High Tech Hollywood Gets Medieval

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Fionn Whitehead in a scene from

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Fionn Whitehead in a scene from “Dunkirk.” (Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

By Bruce Scott

Director Christopher Nolan is known for slickly futuristic films including Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight. Yet, in the Academy Award-nominated blockbuster Dunkirk, Nolan takes his high-tech, movie-making arsenal backward in time to the early days of World War II, telling a story with legendary status — the near-miraculous rescue of stranded British troops from the beaches of France.

So, it seems appropriate that Hollywood veteran Hans Zimmer, in his Oscar-nominated musical score for that film, hints at artistic strategies that also look back into history, reflecting techniques pioneered by composers nearly 1000 years ago.

Beginning in the very first moments of the film, Zimmer’s music makes extensive use of a theme familiar to lovers of classical music everywhere, and especially in Britain. It’s the melody of the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Elgar’s “Nimrod” has become an artistic icon in England. It’s played at moments of great national pride and patriotism, remembrance and mourning. That makes it an obvious choice for a film evoking a pivotal moment in British history — an event vividly recalled for both its tragedy, and its heroism.

Yet, in an intensely driven film lasting 105 minutes, the extensive use of such a widely familiar melody, no matter how appropriate, might easily dilute its meaning. So, how does a composer continuously employ a familiar and beloved melody in ways that expand its significance, reflecting the profoundly moving story it helps to tell, without allowing it to become trite and repetitive?

As it happens, church composers in the Middle Ages — the days of Gregorian chant — had a similar problem. They were bound by tradition, and often by doctrine, to set each liturgical text to its own, specific melody — a plainchant. To expand their means of expression while meeting that requirement, composers used a method now known as organum.

Over decades, and even centuries, organum took many forms. In one, the plainchant became a cantus firmus, or “fixed song.” The melody was greatly extended — stretched out until each note sounded like an underlying drone. Then, over those extended notes, composers wrote freely moving harmonies and counterpoint — leaving the mandatory melody technically intact, but barely recognizable.

The music in Dunkirk does something similar. In the film’s opening scene, the “Nimrod” melody emerges slowly, its notes extended and overlapping, obscured by an eerie atmosphere of sonic effects. In subsequent scenes, the theme is stretched even further, with counterpoint provided both in the music, and by movie sounds — the chaos of battle, the pounding of the sea, the cheering of men who, finally, see rescue at hand.

In one striking instance, the opening note of “Nimrod” actually bridges two scenes — the tragedy of a dying boy, and a pilot’s glimpse of distant beaches and the troops he hopes to protect. That first note alone lasts more than 30 seconds! It’s only after the second and third notes are played that the theme itself becomes evident.

Eventually, near the film’s end, “Nimrod” is again heard in extended form, at first hard to discern, as that pilot faces a life-or-death predicament. At the pivotal moment, the rhythm accelerates, the harmonies resolve, and the famous melody reveals itself, with its full measure of tragedy, resignation … and relief. Thus, a distinctly modern film tells an immensely moving story from history, made even more effective by timely music with ancient roots.

And the Oscar For Best Original Score Goes To…

Matt Rogers, Reel Music host

Matt Rogers, Reel Music host

Each year, as movie lovers prepare their red carpet parties and office Oscar pools begin their wagers, Matt Rogers hosts an Academy Award edition of Reel Music. During the show, he previews the scores of this year’s nominees and revisits the music of past winners. But it’s his commentary on the scores and his prediction for Best Score winner that have made this show a favorite of listeners.

The big question: Who does Matt think will win this year? We talked with Matt Rogers for his take on this year’s nominees, his thoughts on what makes a perfect score, and for a hint – just one little hint! — for his pick for best score this year.

Of Note: Each year you’ve hosted Reel Music, you’ve guessed the winner of Best Original Score. What’s your track record?
Matt Rogers: Well, I was doing fine until last year. There really wasn’t much of a soundtrack to Gravity, but I guess what there was of it worked so well in the film that it won. I had picked Philomena by Alexandre Desplat, who is nominated again this year for two scores.

Of Note: What are your thoughts on the nominated scores this year? 
Matt Rogers: Alexandre Desplat has two great scores this year [for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game], but people are also talking about Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score [for The Theory of Everything], which, if it won, would give Desplat his eighth loss in nine years. Ouch.

Of Note: If you’re stranded on a desert island with one movie soundtrack, what is it? Why?
Matt Rogers: Star Wars. Hands down. Every note of it is nostalgic for me since that saga was a huge part of my childhood. I could listen to it over and over.

Of Note: Who are some of your favorite score composers?
Matt Rogers: Bernard Herrmann is really responsible for my love of movie music. When I was a kid, I saw the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Herrmann’s score captivated me. It remains one of my favorite movie soundtracks of all time. John Williams is of course a favorite as well. He’s very versatile. He can produce something as subtle as Lincoln or something as bombastic as Superman, and it all works.

Of Note: What makes for an effective film score?
Matt Rogers: I think it depends on the movie. I mentioned Gravity. In that film, you don’t want the music to draw your attention away from the tension on screen. You almost want to be unaware of the score. With Indiana Jones or Star Wars, the more in your face it is, the better it is.

Of Note: Who is your favorite Oscar host?
Matt Rogers: Billy Crystal was so good in the 90s. There’s never been anyone as good since. Who could forget him wearing the Hannibal Lector mask and being rolled out on stage?

Of Note: Are you going to give us a hint for your pick for Best Original Score?
Matt Rogers: Hah! Not a chance. You have to tune in and hear for yourself. I will tell you that we have Neil Lerner from the Davidson College Music Department back with us this year. He always offers great insights on the nominated scores and composers. Be sure to listen in!

Listen to Reel Music’s “WDAV at the Oscars” on Friday, February 20, 2015 at 9:00 p.m.

Are you in the Charlotte area? Tune into 89.9fm Classical Public Radio.
Prefer to stream? Listen live at WDAV.org or on Apple and Android apps.