“From here on in, absolute silence.”

If we break down a modern film sound track into its component parts, traditionally we’d have three indispensable units: dialog, music, and effects. Each of these elements can be further sub-divided into types of dialog (voice-over narration or diegetic speech), music (source or score), and effects (footfalls, gunfire, or ambiences). But there’s a fourth component that often goes unnoticed, mainly because of its muted presence on the sound track. I am talking about silence. As filmmakers and audiences continue to complain that modern films are too loud, relying on heavy doses of ear-splitting passages to convey the intensity of an action sequence or dramatic moment, it’s worth noting some impressive forays into sonic silences.

Walter Murch has stated on occasion that today’s films risk overloading digital sound tracks with too much sonic information in a way that can lead to muddy, incomprehensible, and unnecessarily loud passages. For example, with up to eight loudspeaker channels to fill on an SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) track, sound editors and mixers (along with some directors and producers) can become greedy. A simple dialog sequence between two characters in a park can turn ugly if the ambiences of the park are amplified to such an extent that the characters’ words are competing with the breathing sounds of nearby squirrels or the tweeting sparrows that flutter past the camera. But are the birds and other ambiences really necessary to the main conversation?

In 1979, Murch pioneered the use of the modern multichannel sound track with his work on Apocalypse Now, where he very much designed the ways in which sound moved around the theater space. In the film’s hellish combat sequences, Murch incorporated the split-surround channels to convey the spacious geography of the battle. But in other sequences, where we are plunged into the mind of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), Murch shrunk the sound space down to one channel (the center channel) to literally “focus” the audience’s attention on one or two distinct sounds. Just as a camera operator focuses on narratively pertinent objects, the sound designer can accomplish the same goals with the manipulation of our modern multichannel sound space.

Now, very few films have attempted what Murch accomplished in 1979. To this date Apocalypse Now still feels experimental. But the principles outlined by Murch — which he discusses in Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations — have influenced a generation of Hollywood sound practitioners. One such principle applies to the use of silence in sound cinema. Writing on the interrogation scene in The English Patient, Ondaatje notes:

When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theatre, are shocked and the reason is that quietness.

Interestingly, Murch has said that he makes a conscious effort to find a moment of silence in all of his films, where the “shock” of it will resonate more than any sound effect could. The shock of silence in modern movies is due, in many respects, to its foreignness on the sound track. There’s a certain discomfort that comes with a silent sound track. In life, we’re surrounded by noise emiting from our environment, televisions, personal stereos, and other media outlets including the movies. When that noise is silenced, there’s a good chance that something has gone wrong. Imagine the street traffic outside your window ceases and you’re left with the thin sound of the wind and the beating of your own heart.

As television commercials are growing increasingly louder than the programs they sponsor, it’s downright eerie when an ad opts for a sparse sound track, devoid of any loud music stings or portentous voice-overs. I can say the same thing for movie trailers. When was the last time a trailer impressed you with moments of relative silence?

Obviously, the shock of silence is only effective when used in conservative amounts. Gary Rydstrom — who designed the sound for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, among others — believes that effective sound design begins with contrasts:

But it’s also about how frequencies work together. There’s a trick to making a gunshot big using multiple layers of elements. You take the high snap of a pistol and add to it the low boom of a cannon and the midrange of a canyon echo. You orchestrate it. On an über scale then, we do that to the whole soundtrack, making sounds work together.

For a sound to be perceived as loud, it makes sense to sandwich it between quiet sounds. For instance, there’s a wonderful moment of shock in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster when Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) threatens Tango outside the diner by pointing a .45 pistol at his head. We’re unsure if Frank — who stands stone-faced — will actually shoot Tango in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy street corner. Scott focuses the camera on Frank as he makes up his mind, even though Tango is slightly visible at the left side of the frame. Frank hears enough from the insolent thug and fires the pistol at his head. The gunshot is noticeably louder than any other sound in the scene — richly detailed and sharply defined. It’s startling because Frank actually murders Tango in cold blood, but also because of the hyper-real sound of the gun firing. Scott and his sound crew force the audience to listen intently as Frank stands in silence before upsetting the balance with an unusually loud gun shot effect. It’s a stylized move from Scott to intensify the drama of that moment, when Frank becomes a feared figure in Harlem.

