From Black Panther to Oppenheimer: The rise of Oscar-winning producer Ludwig Goransson

At only 39, the Swedish composer is already three quarters of his way into the Egot club

Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson with the Oscar for Best Original Score for Oppenheimer during the 96th Annual Academy Awardsa. AFP
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Ludwig Goransson’s Best Original Score Oscar for Oppenheimer may not have been the highest point of the evening, yet it cements his career as one of the most impressive composers in the entertainment industry.

Emerging from an impressive shortlist including the revered maestro John Williams, who received his 54th nomination for Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny, the feat continues the unassuming producer and composer's exceptional winning streak in Hollywood.

In 2020, he received an Emmy Award for scoring the Disney+ sci-fi series The Mandalorian, while two years before he won his first Oscar for Original Score for Black Panther and a Grammy for Record of the Year for Childish Gambino's This is America.

So who is this guy? And why isn’t he a leading name in the pop music industry?

Who is Ludwig Goransson?

Goransson becoming one of the world’s hottest musical talents is an unexpected consequence of a career built on strong friendships and an anthropological approach to music.

Born in Stockholm, Goransson was born to a Swedish guitar teacher father and Polish florist mother. His name was the result of a debate between the music lovers.

A rock aficionado, his father pushed for the name Albert, after the blues legend Albert King.

His mother, however, was having none of that. It would be Ludwig, the first name of her favourite composer Beethoven. She may have won the battle, but his father can claim to have won the war, with young Goransson choosing popular music over classical.

Showing prodigious talent as a guitar player from the age of six, Goransson became even more obsessed by the instrument after watching his father perform the signature chugging riffs of Metallica's Enter Sandman.

That enthusiasm led to hours in the basement, where Goransson spent his teenage years fiddling with a drum machine and an eight-track recorder while listening to film scores by the likes of Williams (Star Wars) and Danny Elfman (Batman).

After some time spent at Stockholm's Royal College of Music, he moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to study film composition at the University of Southern California.

Laid back and personable, Goransson was never driven by ambition alone. A steady paying job composing music was his ideal situation.

This was something he expressed to burgeoning director Ryan Coogler, who was studying filmmaking at the institution.

Bonding over their love for hip-hop and rock, that first encounter in a pool hall led to a partnership that saw Goransson score Coogler's key films, including Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed (2015), Black Panther (2018) and sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in 2022.

Goransson's entry into the music industry was also born out of a friendship.

After landing a job to compose bits for the television sitcom Community, he bonded with star Donald Glover.

In their first meeting in 2010, Glover initially hid his musical ambitions from the Swede.

“We had a good time together,” recalled Goransson in an interview with The New York Times.

“A couple weeks later, he emailed me and was like, 'hey man, I'm also a rapper, so I wondered if you could take a listen to this, and maybe mix my song?'”

That was it. Goransson went on to heavily contribute to all of Childish Gambino's four albums and his 2018 modern classic single This is America.

Goransson would follow it up with songwriting contributions to Adele's 2021 album 30.

Listening to stories and translating them into notes

That laid-back charm is only part of his score sheet.

What both Glover and Coogler saw in Goransson was the same restless curiosity that they also apply to their crafts.

By the time Goransson arrived in the US, his repertoire extended beyond rock to take in styles including hip-hop, funk and electronica.

And what Goransson took to the most was the use of samples. The idea of building a track through the layering of disparate sonic albums – whether dirty funk bass lines or fluttering woodwinds – is, to put it simply, his jam.

Such an approach, however, is a process. Unlike some of his peers, Goransson doesn’t begin the work through improvisations. Instead, the process begins with a conversation.

“I think I'm a pretty good listener,” he told the radio station NPR. “When Ryan is telling a story or when Donald is telling a story, I'm always listening. And I think I'm maybe pretty good at listening to them [and] being able to translate it into notes.”

Once given a rough idea, Goransson approaches the subject like an academic would.

He studies related books and music theories, in addition to field trips to record natural sounds, which he renders with various effects before infusing them into the tracks.

The research behind the score

For Oppenheimer, Goransson took his cues from director Christopher Nolan, who showed him an early version of the film's nuclear explosion sequence.

“There’s no CGI. It was all analogue-made. I was sitting in a darkened theatre, looking at these fluorescent neon lights swirling around on a huge screen, and that really had a big impact on me,” Goransson told The Washington Post.

“When I saw that, how it all came together in those beautiful lights and how it affected me, I was like: That’s how I want the music to sound. I wanted the music to sound like that because it was a visual I had never experienced before.”

Goransson also recalled how Nolan wanted the score to feature a violin.

“The violin is a fretless instrument, so based on the performance you can go from one note and having it be a beautiful romantic tone, but within a split second you can change the vibrato of the pitch and it can turn into a horrific, neurotic, mean, manic sound,” he said.

For Coogler's first two films, Fruitvale Station and Creed, Goransson conducted field research.

For the former, based on the tragic shooting of black American Oscar Grant by police officers in a San Francisco train station in 2009, Goransson went to one of the city’s train stations to record the sounds of the carriages.

“One thing that we always wanted to be conscious of with the score, was to make sure that it always felt organic,” he told the website Soundwork Collections. “I manipulated the train sound and made it almost feel like a dark ambient synth sound and I used it almost throughout the whole platform scene.”

As for Creed, Goransson went to an Oakland gym to record a sparring session. The resultant heaving breaths, exasperated exclamations and jabs were manipulated to pulsating rhythms that underscored the film's key fight scenes.

When it came to capturing the wonder and grandeur of the fictitious African kingdom of Wakanda for both Black Panther films, Goransson spent a few months in Senegal, Ghana and South Africa, where he listened and learnt from local traditional musicians.

Goransson did release a 2012 solo instrumental EP, Ludovin, but he scrapped the career move after realising he was more effective as a collaborator.

This is a startling and brave admission in an entertainment industry rife with hyper individualism.

He is ever the chameleon, and has managed to blaze his own path, while still being comfortable staying in the background, simply listening in order to concoct the next musical trend. We can't wait to see what he does next.