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Dune
  • Composed by Hans Zimmer

The notoriously “unfilmable” Dune is a classic of science fiction, and the arrival of Dennis Villeneuve’s adaptation means it has in fact now been filmed three times (well, two-and-a-half, given he’s only tackled the first half of it – so far). David Lynch’s version is of course notorious, and I’m not sure how many people watched the tv miniseries which followed a couple of decades later – early reception to Villeneuve’s film has been very positive, with the main criticism being that it is only half a film – and as yet the second half has not been greenlit so even if he does get to make it, it will probably be a very long time before we see it.

The music has been the subject of considerable hype and attention, no doubt exacerbated by the very long Covid-induced wait time before we’ve got to hear it – and is being presented on no fewer than three different albums. The first to be released was the “Sketchbook”, which consists of lengthy suites which are I assume the composer’s demos of his ideas for the score; then the soundtrack album itself; and finally (oddly) a musical accompaniment to “The Art of Dune” book will be released, but at the time of writing these words we’re still a few weeks away from hearing that. As a caveat before I start talking about the two albums that have been released, I should say that I haven’t seen the film – and a number of people have said their appreciation of the music has increased considerably when they have done so. Since the albums are being released as standalone products I will talk about them as such – feel free to consider me a cretin for writing about a soundtrack album from a film I haven’t seen, but rest assured it is far from the first time I’ve done that and the previous occasions mark only a small subset of things I’ve done which have triggered me being called a cretin.

Hans Zimmer

The Sketchbook opens with “Song of the Sisters” – as it begins we hear guttural male grunts and groans, like someone with breathing difficulties, alternating with rumbling thunder-like percussion. From this a wash of synths emerges, with a female vocalist now, panting and sighing, then the whispering starts. This grows in intensity from whisper to shriek, sounding somewhat like Angels and Demons as it develops (especially with the ancient/modern clash from the raw vocals mixed with the synths). In its second half, things seem to be calmer, a little more distant, certainly more soothing – softer vocals now, above simple chord progressions and medieval-feeling percussion – but then this grows in intensity and ultimately reaches another fever pitch.

“I See You In My Dreams” opens with a kind of sustained celestial jingle of bells before Morricone-style wordless vocals (initially the unmistakable Lisa Gerrard before other, more distant heavenly voices join in) – an eight-note melody which goes through all sorts of variations, rising and falling, and a four-note variant which sounds a bit like Once Upon a Time in the West‘s “Man with a Harmonica” theme (probably coincidentally). Lengthy rumination follows on this idea – a heartbeat appears behind it before things briefly turn a little darker. At its best the piece does have a real beauty to it – by far the warmest material from any of the material released on album. Later in track it seems to lose its way a bit, with a strange sequence of spoken words accompanied by duduk (or synthetic equivalent) which meanders on for an awfully long time.

Another vocal style opens “House Atreides”, a more traditional singing – there’s a calm beauty to it. It’s very nice, but it’s several more minutes of vocal-driven contemplation – the real meat of the piece begins when an unusual series of percussive blasts herald the arrival of something very unexpected – bagpipes. It was once said that the definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes but chooses not to – but (as anyone who enjoyed film music in the 1990s knows) it is possible to produce a very beautiful sound from them – and here they are used softly. The theme is ancient-sounding melodically, but framed in a very modern way as it grows in that familiar power anthem style. It’s the most immediately accessible of all the score’s themes, and for my preference the best (not least because it inevitably evokes memories of James Horner). Despite this, it’s a little incongruous to hear the style used to represent a distant civilisation, given how specifically and unmistakably Scottish it sounds (perhaps why we barely hear it within the film score itself). This fades away as suddenly as it arrived and we return for the piece’s final segment to a reprise of the vocal style heard in its opening one.

From Scotland we journey to the middle east for “The Shortening”, at least for its opening before more dreamy female vocals, this time reprising one of the themes from “I See You In My Dreams” – with the guitar added to the melody it sounds even more like “Man with a Harmonica” (although in fairness, it does not feature a harmonica). As with all the other tracks, it does go on a bit – the panting vocal effect which appears midway through I find to be quite off-putting (perhaps by design) and to take me out of what is otherwise a very meditative piece of music.

