“Shepard Tone” – Named after Roger Shepard (born 1929), is a sound consisting of a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves. When played with the base pitch of the tone moving upward or downward, it is referred to as the Shepard scale.
The irony of this soundtrack being written by a German composer isn’t lost on me. Though, he is of Jewish descent.
Few musicians have a catalogue as prolific and diverse as Hans Zimmer. From his early days as a keyboardist throughout the 70s to his late 80s start as a film composer, there isn’t much the man hasn’t done. With an astounding 150 movie scores under his belt, he has shown no signs of slowing down. If anything, he has been as busy as ever and arguably getting better with age.
Over the years, Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan has teamed up with Zimmer on multiple occasions. Since Batman Begins the composer has been a creating intense, synthesized atmospheres to compliment Nolan’s stories. As a pair, they rank highly among the best director/composer duos in the history of film. Zimmer tends to add atmospheric layers rather than bombastic orchestrations. In films such as Interstellar and Inception the music rarely stands out to me. Most of the time it is content on adding to the bigger picture rather than showing off. Dunkirk is the opposite. It relies on the visuals and music more than dialogue. As a result, Zimmer is put to the test by given the difficult task of, essentially leading the film with his music.
It would have been sacrilege to decrease the size of this image. Impressively, it sounds even better than it looks.
From the opening moments of the film, the music takes center stage and doesn’t let up. The decision to add synthesized elements to the score was a ballsy one considering the era in which the film is set. It works better than it should as it follows the mechanical beat of a clock ticking throughout. As a result the entire soundtrack is hectic, tense and unsettling. This might make the score a little difficult to enjoy on it’s own merits for some but as an avid fan of self inflicted discomfort it is right up my musical alley.
There are very few moments of respite over the course of this album. When things get quieter the ticking beat persists. The opening moments of Supermarine are a perfect example of this where things develop from an unassuming, steady mechanical beat to an all out bombardment in it’s final moments. The orchestrated sections work well to create anxiety with the percussion sounding particularly menacing. It sounds like a submarine capsized in the water. Mechanical, cold and terrifying.
Cold is probably the best word to describe the entire soundtrack. Even moments of levity in songs such as The Tide are short lived and more melancholic than genuinely sweet or kind. The reliance on the synthesizer to drive the orchestra forward makes for a very artificial, inorganic sound. It really shouldn’t work as well as it does considering the film is shot more like a documentary than a character driven feature. Though, that might be exactly why it gels so well. Nolan has created a film that feels impersonal, opting to display the events of the horrific scenarios rather than getting too close to the people involved.
At the end of the day, Dunkirk is a masterful work of art. Hans Zimmer has outdone even himself with this brilliant score. It is one of the best albums I’ve heard all year and a strong contender for my personal favorite film score of all time. With that being said, it isn’t for everyone. The tension it provides can make it a daunting listen but like most great art it impossible to ignore. Emotional, thought provoking and inventive. Hans Zimmer has created a masterpiece here.
We Need Our Army Back
Variation 15 (Dunkirk)