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DUNE – Hans Zimmer

October 26, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the years since it was first published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune has grown consistently in stature and acclaim, and is now considered one of the greatest works of science fiction in the history of the genre. It’s a story about intergalactic power and control, alliances and betrayals, prophecy and mysticism, and is focused on events on the desert planet Arrakis. Arrakis is the sole source of ‘spice,’ a hallucinogenic spore naturally found in the sands of Arrakis, the use of which is what makes interstellar space travel possible; as such, spice is the most valuable commodity in the universe. Mining spice is a dangerous task, due to the inhospitableness of the planet, the presence of giant deadly sand worms, and the constant attacks by the native Fremen population, who despise their off-world colonizers. The main crux of the story follows the noble house of Atreides, which is sent to Arrakis by the Emperor of the galaxy to take over the running of the spice mines from the house of Harkonnen, their bitter rivals. What follows is essentially a power struggle for overall control of the galaxy between the Emperor, House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and the mysterious female-led religious order of the Bene Gesserit, with Paul Atreides, the young son of the duke of House Atreides, as the focal point of it all.

There have been numerous attempts to make a film of Dune. Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky famously tried and failed to adapt it for the screen in 1974, before auteur David Lynch took over and made a version that was released in 1984, to almost universal criticism, including Lynch’s own, who complained that the studio compromised his artistic vision. Now French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has made what many are calling the first true adaptation of the story, with a scope and splendor matching the depth of the book. Visually, Villeneuve’s Dune is a masterpiece; the detailed world-building, the majestic planetary vistas, the scale of the action sequences, everything, is immense. But perhaps the best thing about Dune is that it gets its inter-personal relationships right, and it makes you believe in and understand the mythology that underpins this civilization. The galactic reach and power of the Emperor, the rivalry between the Atreides and the Harkonnens, the influence of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the plight of the Fremen, and the prophecy that is focused on Paul specifically, are all conveyed perfectly. And the film is cast impeccably too; Timothée Chalamet as the reluctant leader Paul Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s Bene Gesserit mother Lady Jessica, Oscar Isaac as Paul’s noble father Duke Leto Atreides, Stellan Skarsgård as the morbidly obese baron of House Harkonnen, and Zendaya as Chani, a young Fremen woman who haunts Paul’s dreams.

I could go on and on about all the other things about Dune that captivated me, but this is a review of the film’s music, which was written by Hans Zimmer. As someone who had been obsessed with Dune for much of his life, Zimmer turned down the opportunity to work with Christopher Nolan on Tenet so that he could work with Villeneuve on this film. What Zimmer came up with was one of the most abstract, challenging, unconventional scores of his entire career, something which at times sounds almost impossibly alien, but is anchored by something desperately human.

In an interview with Jon Burlingame for Variety, Zimmer says that there is “no orchestra anywhere in Dune … even something that sounds like brass could be an electric guitar or electric cello, manipulated electronically. Unusual woodwinds like the Armenian duduk or Scottish bagpipes occasionally peek through, but most sounds are from specially commissioned instruments and new synthesizer modules.” Part of his thinking was to get away entirely from the concept of a western orchestra and create things that were usually impossible for human musicians to play; one example he cites is taking the sound of a Tibetan long horn, running that sound through a sampler, and then manipulating that so that it was ultimately performed by a solo cello. In another interview, with Darryn King for the New York Times, Zimmer reveals that his longtime collaborator Pedro Eustache built a 21-foot horn and a “contrabass duduk,” a supersized version of the ancient Armenian woodwind instrument, while sound designer Chas Smith created a variety of metallic percussion instruments – including one made from an alloy used in cryogenic storage tanks – which he then scraped and hammered. These resultant sounds were then used to create the eerie, unearthly tone of the Arrakis desert and the spice that floats through the sand and dust.

However, the ultimate focus of the story is the human voice. In yet another interview, with Bill Desowitz for Indiewire, Zimmer says that he and Villeneuve felt that women drive the story of Dune, and felt that “wherever you are in the future, the instruments will change due to technology, and would be far more experimental, but the one thing that remains is the human voice.” As such, Zimmer spent more than a year working with three women – Loire Cotler, Lisa Gerrard, and Edie Lehmann Boddicker – to come up with the various vocal sounds that often dominate the Dune score. These three women, working with linguist David Peterson (who invented all the languages on Game of Thrones), eventually came up with a series of chants, whispers, and vicious primal screams, many of which were based on vocal techniques ranging from Jewish ‘niggun’ wordless songs to South Indian vocal percussion, and Tuvan overtone throat singing. From this palette of sounds Zimmer extracted various syllables and lines that were musically interesting, and used them as the soul of his score.