Rydstrom’s concept of contrasts dovetails nicely with Murch’s notion of sonic silence. The contrast from loud to quiet can be intense, as Murch demonstrated with the interrogation scene in The English Patient. Slowly, Murch builds suspense by pulling sounds out. It’s subtle and doesn’t last for too long, but long enough to register a sense of discomfort and eeriness. In some sense, sonic silences constitute the uncanny, that which is unfamiliar and unsettling. By pulling sound out of a scene we are faced with an otherwise “unrealistic” situation: by all accounts we should be able to hear what the characters are saying and what their natural environment sounds like. In this way, the rules of sound cinema are violated and we are plunged into an unfamiliar sonic environment.

Rydstrom continues:

Silence can be thought of as a type of sound. It’s like when somebody years ago figured out that zero was a number. And silence is just as valid as an amazing sound. Every sound editor can’t help but think of how to fill up a track; it’s what we’re paid for.

Because of its ability to distance the audience from the narrative, most filmmakers avoid complete silences. In many cases silence can be achieved through what Michel Chion has called the silence around the single instrument. If we think of an orchestral solo, the entire orchestra is silent except for the lone soloist whose sound fills the entire hall. With film, the solo instrument can be a single sound effect played through one loudspeaker channel, while the others remain empty (or simply carry the reverb of the solo effect).

The T-Rex attack in The Lost World: Jurassic Park offers a fine example of this type of silence. The angry dinos have pushed the research trailer over a cliff, leaving Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Sarah (Julianne Moore), and Nick (Vince Vaughn) dangling inside. Sarah loses her grip on a door handle and falls to the bottom of the trailer, landing on the back window, which slowly begins to crack. She lies motionless as the cracks widen and grow like spiderwebs around her hands and legs. When Spielberg’s camera is on Sarah and the glass, the sound track deadens to a low frequency hum (a combination of music score and effects). On top of this hum is the sound of cracking glass. The glass effects build over time as more and more cracks appear around Sarah’s body. When Spielberg cuts away to Malcolm and Nick, the sound track resumes with other effects that connote the chaotic environment: creaking metal, shouting, and rain ambiences.

Much like the close-ups on the cracking glass, Spielberg’s aural close-ups convey a more immediate sense of danger. As the cracks intensify, their sound grows more heavy: the next one could crack open the entire window! Finally, the tension is released when the mobile phone drops through the window just as Sarah grabs something to hold on to. The final smashing sound is the proverbial crescendo to this mini-sequence.

This is not a pure example of silence, but something we might call “near silence,” where the air around the solo sound is silent. That might sound pretentious but it speaks to the psychological weight of sound in modern cinema. With so many loudspeaker channels and tracks available to sound mixers today, sometimes it’s a single sound surrounded by its own echo that communicates the most information.

Another modern example I find effective is from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. At the end of the film when Munny (Eastwood) is about to kill Little Bill (Gene Hackman) Munny cocks his rifle and takes aim. The sound track deadens and we wait as Bill speaks his dying words. Then, in near silence, we hear Bill inhale for the last time. The sound of his breath — metaphorically, his life — fills the front channels right before the rifle is fired. It is a quiet sound, but one that is surrounded by thick silence. It’s no surprise that pauses during dramatic confrontations sometimes represent the most tense moments, since there is often little to no sonic accompaniment. I’m thinking specifically of Hitchcock’s tense finale to Rear Window when the only rear sound is that of Jeffries’s flashbulbs. Randy Thom’s work on Cast Away (2000) is another case where near-silences dominate entire sequences. When we’re on the island with Chuck (Tom Hanks), the sound of the ocean often fills the empty sonic space to remind us that he isn’t quite alone. He’s immersed in the natural environment, which has its own set of sounds.

So it seems relatively common for filmmakers today to imbue sound tracks with near-silences that focus narrative attention to a solo sound. What about absolute silences? Remarkably, I have encountered very few films that incorporate moments of absolute silence, where even room tone and other “natural” ambiences are stripped from the sound track in favor of an empty track. As I have already suggested, a muted track can potentially distract an audience because of its utter foreignness. We’re just not used to hearing nothing when we go to the movies. Or, perhaps more accurately, we’re not accustomed to hearing the people around us in theater move around in their seats and chew on their popcorn and candy.

One of the more impressive moments of absolute silence occurs in Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. After Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has locked himself in his office and he begins to hallucinate, Scorcese pulls the sound of the scene. Hughes is naked, watching his own films on a loop. We stare at Hughes in a medium-long shot and as he sits in his chair the sound track goes mute. Not even the sound of the projector. Not even the sound of Hughes breathing. Nothing. It’s a stark moment because at this point he has sunk so low into depression and sickness that he finally alone. The silence lasts for only a few seconds, but its presence is hard to ignore.