The same theme forms the basis of “Paul’s Dream” – here its arrangement gives it a driving energy, and a much broader scope which creates a sense of vastness that wouldn’t have been out of place in a score like Interstellar. There is also a return to the really raw, unfiltered vocal style of the opening cue. While not particularly representative of either this album or the score itself (it has an immediacy to its drama which sets it apart somewhat) it is not difficult to understand why it was selected as one of the pre-release tracks a long, long time before the film has finally arrived – for one thing it’s one of the Sketchbook’s shorter tracks at seven minutes, and for another it offers the most obvious and easily-realisable dramatic hit.

The ideas on the album go to both extremes however and we get to much darker territory in “Moon Over Caladan”, with wispy keyboard sounds adding little light over the opening section’s barrage of percussion. This does ease off to an extent as yet more celestial vocals are introduced, but even here there is a certain disharmony, which becomes more pronounced as an unusual distant melody is introduced underneath it all (it is a bit like listening to two pieces of music at once). As this becomes more prominent, there is a very child-like sound, just moving up along the keys. It seems a bit out of place if I’m honest.

In “Shai-Hulud” there’s a sort of feral animal feel to it – the vocals are human of course (including some deep throat-singing) but undoubtedly animalistic. They accompany a violent combination of heavily-processed sounds suggesting a feeling of being lost in a storm. After a while these grand keyboard gestures arrive, and the feeling becomes more one of being literally picked up and thrown around. It’s some of the harsher music we hear, undoubtedly venturing into sound effects territory to an extent, but this is nothing compared with the bleakness of what follows in “Mind-Killer”. Industrial noises combine with another frequent Morricone device, a psychologically-intense fast-paced keyboard melody that fades rapidly in-and-out; the brute-force instrumental blasts and later techno sections that are also a hallmark of the piece are however about as far from the Italian composer as you could imagine. The piece has such a visceral feel – it’s fundamentally unpleasant, but of course you do have to take the rough with the smooth sometimes and Dune is certainly not a story which features a succession of emotional highs.

The concluding “Grains of Sand” is a bit of a curiosity, opening with whispered vocals reprised from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 which get what sounds like a dance track laid on top of them. It is another piece that seems somewhat disconnected from the rest of the album and personally I struggle to see any sort of connection to Dune, but then music is always so personal and the associations it creates for one person can be very different from another.

I think the Sketchbook is a mixed bag really – the sprawling nature of the majority of the tracks means it doesn’t have that more immediate dramatic edge that is I suspect what attracts a lot of us to film music – I can imagine it will have a broader appeal to those with enough time on their hands to really get into a 100-minute concept album, and of course those who are interested in the evolution of a film score from the initial ideas stage (albeit I suspect they have been polished to some degree or other to get them onto the album). The most interesting thing to me though is how very different a lot of it is from the film score album itself – whereas the Sketchbook is very rough around the edges and travels to extremes of darkness and light, there are no such extremes in the score itself which (at least as it is presented on album) occupies a much narrower and much smoother spectrum.

The primary adjective I would use to describe the score album is “ethereal” – my understanding is that within the film, the score has a number of other facets, but in terms of its album presentation it is very much geared towards a calm, almost out-of-body-like experience. I should say immediately that to some, “ethereal” may be a euphemism for “dull”, and it is certainly worth cautioning that if you’re looking for up-front, immediate thrills in some sort of science fiction epic-type score then you will be disappointed. I doubt that anyone was really expecting that though – certainly not anyone familiar with the music in Denis Villeneuve’s previous films. Instead, set your expectations more towards somewhere in the Christopher Nolan music realm – Interstellar is the most obvious reference point in terms of the films, but Dune is a more atmospheric and less emotionally-involving experience. Some have referred to it as “sound design” – isn’t all music sound design? – but it isn’t the sort of score that usually gets tarred with that brush (I’ve no idea why I keep seeing it compared with Dunkirk – it is nothing like that).

A lot of the tracks are really very similar to each other – new age synths, hints of world music (particularly the Arabian world), heavenly vocals, percussion when some energy or drive is required. The opening “Dream of Arrakis” does all of this within three minutes and is likely to be a yardstick for how you feel about the score. The one element it doesn’t have is a theme – and while the score does not have any big themes at all (which is no surprise) there are various simple melodic constructions which are used in a variety of ways as it progresses. What might be called the “main theme” beautifully opens the second cue, “Herald of the Change”, performed by a duduk – it is the “Man With a Harmonica” theme as heard on the Sketchbook (and I will again caveat to say I’m sure that’s a coincidence – and in its form in this particular track you’d be unlikely to ever make that connection). From there we go through some of the only real “space music” (it actually reminds me very much of the opening of Avatar – again, likely entirely a coincidence) with some slightly grander choral music and brassy blasts – but before long, the calm returns.