Although certain sounds and motifs are identifiable throughout the score, ranging from the aforementioned primal scream representing Arrakis, the Fremen, and Chani, to the eerie whispering that often accompanies the Bene Gesserit, to the vivid explosion of Scottish bagpipes that herald House Atreides’s arrival on their new desert home, Zimmer says he never actually thought about the score in terms of specific themes or sounds for characters or locales, instead preferring to work in a more abstract way, seeing everything as a totality. The traditionalist in me recoils from that approach; I have always been drawn to scores with a strong and identifiable internal architecture, not necessarily leitmotif-based, but certainly scores which have a clear logic and narrative flow. Dune is not like that at all; I suppose you could describe it as a score that has dream logic instead of reality logic, where ideas and sounds and identifiable elements keep recurring, but not always in the same way, and not always with the same meaning. Perhaps this was Zimmer’s way of capturing Paul’s recurring visions of Arrakis and Chani, which never make sense to him but are always there. The essence of Dune, rather than the reality of Dune.

As we all now know, Zimmer works in a very unusual way when he scores a film; first, he composes a series of suites of between 5 and 15 minutes, each representing a specific idea or theme; then, when it comes to the final spotting, he and his collaborators extract elements of these suites and combine them together to create the final score as heard in context. Recently, it has become Zimmer’s standard to release two albums for each film he scores: one containing those original suites, and one showing how those suites were adapted into the final score. This is also the approach for Dune. The suites album is called the Dune Sketchbook, and contains nine suites running for a total of 102 minutes.

It opens with “Song of the Sisters,” which is the musical representation of the witches of the Bene Gesserit, one of whom is Paul’s mother Lady Jessica. Zimmer’s musical approach sounds almost primeval, a combination of guttural wheezing and grunt noises, whispers which come across as an interesting variation on the ‘My Enemy’ track from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, relentless rumbling percussion which Zimmer describes as an ‘anti-groove,’ and a wave of electronic tonalities. By the middle of this 16-minute track the voices have gone from whispering to all-out screeching, but then the final half of the track feels calmer and more intimate – softer vocals, ancient-sounding percussion – which grow in strength as it builds towards its conclusion. It seems that this piece is intended to capture through music the effect of ‘the voice’ that the Bene Gesserit can use to compel others to obey them – sometimes they are the intimate murmurs of a lover, at other times a god-like command – and it’s very effective.

“I See You in My Dreams” is the first of several tracks which seem to explore ideas related to Paul’s destiny, his dreams of Arrakis and Chani, the hallucinogenic nature of spice, and the way this all combines with concepts relating to his blood relationship with the Bene Gesserit, his possible status as the ‘lisan al gaib’ in Fremen culture, and the prophecy of the ‘kwisatz haderach’. The unusual metallic textures that run through the piece seem to be a motif for spice, and the wind textures clearly speak to Arrakis and its endless sand-dunes, while Lisa Gerrard’s wordless vocals have a timeless, mystical characteristic. The undulating melody that emerges has something of an Ennio Morricone quality to it, and as it develops it slowly shifts between performances for voices, duduk, and electronics, with a moody string wash and heartbeat textures underneath it. At times it is really quite beautiful, and when the electronic tonalities rise and are heard at a much greater scope and volume, it feels grand and epic.

Many of these same ideas are explored later in both “The Shortening of the Way” and “Paul’s Dreams”. Some of the score’s more obvious middle eastern sounds are present in the former of these through the inclusion of what sounds like a shofar ram’s horn, before Guthrie Govan’s moody, otherworldly electric guitar takes center stage. Then, in the latter, one of the score’s most recognizable elements is heard for the first time, the ear-splitting Fremen war cry, performed with almost impossibly raw intensity by Loire Cotler at 4:48. My wife Holly commented that it sounds like Cotler is saying “I read your e-mail” (which is something I will now never not be able to hear), but whether this will catch on in the way “fishy fishy pasta pasta” did on The Dark Knight Rises remains to be seen. Despite this flippancy, the cue is actually really quite outstanding, an engrossing and enveloping exploration of an alien culture and the weight of destiny placed on Paul’s shoulders.