Absolute silence is certainly rare in longer sequences, especially in mainstream movies. It may be an effective dramatic device, but the fear of distraction often trumps aesthetic experimentation.

My last example is a mix between near and absolute silence. It’s hybrid character is unique among Hollywood movies in that it takes an opportunity to underline the importance of sound (or lack thereof) in dramatic situations. Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible includes an impressive sequence within the headquarters of the C.I.A. in Langley, Virginia. Ethan Hunt and his team of operatives must infultrate a secured vault and retrieve a set of computer files. The only problem is that the room is sound and heat sensitive, so any increase in body temperature or noise will set off the alarm.

Ethan must be lowered into the vault — which bears a striking resemblance to the design of several sets in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — and retrieve the hard-disk files without breaking a sweat or making any noise. This becomes even more difficult since he is lowered upside-down and the room temperature must remain below 73 degrees. De Palma and his sound crew take this opportunity to engineer a sequence that unfolds in relative silence. Before entering the vault Ethan tells his team, “From here on in, absolute silence.” We then cut to a close-up of the vent grate being removed and then a close-up of Ethan being lowered down, face first. Following Ethan’s directive, we are treated to the same silence that Ethan experiences in the vault. For a moment there’s a faint hum from the computer terminal, but even this is reduced to a whisper as Ethan continues his descent.

There is some sonic reprieve each time we cut back to Krieger (Jean Reno), who is holding the rope apparatus, and Luther who is in a separate location handling surveillance. Their sound spaces are filled with ambiences and mild effects, while Ethan’s vault space is sonically barren.

Gary Rydstrom recalls working on this scene:

I remember a scene in the first Mission Impossible in which Tom Cruise breaks into a computer room at the CIA, for which we’d added all these sound details for equipment he was using to
lower himself in. Yet the idea was that if he made any sound over a certain level, he would trip the alarm. Brian De Palma ultimately said, “No, take it all out.” And for the most part, that scene plays with nothing on the track. I went to see it with an audience and it had the desired effect: It made everyone lean in, pay closer attention, get nervous. Tension comes from the silence of that scene.

I remember watching this sequence in the theater and realizing that in the silence everyone stopped eating and moving. There was stillness for those few moments. Not only was their tension in Ethan’s descent, but also in the audience’s self-consciousness at being exposed. You could hear a kernel of popcorn drop.

It becomes obvious that sound has been pulled from the vault shots when the rope apparatus makes no noise when Ethan is prematurely lifted out. Sound returns to the vault when the C.I.A. employee enters and the chamber is unlocked with a crisp thudding effect. When Ethan gets the data he is pulled up once again, but this time the wires make a distinct noise that was not heard when he lifted earlier. The rope begins to rub against the vent, creating a tearing sound that threatens to cross the sound threshold of the vault security system. To make matters worse, just as Krieger takes the disk from Ethan, he drops a long knife. We follow the knife as it falls through the air — no sound, just a tense sigh from Ethan. The knife hits the desk simultaneously as the C.I.A. employee returns and disarms the alarm. Throughout the sequence, a cluster of problems arise that threaten the security of our protagonists, each tied to the element of sound.

Brian De Palma is no stranger to aesthetic experimentation and innovation (see his use of split-screens throughout the 1970s), and so it doesn’t surprise me that he would try to stretch the extent to which silence can be deployed in a Dolbyized multichannel environment. He does it convincingly by having the silence grow organically from the plot, which lessens the extent to which we can be pulled out of the narrative. It is surprising, however, that all of these techniques are not used more often to pique interest, drive narratives, and communicate meaning. Silence is a powerful sound that does something that no other element of film sound does: it forces the audience to listen more intently to the air between the sounds.

The Slow Burn

Earlier this summer I found myself wondering how I could best describe the work of film composer Hans Zimmer. In many respects, Zimmer’s contribution to modern film scoring is extensive as it is expansive. With this post I’d like to discuss the constitutive elements of the Zimmer “sound” and how it works with the image.

Since the 1980s Zimmer has written for various genres, from intimate dramas (Rain Man) to summer blockbusters (Gladiator), and has established himself as one of the most versatile figures in modern film music. His Remote Control studio (formerly Media Ventures) is a veritable training ground for young composing talent, which has arguably led to a definable Remote Control “sound.” The fabric of Zimmer’s approach is evident in the works of John Powell (The Bourne Identity), Steve Jablonsky (Transformers), Klaus Badelt (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl), Harry Gregson Williams (The Chronicles of Narnia), and other proteges of Remote Control.

