of the female voice, kind of like talking and disharmony kind of clustering together. That became one of the fundamental sounds that I integrated into the themes and melodies [of the soundtrack].
Do you have any thoughts on the show, so far, not being picked up for a second season?
I’m pretty surprised, I think it deserved to finish the story. It was just starting and the fact that it got cancelled mid-first season…it’s not fun. There’s so much more to say.
I want to send a big thank you to Herdís Stefansdottir for taking the time to speak with me about Y: The Last Man!
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