Last week, Hans Zimmer won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for “Dune.” That makes it his second Oscar ever, having only won one other in the same category for “The Lion King” (1994). It seemed like there was no other option for Best Soundtrack this year — “Dune” was leagues above the competition, and most predicted to win. While I agree that “Dune” was a shoo-in for the Oscar, being the most likely to win an Oscar and being the “best” are two different things. While the accolades and acclaim for “Dune” pile up, I would like to point out another stunning soundtrack this year: that of “The Power of the Dog” by Jonny Greenwood, one opposite to “Dune” in almost every way.
The score of “Dune” is colossal, epic and intense. It sounds simultaneously ancient and futuristic through the masterful blending of traditional percussion and vocals with electronic sounds. It fits in seamlessly with the movie, mirroring how the technologically advanced House Atreides interacts with the ancient desert planet of Arrakis. The score is so well integrated into the film that sometimes it’s hard to tell which sounds are the music and which sounds are coming from the world of the movie. At times, it’s virtually invisible, seemingly a part of the world as much as the sand is; it’s a part of the atmosphere, creeping up on you and growing to a deafening roar, then fading before you realize it is even there. This clip, from a meeting between the Baron and the Reverend Mother, serves as a perfect example. However, there is also extremely effective use of non-diegetic music — one moment that particularly stood out to me was during the attack on Arrakeen by the Harkonnen and Sardaukar forces; when the bagpipes come in during the charge, it’s hard not to get emotional.
Today in cinema, there seems to be a shift away from the lush neo-romantic scores of John Williams (though they still persist in series like the Marvel movies) and towards a broader sound world, filled with strange electronic blips and various instruments from around the globe. In that sense, Hans Zimmer is a pioneer, evident when comparing John Williams’ score for the Tatooine Desert and Zimmer’s score for the Arrakis Desert. Zimmer is more than a film composer; he is a sound artist. More than any melody that Zimmer invents, I believe what he excels at is making memorable sounds. Take, for example, the loud low brass blasts in “Inception,” the massive organ chords in “Interstellar” or the solo female voice in “Dune.” These sounds all make us feel something visceral, something in our subconscious that adds to the scene in which they are played.
On the opposite side of the movie soundtrack world lies that of “The Power of the Dog”: traditional, intimate and economic. There are only three recurring distinct sounds in this soundtrack: the strings, the out-of-tune piano and the french horn. But with these limited sounds, Greenwood achieves incredible storytelling. The out-of-tune piano serves as an excellent foil for Rose’s descent into alcoholism and madness. It grows in intensity and volume until it suddenly stops as Rose’s mind shatters. While it is a bit of a cliché, it works brilliantly and doesn’t feel tacky or lazy. The string writing is also very unique — instead of the lush Hollywood string sounds that we’re used to hearing in movies, it feels very sparse, close and personal.
A personal favorite is a track used at the beginning of the movie. It manages to draw you into its world without being overbearing or dramatic. It’s unclear at the start if it is being played by muted guitar strings or pizzicato cello, but as the music and movie continue it becomes more and more clear that this is not your traditional Western flick. Despite the film taking place in the Wild West, the soundtrack bears little resemblance to classic western tropes, like the movie itself. The film is subdued and focuses on relationships more than any grand plot or adventure. Similarly, the music doesn’t rely on any clichés from classic Western films, feeling closer to the realm of contemporary classical music, if anything.
The music holds on its own, offering its own character and narrative. Strangely avant-garde, it’s experimental, very harmonically adventurous and can be angular and irrational. The music is not invisible, and doesn’t blend into the world of “The Power of the Dog”; rather, it offers a commentary on what’s happening in the scene, and it feels like a conversation. Jonny Greenwood has an incredibly different voice in the world of film scoring. Even Hans Zimmer has said that Jonny Greenwood’s score in “There Will Be Blood” was “recklessly, crazily beautiful.” To say nothing of Greenwood’s range, he also serves as a member of Radiohead — how much talent can one man have? Against the ocean of voices in cinema, I believe that both Greenwood’s and Zimmer’s sounds stand out. While “Dune” may have picked up the Oscar this year, both of these composers’ works deserve to be appreciated and listened to.
Daily Arts Writer Jason Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.