“House Atreides” is the warm, soft, enchanting music for Paul’s family; the love he has for his father and mother, and the goodness and nobility they try to represent. The voices in this cue are enchanting, but the most striking part of the music is the inclusion of a bagpipe fanfare. Zimmer said that the use of bagpipes was Villeneuve’s idea: “I asked Denis about it and he said he wanted something ancient and organic for the occasion (of House Atreides arriving on Arrakis),” and so Zimmer went and remotely recorded 30 bagpipe players in a church in Edinburgh. The sound is so unexpected and so incongruous and so clearly related to a specific contemporary culture that for a moment it takes you to a completely different place, but it’s certainly startling enough to catch your attention. The melody itself is great, and at one point it combines with a weird metallic growling throat-singing sound which, in context, is used as part of a battle sequence between the forces of House Atreides (represented by the pipes) and the Emperor’s elite Sardaukar warriors (represented by the throat-singing). These softer vocals also appear in “Moon Over Caladan,” a representation of the House Atreides home planet, linking the two concepts together. This piece is one of the least interesting suites – it’s mostly a series of high-pitched synth textures and lightly tapped percussion, interrupted by occasional swells and ascending guitar-driven scales.

“Shai-Hulud” is the Fremen term for the sandworms, and the cue of that name is the music associated with them. As with the other cues that explore Arrakis’s landscape and Fremen society there’s a sort of primeval, animalistic sound to the music; imposing blasts from the contrabass duduk, pulsating synth percussion, howling guitars, the scraping ‘spice’ textures, and deep mesmerizing throat-singing, all of which eventually emerges into a series of brutal, immense electronic chords. You get a sense of a scale of these ancient creatures, criss-crossing the planet deep below the sand, but it’s also quite unpleasant to listen to as actual music. Equally unpleasant is “Mind Killer,” which is also tangentially related to the music of the Bene Gesserit, and is also related to the culture of House Harkonnen, the Emperor, the Emperor’s Sardaukar warriors, and the concept of fear that Paul feels when faced with all these combined forces. Here, the metallic throat-singing sound combines with intricate and fast-paced keyboard scales, techno beats, and some of the ‘konnakol’ voice percussion for which Loire Cotler is best known, all surrounded by a series of enormous, ferocious explosions of highly manipulated sound. Finally, “Grains of Sand” returns to the whispering motif related to the Bene Gesserit and layers it against an electronic dance music beat and more of the electro-industrial sound design, making it the score’s closest cousin to The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

The soundtrack proper is, essentially, a pick-and-mix of all the elements heard on the Sketchbook, set into place by Zimmer, co-composers David Fleming, Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski and Steven Doar, and his supervising music editors Clint Bennett and Ryan Rubin. What’s interesting, however, and perhaps a tiny bit disappointing, is that on the whole the score is much more subdued than the sketchbook, a little more ambient, more focused on the understated synth textures that Villeneuve seems to prefer – qv Sicario, Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, and so on. There are none of the great highs that come in the sketchbook – I’m thinking specifically the extended statements of the House Atreides theme – but also none of the real lows, where Zimmer gets down into the weeds of very extended sequences of unpleasant sound design. Instead, the score tends to inhabit that middle ground of music that sort of casts a spell; eerie, mystical, dream-like. It’s not droney, but it does maintain a similar tone throughout a large part of its running time.

The opening cue, “Dream of Arrakis,” is almost an encapsulation of the entire score in just over three minutes, and features the glittering spice motif, the clattering percussion, the vaguely Arabic world music instrumentation, the grinding electronics, and the layered voices, presented in a disjointed stream-of-consciousness manner, as if in a dream. “Herald of the Change” offers the first prominent statement of the Morricone-esque main theme, initially performed by Pedro Eustache’s doleful duduk. The whispering ideas dominate “Bene Gesserit,” which becomes quite overwhelmingly shrill and jarring in the finale, while the cue for the “Gom Jabbar,” in which the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother tests young Paul’s capacity for control in the face of desperate pain, features the first performance of the huge Fremen war cry vocal.

A wide, open-sounding version of the main theme led by an electric guitar dominates “Leaving Caladan,” which at times feels more like a prog-rock instrumental than anything else, and has a similar vibe to parts of Inception. Both “Arrakeen” and “Ripples in the Sand” are quite aggressive depictions of Arrakis as experienced by Paul and his family as they first arrive – all grinding electronics and tempestuous percussion – but you also get a sense of Paul’s connection to the world through the quite beautiful performance of the main theme that appears in the middle of the second cue, a duet for wordless vocals and duduk, before it all erupts into some grandiose spacey textures featuring big, throbbing synth chords and chugging electric guitar pulses.