“Bene Gesserit” extracts some material from the Sketchbook’s “Song of the Sisters” – here the whispering and later chanting is more like a cross between The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the infamous “fishy pasta” material from The Dark Knight Rises than Angels and Demons, but perhaps that’s just me. Again – that more colourful material sort of rises and falls like (what I’m sure I am retrofitting as) an endless calm in a musical depiction of a desert. This is how the music is structured: a vast, endless open space filled with slow-moving, contemplative material into which these little pockets of activity are dotted.

An early highlight track is “Leaving Caladan” which has a real buzz to it, the main theme given one of its most strident arrangements. I really like “Ripples in the Sand” – it grinds along a little to begin with but before long we are treated to the real beauty of the wordless vocal, as on the concept album but here in much-condensed form. The piece has some neat dramatic contrasts – more action-oriented material (not surprisingly percussion-driven) is also given some time to shine.

The piece from the soundtrack album that I suspect will resonate most strongly with listeners is “Armada” – it opens with a Dark Knight-style two-note motif which has a certain grandeur to it but the real pleasure comes when the bagpipes return (sounding oddly processed / synthetic here, unlike on the Sketchbook, which is not the way round you’d expect) with the briefest blast of the excellent theme from “House Atreides” – it’s such a shame it is heard so fleetingly (and as far as I can tell, nowhere else on the album). After that there’s some much rougher, harsher material in the cue’s second half, but even so it’s definitely one of the album’s real crowd-pleasers. On the film side of that, while many of the Sketchbook’s harsher ideas are not heard on the soundtrack, at times the style does seep through to some degree, perhaps most prominently in “Blood for Blood” which has a cacophonous, dissonant opening before settling into a deep male chorus (whose association with the composer goes back a pretty long way).

As the lengthy album progresses, there is – despite the great continuity in tone – a feeling that it is building up to somewhere. Combine that with the composer’s track record for big finales and there’s always the sense that we’re going to get one here. As the album nears its conclusion we find some of its more sweeping tracks – the brief “Sanctuary” dials the drama up a notch; I love the vocals in “Premonition” and the tension when the keyboards and drums kick in; and “Sandstorm” is a really beautiful piece, perhaps the soundtrack album’s most ethereal of all. But just as it feels like it is building to a grand end, the album does just end – it feels like the journey we were on just hasn’t quite got there yet.

I’m not really the target audience for the Sketchbook – I can hardly complain about a concept album being too long when that’s the whole point of it – but the soundtrack album, while a very different experience, is similar in that it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I find that it too is too long – I can appreciate that there was probably the intention to provide a listening experience suggesting vastness and some sense of eternity – but there’s probably a bit too much space left in between the highlights for my personal preference. Don’t believe the PR hype that some new kind of music has been invented here – this is not one of those tentpole scores from this composer where he tries to reinvent the wheel, indeed a surprising amount of it can be traced either directly or indirectly back – but come into it with the right mindset, and I think part of that is being prepared to really give it time to breathe and to appreciate it over a sustained period of time to soak in the various details that reveal themselves – and there is certainly rewarding material here, and if you do buy into this very singular musical vision of Dune then you could well fall head-over-heels for it. It’s not easy listening by any means but it’s surely the most accessible score for a Villeneuve film and I do hope he gets to film the second part, so the music too can be resolved. Despite the predictable early response where some people love it and some people hate it – I don’t think this is one of those scores that pushes far enough to any extreme to generate such a reaction. I’ve no doubt that it was a labour of love for the composer – but it comes out somewhere in the middle of the road for me, without the emotional connection his very best works generate.

Rating: ***

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  1. Jason (Reply) on Saturday 25 September, 2021 at 07:09

    “Fishy pasta”….I will never be able to unhear that!

  2. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Saturday 25 September, 2021 at 16:33

    Let’s see how No Time To Die will compare to this.

    • Tobin (Reply) on Sunday 26 September, 2021 at 07:23

      Exactly. I am waiting for that.

  3. ghostof82 (Reply) on Sunday 26 September, 2021 at 20:32

    I really enjoyed the sketchbook- after that, the actual soundtrack feels irrelevant, but I’ll see if I feel differently after watching the movie next month.

  4. Steve P (Reply) on Wednesday 29 September, 2021 at 11:33

    I do like Zimmer, but alas I think he is saturating the market like Holkenborg did…. I still prefer Bladerunner 2049 over this score… I know that this will ruffle feathers…