For composer Hans Zimmer, scoring “Dune” was a dream come true. He read Frank Herbert’s massive sci-fi novel when he was 18 and has revisited it often, imagining the sounds of the desert planet Arrakis, the sandworms and the invaluable spice that makes interstellar travel possible.
“The first person I talked to was Hans,” director Denis Villeneuve reports. The two were finishing work on 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049” at the time, and the composer became “obsessed with the idea of trying to create music from another world, from another time.”
Nothing in the 11-time Oscar nominee’s 37-year, 140-film career sounds like “Dune.” Eerie, ominous and dramatic, it is a unique mix of choral, world-music, rock and electronic sounds created by friends and colleagues on three continents.
“It sounds great until you realize you’re the one who has to deal with all the different time zones,” quips the composer.
Villeneuve wanted the score “to be a spiritual one,” and at the same time “be as feminine as possible,” reflecting the influence of the Bene Gesserit, the powerful sisterhood represented by Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), whose son Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) may be the long-awaited messiah for the Fremen, the mysterious natives of Arrakis and caretakers of the spice.
Zimmer spent over a year experimenting with women’s voices, ultimately settling on New York-based Loire Cotler and his “Gladiator” co-writer Lisa Gerrard in Australia as his primary soloists, along with an L.A.-based quartet led by his “Lion King” collaborator Edie Lehmann Boddicker.
“One of the major themes of the book was the power of women,” Zimmer says. “We were dealing with a culture that was extraterrestrial. I felt that the only thing that should be pure — and even that shouldn’t be quite pure — was the voice. I was trying to do the inner voices of the characters, without using words.”
Chants, whispers and screams all figure in the score, although just what they are singing is its own mystery. “It is a made-up language, but it feels very legitimate,” says Zimmer.
Zimmer drew inspiration from more than just the book. “I actually went into the desert,” he says. “There was a moment when I disappeared into Monument Valley and the desert in Utah and Arizona to check the veracity of my ideas. How does the wind howl through the rocks? How does the sand grit in your teeth? It’s just vastness and endlessness.”
Unlike most Zimmer scores, “there is no orchestra anywhere,” he insists. Even something that sounds like brass could be an electric guitar or electric cello, manipulated electronically. Unusual woodwinds like the Armenian duduk or Scottish bagpipes occasionally peek through, but many sounds are from specially commissioned instruments and new synthesizer modules.
The composer was unable to specify themes or sounds for characters or locales. “As I worked, it became more and more abstract,” he says. “I never saw it as scenes. I saw everything as a totality. It’s an electronic score, not an orchestral one, but in a peculiar way it’s one of the more organic scores I’ve done.”
While there are already three albums of music from “Dune” (the original soundtrack, a collection of “sketches” that served as the foundation of the score, and one to accompany a book of “Dune” art), still more remains unheard. He wrote a series of songs based on the lyrics in Herbert’s original novel, all sung by Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck in the film), that were discarded along the way.
Villeneuve admits that he “didn’t hear from Hans for a long time. He took a long time to experiment.” Then, during editing, “we started receiving tons of music for weeks. It was like a big creative rush. It became a storm. When the movie was totally finished, Hans was still sending me music.”
When the director told him the project was over, Zimmer replied, “I know! But there will be a second part! You need music for the second part! Listen to this!”