Both “Visions of Chani” and “Night on Arrakis” are slow, slightly dolorous explorations of the subtlest textures relating to Chani and Arrakis, and just sort of drift aimlessly for 10 minutes or so, before “Armada” wakes everyone up with the score’s one performance of the massive House Atreides bagpipe herald, accompanying Gurney Halleck and the warriors of House Atreides as they race to do battle with the combined forces of House Harkonnen and the Sardaukar troops. The action music that finishes the cue, and continues on into “Burning Palms,” is abrasive and discordant, making dramatic use of the processed throat singing effect, and occasionally having some tonal similarities to Zimmer’s Dark Knight music, as well as parts of Blade Runner 2049.

“Blood for Blood” has a rather tempestuous opening sequence before revisiting the wonderful low male voice chorus and vowel choir which Zimmer has used so successfully in films dating all the way back to Crimson Tide – a nice easter egg for long time fans – and more of that rich and satisfying Fremen war cry material. This continues on through the subsequent “The Fall,” depicting the tragedy of the destruction of House Atreides at the hands of the Harkonnens, before returning to the soothing, abstract tones of the Chani and Arrakis material in the quite emotional “Holy War”.

The main theme returns in “Sanctuary” filled with dramatic purpose and determined intent. “Premonition” starts with a series of dark variations on the throat singing textures, but eventually grows to become much more intense and instrumentally violent. This musical chaos and turmoil continues all the way through “Ornithopter,” before reaching a place of elegance and peace in the ghostly “Sandstorm,” wherein Paul entrusts his life, and the life of his mother, to Arrakis and the Shai-Hulud, becoming at one with the soul of the planet. “Stillsuits” feels very much the same, and builds to some actually quite impressive crescendos, before the conclusive “My Road Leads into the Desert” slowly builds to a striking finale with the most imposing statement of the Fremen war cry: this is just the beginning.

I guess the main question I have to ask myself about Dune is: do I like it? And the answer, really, is that I don’t know, and I keep changing my mind. There is certainly a lot of innovation at work here, creating a musical palette that sounds almost impossibly alien and distant from anything we are used to hearing, but which also goes some way to eliciting appropriate human emotional reactions. There are parts of it I really don’t like from a listening point of view, especially when Zimmer heads off down the road of hyper-aggressive and challenging electronica, but there are also parts of it I really do like, mostly the ethereal voices and the depictions of Fremen culture with pan-Arabic world music textures.

Furthermore, Zimmer’s decision to sort of half-commit to thematic consistency is frustrating. You can clearly see that, despite his statements to the contrary, a lot of Zimmer’s ideas are intended to represent specific things – the theme for House Atreides, the theme for Paul and his relationship with Arrakis/Chani/the Fremen, the Bene Gesserit vocals, and so on and so on. But the fact that these themes are applied so haphazardly in the final cut of the film suggests that he sort of abandoned this half-way through the mix, or was told to by Villeneuve, or that between them they just decided to not really make it so thematically strict and just went for what sounded cool in the moment. And, you know, if it’s the latter, this is fine – I just wish they had made a decision one way or the other, and not done it only sometimes, because when he does make a clear and distinct musical statement, the effect in context is often startlingly good.

The thing that Dune also requires (and this applies to the film too, in many ways) is patience. This isn’t a score that hits you over the head with huge heroic themes, space battles, love themes, or any of the things that often are associated with adaptations of classic sci-fi. If you know anything about Denis Villeneuve’s musical taste, or how Hans Zimmer has been working of late, then you know you can’t go into this score expecting that sound. You have to wait for moments of power and catharsis to come, and in order to appreciate them you sometimes have to experience more unpleasant and antagonistic music, so that the contrast is clear. Light and shade, ying and yang, and all that. And, of course, this will inevitably lead to many people dismissing it as a drone, a themeless bore, ‘not music,’ or whatever other lazy shorthand people have for sci-fi scores that don’t sound like Star Wars. It’s clearly none of those things – but as much as I adore Star Wars and the other orchestral space opera scores like it, and despite a lot of this music being significantly out of my comfort zone, there’s still something about Dune that gets under my skin, in a good way.

There’s something timeless, ancient, epic, but also futuristic and progressive about this music, all at the same time, which shouldn’t be possible, but somehow Zimmer has pulled that off. The albums do drag a little at times – to listen to both the sketchbook and the score back-to-back takes an eye-watering 175 minutes – and you have to have a very high tolerance for electronic manipulation, sound design, abstraction, and dissonance, because there is quite a lot of that. I don’t like all of it, and I actively dislike some of it, but when it works, and Zimmer really gets to the heart and soul of Frank Herbert’s story and Denis Villeneuve’s vision, it’s some of the most effective film music of 2021.

