(Note: Because this particular post has become far longer than I had originally intended, I’m going to split it into two parts.)
The Musicology of Inception: A Simple Score, or Musical Genius? (Part One)
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Inception that can be easily externalized pre-DVD-release is the musical score composed by Hans Zimmer. Much of the discussion over Zimmer’s score has centered on two positions: an ingrained hatred for Zimmer’s work,
often based on legitimate criticisms, and an incredible misunderstanding of Zimmer’s musical style and its importance in the discussion of Inception‘s narrative. Both issues will be addressed in these two posts on musicology.
What sets Zimmer apart from many film scorers is not that he is a technically destitute composer, but that his scores seem to rise to the challenge of accentuation despite their technically vacuity, largely because Zimmer, unlike other composers, understands, on some intuitive level, that film scores must necessarily reflect the film and must impose themselves upon the film medium to amplify the effects produced by all the other aspects of film production (acting, directing, cinematography, CG, etc.). Inception‘s score, thus, is perhaps one of Zimmer’s most complicated musical achievements due to the way in which it creates a dialogue with the film; it is also a score that has already begun to rack up a considerable amount of vitriol, general criticism, and so on. Sadly, many critics have missed what makes Zimmer’s score function so well within Inception‘s narrative, which is the subject I’d like to discuss here and in the post that will follow.
There are two elements that I would argue are central to understanding the relevance of Zimmer’s score for Inception: audio manipulation and musical layering. Both are also relevant to the discussion of Inception‘s narrative structure, which will become apparent, I hope, as you read each section. The best course of action, I think, is to take these in order of importance, which leaves us with Zimmer’s experimentation with audio as a starting point.
I. Manipulation: Dropping the Audio Levels
A less than astute reading of music in Inception would bring one to the growing presence of audio manipulation within Zimmer’s various film scores. None is more obvious than that of The Dark Knight, another Christopher Nolan vehicle, in which Zimmer was given free reign to develop a cacophony of sounds taken from a variety of sources in order to create something that could represent the feel of Nolan’s second and most famous comic book adaptation. The resulting score for The Dark Knight is, understandably, forgettable only if one is looking for familiar themes–like you might with a John Williams score–but not if one is looking for the best example of an attempt by a composer to create an exact musical equivalent for what amounts to an intensive character study–specifically, of the Joker. Zimmer, as such, is not afraid of experimentation, nor one who is new to it, something that many film composers could not say with confidence.
But Inception is slightly less ambitious than The Dark Knight, though no less important in terms of what Zimmer’s audio manipulations represent. Unlike The Dark Knight, which is based on a multitude of often inharmonious sounds, Inception is primarily focused on a particular musical element: that of the Edith Piaf version of the song “Non, je ne regrette rien.” If you’ve seen the film, then you understand the importance of “No Regrets” (the English title that I’m going to use throughout the essay to save space) for the various mechanisms of the dreamscape. Zimmer and Nolan have both acknowledged that “No Regrets” is the origin of the score, although this is only obvious in the title song, which uses a severely decelerated brass blare that follows the same beat–this beat also regularly reappears at other moments in the film. The manipulation of “No Regrets” by Zimmer, however, extends far beyond multiplications or divisions of tempos, beats, and tones; for each layer of dream, there is a degradation of the classic French tune, which, as you get deeper and deeper, makes one thing quite clear: the title song is the state of limbo.
Limbo, if you haven’t seen the film, is the lowest level of the dreamscape that you can enter before death. The best real-world analogy to limbo is a coma, in which one’s conscious self recedes deep into the psyche and is lost–in Inception, we’re told that staying in limbo reduces your brain to mush. Zimmer’s score is absolutely a reflection of this. For each step downward, Zimmer reduces the tempo, dampens the sound, and manipulates the actual audio to merge the spondaic tonal qualities of “No Regrets” with synthesizers and blaring brass instruments. This reduction is demonstrated quite clearly in the film as the sounds reverberate down the levels to each group of characters until they are all aware of the impending “kick” (the act that “wakes you up”). Part of this manipulation is to denote time, since each level of dream is also on a different plane of mental time–i.e. the deeper you go, the greater time dilates.
For Zimmer to play with music in this way, it signals a kind of musical composition that is not simply an accent to a visual medium, but as much a part of that medium as every other aspect. Zimmer’s score cannot be externalized entirely from the medium it was written for without removing the actual meaning and importance of the manipulated elements. As such, to criticize Zimmer for his lack of technical grace–such as in this Amazon review–is to make a grand assumption about what constitutes technicality. Zimmer’s score is absolutely composed of simple movements of notes and chords–particularly in the case of the most popular song from the album, “Time”–but that simplicity is so intimately connected to the structure of the film that its external technicality is largely irrelevant. One cannot come to Inception‘s score cold turkey and expect wild string flourishes and fluttering trumpets, as you might with most any John Williams score; that simply isn’t what Zimmer or Nolan set out to do when they placed “No Regrets” as the center piece.
Then again, maybe this is an argument for all film scores. So many scores are forgettable when externalized from the medium, but when viewed in their internalized cinematic form, or at least acknowledged within one’s mind as being a constitutive element of that form, they do seem to take on a life of their own–a significance, if you will. Zimmer is simply more in-tune with this idea than other composers.
(To be continued…)