The sound I am talking about can often be misunderstood as synthetic, loud, and lacking compositional complexity. As a listener and collector of film music, I am quite familiar with the criticisms leveled on Zimmer and his colleagues, which emphasize the music’s lack of counterpoint, intimacy, and tradition. Zimmer himself has gone on record a number of times to point out that his music is indeed performed by an orchestra, even though it often sounds synthesized, modulated, or processed.

The power anthem

The Zimmer sound has also contributed to a distinct trend in modern orchestral film music. What we might call the power anthem has emerged as a dominant texture of not only movie music, but also music for sporting events and television advertising. The power anthem is a muscular, brassy motif with considerable synthesized augmentation, and the occasional anvil hit. Which is why it finds a comfortable home in the world of sports montages and commercial advertising. At the Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays’ starting lineup is announced to Badelt and Zimmer’s main theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. Composer Mark Isham (who does not appear to have any affiliation with Remote Control) composed the Army Strong music with a strong power anthem at its core. On television, a power anthem was used in the opening credits of the short-lived reality series The Contender, starring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone utilized a Remote Control protege, Harry Gregson Williams, to compose the score to Team America: World Police in the same style. In this case, the intent of the score was parody. At the time of Team America‘s release in 2004, the anthemic approach had achieved such a profound ubiquity that the South Park creators were only too willing to acknowledge and mock. Much of the Team America score is overwrought with muscular horns and percussive hits with nary a hint of subtlety. Parker and Stone’s parody is as much of the Remote Control sound as it is the style of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as Top Gun and Armageddon.

The resounding strength of the power anthem, no doubt the result of its transparent melody and brassy flourishes, has been tied to military themes. However, I hesitate to identify the music as being inherently masculine or patriotic or militaristic. There is nothing — that I can tell — that is distinctly militaristic or masculine about the anthem trend, unless we are willing to define brass and horns as distinctly “masculine” instruments. At the same time, the power theme has been used in this way to convey militaristic themes of honor and masculinity. We might be able to define the use of the power anthem as a stylistic choice favored by Jerry Bruckheimer. His own dislike of wind instruments and preference for emboldened brass underlines the power anthem structure, which has become a staple in most of his productions.

Roll Tide

The military anthem is certainly not new to film music or ceremonial music, but its modern incarnation is very much rooted in Zimmer’s output in the 1990s. In fact, one of the earliest manifestations of this motif can be found in the fourth movement of Anton Bruckner’s olympic eighth symphony. Listen to a snippet here and here, and tell me that you don’t hear the driving bass lines of most modern action film music. The principal theme of this movement reminds me of both Danny Elfman’s Batman (1989) and Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s newer Batman cycle.

Back to Zimmer and the power anthem. There is Black Rain (1989) and Backdraft (1991), but for me the real birth of the Zimmer anthem came with Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide in 1995. The relatively intimate submarine drama relied heavily on closeups of Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, but Zimmer’s score was much grander, much wider than that. The “big speech” delivered by Hackman’s character, Captain Ramsay, comes on a rainy night as he addresses the crew of the Alabama. While he attempts to inspire the troops, the soundtrack fills with the tinny sound of rain, the low-end rattling of thunder, and Zimmer’s rising orchestra. As Ramsay intones that the ship belongs to the “greatest country in the world,” we cut to a wide shot of the ship and its crew spread across the length of the Panavision frame. The power anthem arrives on the cut to emphasize the scope of the moment. Not even Denzel Washington’s ironic smirk can dilute the epic seriousness of this sequence.

Following Crimson Tide, the power anthem structure was clearly audible in The Rock (1996), The Peacemaker (1997), and Gladiator (2000), where Zimmer turned it into a battle waltz. In some sense, it’s not that surprising that the anthem became a de facto element of big-budget Hollywood music, considering Zimmer’s collaborative approach to scoring. The Remote Control environment is one of open collaboration, where several composers take turns sewing the musical fabric to different scenes. Which is why it can sometimes get confusing when Zimmer admits — for example — that he wrote the Pirates theme, but did not score the actual film. The risk being that the Remote Control composers write in a similar fashion. As a result the power anthem has reached a point of saturation that even Zimmer has begun to lighten his use of it in muscular projects such as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Asked why the anthem-driven motif for Batman in the first Nolan film was not used more, Zimmer stated simply that the character had not yet grown into the heroic figure worthy of such a grand statement. By the time of The Dark Knight, Zimmer virtually abandoned the motif in favor of a less sure-footed theme. To be sure, the anthem is still present in the score, only in fragments.