Buy the Dune soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Song of the Sisters (16:25)
  • I See You in My Dreams (18:25)
  • House Atreides (13:54)
  • The Shortening of the Way (11:14)
  • Paul’s Dream (7:03)
  • Moon Over Caladan (8:34)
  • Shai-Hulud (9:47)
  • Mind Killer (11:11)
  • Grains of Sand (5:12)
  • Dream of Arrakis (3:08)
  • Herald of the Change (5:01)
  • Bene Gesserit (3:54)
  • Gom Jabbar (2:00)
  • The One (2:30)
  • Leaving Caladan (1:55)
  • Arrakeen (2:16)
  • Ripples in the Sand (5:14)
  • Visions of Chani (4:27)
  • Night on Arrakis (5:03)
  • Armada (5:09)
  • Burning Palms (4:04)
  • Stranded (0:58)
  • Blood for Blood (2:29)
  • The Fall (2:32)
  • Holy War (4:20)
  • Sanctuary (1:50)
  • Premonition (3:30)
  • Ornithopter (1:54)
  • Sandstorm (2:35)
  • Stillsuits (5:31)
  • My Road Leads into the Desert (3:52)

Running Time: 101 minutes 45 seconds – Sketchbook
Running Time: 74 minutes 12 seconds – Soundtrack

Watertower Records (2021)

Music composed and arranged by Hans Zimmer. Orchestrations by Booker White, David Giuli, Jennifer Hammond and Johanna Melissa Orquiza. Additional music by David Fleming, Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski and Steven Doar. Featured musical soloists Pedro Eustache, Juan Garcia Herreros, Yolanda Charles, Guthrie Govan, Johnson O’Basso, Tina Guo, Chas Smith and the Pipers of the Scottish Session Orchestra. Special vocal performances by Loire Cotler and Lisa Gerrard. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Clint Bennett and Ryan Rubin. Album produced by Hans Zimmer.

  1. October 26, 2021 at 9:19 am

    I hope you keep this website going for a long time, because I don’t know where else to get such thoughtful and in-depth coverage of new scores anywhere else and I would miss it terribly if it was gone.

    • October 27, 2021 at 3:01 pm

      Thank you! I have no plans to stop 🙂

  2. Kevin Koltz
    October 26, 2021 at 10:51 am

    Came out of the film a little conflicted over the score but couldn’t really explain to myself why. You defined it for me with… “the fact that these themes are applied so haphazardly in the final cut of the film suggests that he sort of abandoned this half-way through the mix, or was told to by Villeneuve, or that between them they just decided to not really make it so thematically strict and just went for what sounded cool in the moment.” Absolutely! That’s it… and it’s really frustrating for a work that obviously had A LOT of thought (and actual execution considering what’s in the Sketchbook) put into it. My thanks for your review that really helped put the puzzle pieces together. One can tell your review had to have been a beast to write.

  3. October 26, 2021 at 2:23 pm

    The Sketchbook is much more interesting than the actual soundtrack. I bought the Sketchbook, don’t think I will bother with the soundtrack…

  4. October 27, 2021 at 2:30 am

    The art book has its own ambient soundtrack (and the Hans Zimmer cover of “Eclipse” from the trailer has been released separately). Do you intend to review it as well?

  5. Dune Fan
    October 28, 2021 at 11:16 pm

    I was looking forward to your review on Dune. I was surprised to hear your thoughts and that you enjoyed it. This is a well written review and you revealed a lot of great behind the scenes details. I also enjoyed this score as it is unique. In an interview Hans Zimmer stated when watching Star Wars that he wanted the music to sound like it also came from a galaxy far far away. Looks like he got to do that with Dune.

    I wanted to point out as a sidenote that for the track Stillsuits, part of it feels like it is a reference to the David Lynch film Dune theme by Toto, which is strange as I believe Hans Zimmer said he has never watched the movie before. The exact momment of Stillsuits that I am talking about is at 3:35-4:10. I have attached a youtube link to this track for convivence.
    Stillsuits https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LE3cXUXBpQ

    To finish my thoughts, I wanted to show you what I thought would be the main theme of Dune. This is a piece of music that played in a teaser trailer. It also plays in the official trailer as well. This made me think this would form the main theme, and I was really looking forward to it. But alas it never showed up. I wonder if it will be used for Dune part 2, because I feel this would be an amazing powerful theme to represent the Dune franchise. I am curious what you think about it. Its very short, and it sounds like something Hans Zimmer would compose.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiGdHLQD300 Dune teaser

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