The otherworldly sound of Dune: Hans Zimmer’s score

November 29 2021, by Kamran Akhavan

When approached to score Dune, acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer knew one thing with absolute certainty: It’s not going to sound like Star Wars. While those films’ scores were heavily influenced by the orchestral style of the classical era and early film music, Zimmer’s score for Dune jarringly becomes its own genre entirely. Zimmer’s predictably unpredictable music perfectly encapsulates the world of Dune: a world of intergalactic civilizations whose denizens seek to control the spice planet Arrakis. Hans Zimmer is often known for his more outlandish musical endeavours, his scores for Interstellar, The Lion King or Inception have gone lengths in reforming the 21st century musical paradigm. Zimmer’s style ranges from contemporary classical music to minimalistic ambience. “Weirdly, I’m the only rock ’n’ roller who never did any drugs,” said Zimmer in an interview. And while no hallucinogens were used in the making of Dune’s score, it non-verbally communicates everything there is to know about the distant lands of Dune.

In a way, as the composer stated, he has been working on this soundtrack ever since he first read the novel as a teenager. “I’ve been thinking about ‘Dune’ for nearly 50 years. So I took it very seriously.” Zimmer was in fact so immersed in the world of Dune that he had to turn down other projects, such as Christopher Nolan’s TENET (2020). He additionally refused to watch the older 1948 film adaptation of the novel as to preserve his unique vision of the film’s score. As a part of his creative process, Zimmer spent a week in Utah observing the sound of the desert. “I wanted to hear the wind howling,” he said, and accordingly he cleverly integrates the sounds of the desert into his music. Along with synthesizers, Zimmer incorporates the sounds of scraping metal, Indian bamboo flutes, Irish whistles, distorted guitar, space bagpipes and a juddering drum phrase that Zimmer calls an “anti-groove,” all-in-all defying standard Western musical notation.

Zimmer’s score is so prominent within Dune that the movie often feels like an otherworldly Planet Earth-esque spectacular. “‘Dune is by far my most musical film,” said Denis Villeneuve. “The score is almost ubiquitous, participating directly in the narrative of the film. It’s spiritual.” In fact, Zimmer’s score is so comprehensive that he wrote way more music than could fit in the final film. The score necessitates not one, but three albums: the Original Soundtrack (the music heard within the film), the Dune Sketchbook (Zimmer’s extended experimentation with sound) and the Art and Soul of Dune (a companion soundtrack to a book of the same title), though there is still more written, hopefully for the sequel.

Intertwined in the score’s bizarre aura is a highly distinctive female voice, which serves as a motif that underlines most major plot points within the film. “I felt very strongly about the presence of female voices,” Zimmer said. “I think the underlying game Frank Herbert plays with us is that what drives the story forward is really the women. They’re in charge, the Bene Gesserit [a tribe within the film]. It’s always a woman who seems to have the true strength in these stories.” The voice not only contributes to the on-screen story but becomes an inseparable part of it, and that’s because Zimmer’s approach to scoring Dune wasn’t just about adding a layer. As Zimmer says, there was an utterly “holistic” approach to recording the film’s music, which had more to do with building the sounds from the ground-up, regardless of what was going to be used.

To accomplish the unique sounds of the percussion and the voices for the score, Zimmer “made up a lot of new instruments [with] some crazy synthesizers. There are sounds that are not of humanity. I mean, with some rhythms — there’s no way a drummer could play that.”

Villeneuve has repeatedly insisted that Dune is a multisensory experience that needs to be seen on the biggest possible screen in a cinema. In the same way, Zimmer’s score is one that demands to be experienced via a good sound system. As Zimmer puts it, “I write in surround sound — but it’s not just about the big sound and big screen, it’s about sharing something together. Shared dreaming.” Zimmer’s score goes lengths in completing Villeneuve’s vision for Dune, an becomes its own entity entirely; As the composer asserts: “If something happened where I couldn’t write music anymore, it would kill me. It’s not just a job. It’s not just a hobby. It’s why I get up in the morning.”

Kamran Akhavan, U6

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