Which leads me to my next point regarding Zimmer’s sound. The power anthem may be the most recognizable and disseminated technique popularized by the composer, but it says nothing of his art. There is a much more instinctive scoring technique that Zimmer continues to employ in film after film that has evaded considerable focus and attention.

I’ve called this technique “the slow burn” in order to emphasize the ways in which the music rests underneath broad sequences to unify the diegetic space and slowly build to a satisfying crescendo. Avoiding musical punctutation, Zimmer’s musical building blocks are expansive, sweeping, and blanketing. Through percussive overlays, rhythmic counterpoint, and cyclical ostinatos, Zimmer allows his music to breathe through sequences and culminate in a crescendo that is not otherwise indicated visually.

In this way, Zimmer does not deviate from established Hollywood practice; he still emphasizes dramatic action and underscores the emotional textures of scenes. I would not go so far as to call this musical minimalism in the vein of John Adams or Steve Reich, but there are hints of the sparse rhythms and repeated motifs of these American minimalists. One major difference between Zimmer and the minimalist phenomenon is that Zimmer will introduce a thematic motif and develop it throughout the piece, reaching a full statement at the climax, then decaying in the final moments.

Do we hear film music?

The old Hollywood adage goes: we shouldn’t hear film music, we should feel it unconsciously. The slow burn method, emphasized by Hans Zimmer, fulfills this traditional perspective since the music is based on textures and ostinatos that seems to exist only in the ether. It’s mesmerizing precisely because it is not immediate. It grows over time, builds to a climax then disappears again. Arguably when film music is “heard,” it interrupts the diegetic sound flow. Suddenly room tone is eviscerated by a battery of horns. In other words, it is an an inorganic element. I have spoken with many film PhDs who argue over these two approaches: the less-is-more and the more-is-more traditions in film music. I’ve even heard arguments over these varying techniques used by the same composer:

“Well, Bernard Herrmann’s over-the-top Seventh Voyage of Sinbad pales in comparison to the minimalist tones of Cape Fear.”

“Really, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is much more involving and thematically diverse than his minimalist works for Cronenberg.”

Zimmer’s functional aesthetic with the slow burn anticipates the need for unity and emotional resonance without an overt call from the orchestral pit. There is an impressionistic quality to this music, even if the images are overly literal. The technique works best, however, when the images are equally impressionistic and open-ended.

In The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s poetic World War II drama, Zimmer’s score provides a dream-like haze over the sprawling narrative. While Malick’s narrative never quite congeals in the classical sense, the original score unifies the disparate plot and ties together the multiple voice-overs with a handful of recurring motifs. Zimmer wrote much of the score before the film was completed, leaving Malick with large swaths of music from which to pick and choose in the editing process. In this way, Zimmer could write elongated passages that were not scene specific, but rather mood specific.

The Japanese bivouac sequence underlines this approach. I am not one who regards Malick’s narrative as an exercise in the sublime, but I will say that Zimmer’s music in this sequence is a near-perfect exercise in image-sound relations. The visual narrative of the bivouac sequence is deeply layered, with shifting perspectives throughout, yet Zimmer composes not for intricacy, but for movement.

Lately I have become fascinated with how filmmakers achieve movement, whether through framing, editing, or sound. It’s a complex phenomena that I shall return to in later posts, but for now let us examine Malick and Zimmer’s cinema of movement in the bivouac sequence.

The slow burn

The sequence begins as Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) stares at the remains of a Japanese soldier, whose entire body — save a small portion of his face — is covered in dirt and ash. Witt is captivated by the face, which seems frozen in time, and he imagines the voice of the soldier speaking about the meaning of death and honor. We then gradually move with a battalion of American soldiers as they make their way to the Japanese encampment, through a dense fog. When the soldiers emerge from the fog they are enveloped in a chaotic battle scene, where some Japanese soldiers are firing at them and others are wounded on the ground, screaming in pain. Their words are not translated, leaving the audience (and American soldiers) to interpret only the sounds and not their meaning. While some Americans attempt to console the wounded, others fire at them. The sequence ends with Private Doll (Dash Mihok) asking, “Who’s doing this? Who’s killin’ us…?”

Malick’s camera remains fluid throughout the sequence, in search of a focal point, but never finding just one. He panaglides from one soldier’s face to another, registering the utter disbelief and horror on their faces. Each of them seems to be asking themselves, “What are we doing here? What do we do?” In the midst of the chaos, a lone Japanese soldier meditates. Another tries to hide in an above-ground fox hole but is killed by a mortar explosion.

