In Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, the landscape of the American west plays as much of a character in the film as the woman at its center, Frances McDormand’s Fern. Both Zhao and McDormand reached out to the man who has let nature inspire him for the better part of his 3-decade-long career, Ludovico Einaudi, to ask if he would allow his music to play that part. The Italian composer happily obliged. “I loved the vision, the concept, and I love Frances McDormand,” Einaudi tells American Songwriter.
Zhao’s sophomore film, Nomadland, which is based on the book by by Jessica Bruder, deals with themes of loss and family and home, as McDormand’s Fern lives her itinerant life out of her van, finding work along her travels. The vast, open scenery is accompanied by music from Einaudi’s 2019 album Seven Days of Walking. Zhao repurposed tracks from the Italian pianist’s epic 7-album release, which he put out three years ago, over a seven month period.
Seven Days of Walking was created out of a series of walks the 65-year-old pianist took in the Italian Alps during 2018. He had taken a batch of polaroids, allowing each image to become the basis for the music he wrote, and using each album to reflect on the different emotions that arose from repeating the walk against the same backdrop each day.
Zhao used music from Day One and Day Three, drawn to these tracks in particular, she said in press notes for the film, because she “set out to look for music inspired by nature,” since McDormand’s character spends so much of the film learning to embrace it. Einaudi was an instinctive fit. “I always look at nature for my inspiration, the light, the daily metamorphosis of the plants, the change of the seasons is something you never can be tired of,” says Einaudi.
For the composer, who is the most-streamed classical artist of all time, being in nature is a must. “I listen to it every day, I need it more than human relations,” he says. Over his career, he has immersed himself in his surroundings to pick up on the details that he uses to form his music. It’s a bond that runs deep. He performed his “Elegy for the Arctic”, commissioned by Greenpeace, on a floating platform amidst the ice in the Arctic Ocean in 2016.
His love of music was sown in him as a child, when Einaudi’s pianist mother would play for her son. He studied under Luciano Berio at the Conservatory of Milan, and began his career composing for the ballet. When he started releasing his solo performances, first, as the album, Le Onde, he began to find great success in the rest of Europe, and soon the rest of the world.
Einaudi’s venture into film scores dates back to Italian films in the late ’90s and early 2000s, like Not of This World and Light of My Eyes. His work on Shane Meadows’ film This is England and subsequent TV series earned him new attention in the UK, where he years later found an audience on British radio, when his track “I Giorni” landed at 32 on the BBC’s Official Singles Chart, in 2011—thanks to Radio 1 DJ Greg James who played it as his “study break record.”
For all his popularity, Einaudi’s music lends a poignancy to the scenes where it’s used. Witness, for example, the ending of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, which plays his wistful 2014 track Experience, over a montage of the lead character’s unfulfilled future.
When it comes to film composing, the pianist is most drawn to projects that are similarly rooted to his appreciation of emotion and of being in natural surroundings. “Nomadland is a perfect example, and those where the story is narrated through the images, the silences and the music, where the audience has the space to breath,” he says.
During the pandemic, he has become a staple on many a streaming playlist dedicated to breathing and staying calm. While many Italians were singing out their windows, Einaudi started playing live concerts regularly on social media, and released the album, 12 Songs From Home, recorded early on in the Covid-19 lockdown. He followed that with a rarities collection, titled Einaudi Undiscovered, later in the year.
“I constantly need to refresh myself and music is the thing that still brings my emotions alive,” he says. “I also love the fact that I can share them.” Although it may not seem like it, Einaudi took the enforced break as a chance to himself slow down. “I was coming from a long period of time where I was constantly on tour and somehow I needed a break from that life constantly in motion,” he says. “I spent the last ten months the way I dreamed, in the nature and almost isolated, and this time has been very prolific for me.”
Fans likely won’t be surprised to learn he has been working on a new album. There’s also a new podcast out that’s dedicated to the composer, led by superfan Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie. The acclaim for Einaudi’s work will likely continue to grow as Zhao’s film heads towards certain Oscar glory—although his score won’t be eligible, due to it not being originally composed for the film.
As the current uncertainty and anxiety of this time continues on, Einaudi feels we will be able to learn something positive from it all. “I hope that slowly we will start to forget about the pandemic and that everyone will be able to go back to doing their job,” he says. “At the same time, I hope that we will think twice before going back to that crazy life we were doing.”