• Ben Erickson


Dunkirk has rallied a lot of expectation as the rumored war film of the year, directed by visionary Christopher Nolan and scored by his partner-in-crime, Hans Zimmer. The film depicts the historic miracle that turned the tide of the war, or rather, the brutal struggle fought therein. Nolan had a few early music ideas he wanted Zimmer to work with for the film, the most prominent of which was the use of a ticking clock. The director recorded the sound of his own pocket watch and sent it to Zimmer to be synthesized and used in various cues as a means of heightening tension. Another interesting device suggested early in film production was the Shepherd tone, an auditory illusion for a tone that continuously ascends or descends in pitch without actually appearing to move higher or lower. Shepherd tones were supposedly used to accommodate the dialogue, though this was not well balanced by the sound editors as the volume of the music often prevailed over the dialogue. These ideas, though well-intended, were misplaced. The film did not need a score. War films are not typical of the entertainment industry in that they are not made to entertain, but to educate and commemorate the sacrifices of the many. More than any other genre they deserve to exhibit humanity, and in keeping with this tenant the most realistic account of a battle requires no elaboration or added affect to deliver its horrifying truths. It does not take an authority on film music to recognize that this film did not require a running score. A brief examination of John Williams' score for Saving Private Ryan is all the evidence one needs to be assured that drama and realism are given their full impact in the absence of music. In fact, following the prologue of the memorial, the first twenty minutes of the film are shots of the Normandy landings with no music to bear that nevertheless deliver maximum horror. In concert with Steven Spielberg's direction, Williams has indisputably written the most successful scores ever composed for war films, adding nobility and morale to a character or situation as opposed to oppressing the viewer. Perhaps Zimmer felt he had his own responsibility to do something different, to try and summon an impact yet unseen and unheard in a war film. It is clear Nolan places a lot of faith in Zimmer and trusts him to provide good scores for his films, else he would likely not get away with as much as he does. The two have been an inseparable collaborative team for the past few decades, and Zimmer has reputedly been said to be the greatest film composer of our time. There are two reasons for this: (1) Zimmer pioneered the use of computers in the composition process, and (2) his composition style and mentorship program through Remote Control Productions has influenced the work of countless composers and directors alike in Hollywood. The technological advancements have been revolutionary, allowing for huge advantages never before offered to composers such as the use of computers to provide faster and cheaper results. Music no longer has to wait for the post-production stage before being written. It can be heard by directors as it is being written, allow them room to request changes while continuing to edit the film at the same time. Moreover, the use of synthesizers allow composers to mimic different instrumental timbres and hear a sample of the final product with a virtual orchestra before recording. Following through on an earlier promise I will go into some detail regarding Zimmer's compositional practice. In a nutshell, Zimmer writes musical "ideas" that form a suite, or what he refers to as a musical "sentence". These ideas usually embody or express some sort of emotion or character in the form of question-answer phrases, using simple key signatures with very few key changes (D Major is his favourite), weighty, broad instrumentation that targets extreme, low registers for a primitive satisfaction, and intense, thick textures, adding layer upon layer of ostinato patterns. Zimmer uses other tricks as well, such as the use of a single, high string during moments of emotional tension, orchestration methods, and so on. While the description here does not apply to all of his scores, particularly more recent ones, the composer's style has been prominent in the vast majority of his work, influencing an entire generation of film composers today. Anyone familiar with Zimmer's work can see he used to put more of an effort into his music. Unfortunately, the resources at his disposal have halted his creativity and made him complacent. More and more often it is the case that Zimmer's instrumentation lacks elegance, and his simple "ideas" develop into unnecessary cacophonies of sound, exhausting the listener with musical extremes when they would be better left alone. Of these resources we can place credit namely on synthesizers and ghost writers. After writing his "ideas" Zimmer assigns them to a team of composers to flesh out, claiming this is all part of the collaborative process, yet the efforts of the many are all credited to his name, as was the case with the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Another problem inherent in a writing team is that each composer attempts to put their own mark on the assignment, and when everyone attempts to make music interest it results in nil interest throughout. Zimmer took advantage of a writing team again in Dunkirk, calling upon Lorne Balfe and Banjamin Wallfisch to assist him, both former collaborators and both members of Remote Control Productions. Together they wrote a film that epitomizes the use of underscoring. After discussing the way Zimmer writes thematic suites you can imagine my surprise at hearing cue after cue of sound design, with not a single recognizable motif in earshot. With every film Zimmer works on he travels further from melodically driven scores, but it may be he is going toward something new. Many who have criticized the score claim it did not qualify as music, but as endless drones and sound effects. This is wholly wrong. The music has structure, rhythm, tempo, and it uses orchestral instruments, attempting to imitate a sonic impression of how it might feel to be in that environment. However, qualifying as music does not emancipate it from failing in its functions. The score is pushed so far in one direction that it devolves into a single-function feature, ignoring all the other needs and requirements the film asks of it. Viewers wanted to connect emotionally to the narrative, but the score would not allow it. There is no emotion to be found in a pocket watch, and audiences need more than a physical ingredient. It is a rejection of every lesson in film music, auspiciously harnessing an environmental sound to drive home the relentlessness of war, but lacking any practicality. So much so that it belongs in a new category, what is coming to be known as the anti-score; music pushed so far beyond its functional boundaries that it ceases to work as traditionally mandated, rejecting the status quo and establishing a counter culture that satisfies a craving to be different. The single compelling cue in the film was that of Edward Elgar's Variation IX (Adagio) "Nimrod", from his Variations On An Original Theme, Op. 36. Zimmer took this movement, slowed it down, and synthesized it to the point that it sounded as though it should be in the next Blade Runner film. It is used to great effect when the requisitioned English vessels arrive to carry troops home from the beach, an enormous victory fittingly accompanied by one of Britain's mightiest anthems. Unfortunately, the moment was cut short due to a changing chronology in the film. Very rarely were viewers given time to take in a scene before being transported to a different time and locale, resulting in several interruptions throughout the score. The scene also drew comedic parallels to the film Pirate Radio, where the same excerpt, left untreated, was used to similar effect. Elgar wrote fourteen movements for his Enigma Variations, a superior work in the history of English Classical Music, with each movement being attributed to important individuals in his life. "Variation 15 (Dunkirk)", the title of the tenth track in the soundtrack album, is meant to suggest that this was the final movement to Elgar's Enigma Variations, as if the composer's great work was not finished in his lifetime. It is one thing to give a nod to one of the masters of recent music history. It is entirely different to re-orchestrate the most popular movement of one of his best known works and infer that by doing so it has been improved upon. If Zimmer truly fancies himself to be as good as Elgar, he is sorely mistaken. Now is the moment when I might cast blame on a director for taking too many liberties in a department over which they have no real authority, but I do not charge Nolan with this score. Zimmer knows exactly what he is doing, and he is more than capable of making his own choices. What I detect throughout the score is that Zimmer has lost control of his ego. I am inclined to think his best work is behind him, and I would challenge the notion that he did not recognize the movie would be better left without music. Music is meant to add a heightened sense of drama to the realism of the film. The score Zimmer produced accomplished the opposite, failing to add to the film and undoubtedly impeding its verisimilitude. In light of this I chose not to go through the score cue-by-cue, as has been my habit, because this score does not require that level of attention. It may prove to be seminal for other reasons down the line, but for the purposes of the film at hand it was ultimately unsuccessful.