The score cue — known on the soundtrack album as “Journey to the Line” — runs the length of the sequence. The music grows out of the mist as Zimmer employs a series of rhythmic pulses over the principal motif, which is performed on low strings. These pulses underline the entire sequence, while Zimmer continues to add orchestral layers, including further instrumentation of the mourning brass figure.

At the four minute mark, as the soldiers enter the encampment, taiko drums are added to the mix to intensify the rhythmic properties of the piece. Everything continues to grow out of the main theme, with horns carrying a soulful three-note descending motif that cascades over the rest of the orchestra. We’ve reached the height of the sequence: a terrified Japanese soldier covers his ears from the sonic chaos that we can barely register.

Before we know it, the horns have subsided and the rhythmic pulses return. Low strings pick up the main tune without the drama or intensity as before. As the soldiers assess the situation, Zimmer introduces a high-string element that works through several prolonged chords before evaporating into the sound of the jungle. In the film, Zimmer’s music gives way to a quotation from Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question.

The passage from near-tranquility to chaos and back again is accomplished through the blanketing texture of this cue. The sound grows without any specific visual cues; it simply exists. Yet, the sequence is unified by the singular theme that grows to full maturation at the mid-way point.

We might say that Malick’s roaming camera presents a variety of dramatic vignettes without any context. Zimmer’s music concretizes the emotional weight of the sequence by building the layers, piece by piece, until the tension and drama is fully realized. Then it dissipates, evaporates.

In a 2007 interview with soundtrack.net, Zimmer commented on this approach:

Here’s the thing. If I come up with an idea like the Thin Red Line thing, for instance, it’s not finished when I finish that piece: it’s just a jumping-off point to try to get better at that. So I’ve been going back to that idea because I think, as a composer, you have a duty to develop. It’s evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary always. So the idea of these patterns and these things building on top of each other is really just minimalist music taken to a romantic level. The whole Da Vinci Code score is sort of based, I suppose, on minimalist ideas…

It’s a very open piece, and what it does in the movie is that it lets you in, it lets an audience participate. It’s not like a normal tune, which has a start or end; it’s asymmetrical on purpose and breaks all the rules, so it’s more like a question than an answer.

As he says, the slow burn is also utilized in climax of The Da Vinci Code when the location of the Grail is revealed. The scene itself is rather flat, with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) walking from his hotel to the inverted glass pyramid at the Louvre. Zimmer scores the sequence much the same way he did The Thin Red Line with an organic motif that builds to a full statement over four minutes. Beyond the exposition of the sequence delivered by Hanks in voice over, Zimmer’s arpeggios suggest a mystery about to be solved, while the choral and high-string ovelays provide that much needed sense of release. Throughout, the sequence moves on the wings of the music, as it does with The Thin Red Line.

The “romantic minimalism” of this approach offers a sense of movement that is entirely dependent on the sound track to provide such momentum. Thus, the movement derives not from the rhythmic properties of the music, but from the slow evolution of the thematic motifs. The music drives the sequences, setting up the audience for a reveal, a culmination, a release at the end that the image does not convey. With the finale to The Dark Knight, Zimmer underscores Commissioner Gordon’s speech to his son: “Because he’s the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him…because he can take it…because he’s not a hero…he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.” Throughout the monologue, Zimmer (and James Newton Howard) builds a musical fabric from the Batman motif developed earlier in the film, and wisely chooses to conclude without a culminating chord. The end credits begin on a higher note, but not one that entirely satisfies.

It’s not a groundbreaking function of film music, but it is one that continues to fascinate me. To unify the image, enhance the drama, and move the audience with music is surely a difficult task. Zimmer has stated on occasion that even though he is quite prolific, he tends to experiment with musical ideas across an array of films until he feels a creative satisfaction that a concept or motif has been perfected or exhausted. The creative process is much like a puzzle, sifting through the pieces to find the right order and reveal the big picture. With film music, it is about finding the right tone, the right accompaniment, or the right set of notes. At one end of the Zimmer spectrum is the power anthem: aggressive, catchy (in pop music terms), and direct. At the other end is the minimalist romanticism that punctuates the dramatic action by blanketing it with a build-and-release rhythmic arc. The musical function that I have described as the slow burn is as much an exercise in long-form composition as it is a different way of scoring to picture. It represents a musical option in the composer’s arsenal to complement the dramatic action without being tightly bound to the confines of the image.