Film composers are always looking for novel ways to express ideas and convey character in music. Two of this year’s original-score nominees were especially innovative in finding musical solutions for storytelling challenges.
“Dune” demanded a sonic landscape unlike anything composer Hans Zimmer had ever tackled (including such sci-fi projects as “Inception” and “Interstellar,” which brought him two of his previous 11 Oscar nominations). But he had a head start: he loved the Frank Herbert novel and had often imagined the sounds of the desert planet Arrakis.
He didn’t want a conventional orchestra, but he also didn’t think a purely electronic score would work either. So he experimented with vocal sounds: chants, whispers, screams made by singers in L.A., New York and Australia, all representing the Bene Gesserit, the mysterious sisterhood whose power rules the universe in Denis Villeneuve’s film.
“I worked quite hard at trying to, in an abstract way, give you a sense of the subtext, of the inner dialogue that the characters were having,” Zimmer says. And while he recorded instruments from electric cello to Armenian duduk, even Scottish bagpipes and newly invented musical noisemakers, he electronically manipulated them all for the final score.
For “The Power of the Dog,” English composer Jonny Greenwood wanted to reflect “the tone of the film, the look and color of it,” and turned to detuned mechanical piano from the era (1920s Montana) and then learned to play a cello like the banjo that Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) so often plucks throughout the film.
Greenwood wanted to avoid the traditional big-sky Americana score that so often accompanies Westerns, so he hired two French horns and 10 string players (violas and cellos) to lend a more intimate, chamber music feel to much of the score. Surprisingly, the one instrument usually associated with westerns — a guitar — is missing entirely in “Power of the Dog.”
Says Greenwood: “There is lots of culture in Phil’s character. He’s well-read, and it’s not hard to imagine his taste in music being very sophisticated. The pleasure in a character this complex, and emotionally pent-up, is that it allows for complexity in some of the music, as well as simpler, sweeter things for his contrasting brother.”