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‘Dune’: How Composer Hans Zimmer Invented a Retro-Future Musical Sound for the Arrakis Desert Planet

"Dune" represents Hans Zimmer's masterpiece: a retro-future invention of music conveying the beauty and danger of Arrakis.

"Dune"

“Dune”

Warner Bros.

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Director Denis Villeneuve wasn’t alone in fulfilling a teenage dream to make “Dune.” Composer Hans Zimmer satisfied his own fantasy by composing an otherworldly score inspired by Frank Herbert’s hallucinatory 1965 sci-fi adventure novel. In fact, the Oscar-winning Zimmer (“The Lion King”), who has also amassed 11 nominations, could very well win his second award for this musical masterpiece: an experimental retro-future invention of instruments and sounds to convey the beauty and danger of the Arrakis desert planet — from the rhythm of the wind pushing the sand between the rocks to the pounding percussion of the monstrous sandworms.

“We both read it as teenagers, but we didn’t make the movie with hindsight of age and wisdom,” Zimmer said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “As soon as we started, we were transported back in time … and I did music with the recklessness and craziness that only a teenager has. Just whatever came to me. And one of the other things was that it’s hard to explain musical concepts, but we’d finish each other’s sentences, because we have both been making this movie in our heads for 40 years.”

Zimmer defined the score as spiritual without being religious, and very much driven by a choir of female voices, given the dominance of women in “Dune,” despite would-be messiah, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), serving as the protagonist. The choir represented Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and her mystical powers tied to the influential female order of the Bene Gesserit, and Chani (Zendaya), the mysterious and alluring young Fremen woman who inhabits Paul’s dreams and visions.

Dune

“Dune”

Warner Bros.

“Both Denis and I decided this early on, that it’s the women who drive the story and have the strength,” added Zimmer. “And so I thought of some extraordinarily talented singers, and I kept thinking, wherever you are in the future, the instruments will change due to technology, and we could be far more experimental, but the one thing that remains is the human voice, which there is a lot of.”

As part of the hallucinatory nature, Zimmer didn’t want any of the culturally diverse instruments identifiable, so he disguised everything with the help of his virtual synthesizer, the Cubase, which got an upgrade to handle the challenge. “I just tried to do things that are humanly impossible,” he added, “by pushing the envelope of technology. One of the first experiments was working with musician and sculptor and welder Chas Smith, whose studio is a resonating chamber, so a lot of the sounds came from there.

“I asked for more things to superimpose the sonic quality of one instrument onto another so you would [create] these impossible sounds,” he continued. “The characteristics of a Tibetan long horn on a cello and let a cellist play it so that you’ve invented a new instrument. I wanted it to be things which would float across the desert dunes and penetrate between the rocks, and I wanted things to sound dangerous.”

Dune

“Dune”

Warner Bros.

It started off with “Paul’s Dream,” a suite that exhibits the mesmerizing energy of the desert power of Arrakis: a melange of strings, choir, strange buzzing, and the whirring of the ornithopter blades. “It was vital to me to figure out how to wrap the music around the audience, and, at the same time, not to manipulate you,” Zimmer said. And let it be strange and surprising.

The piece contains the DNA of everything that happens musically. There are three themes that serve as counterpoint, beginning gently but then circling back later, like a warrior unleashed. “And the first notes scared the living daylights out of me,” said Zimmer. “There was an amazing commitment from vocalist Lisa Gerrard, who was in Australia, and I kept torturing her and she came up with this language that is all her own. It could be from the future, it could be from a different world. And there was this linguist [David Peterson from ‘Game of Thrones’] on the movie, who invented a language, and I picked things that would sing well.”

With “Song of the Sisters,” representing the witches of the Bene Gesserit, Zimmer achieved a full-on medieval incantation with drums, strings, synths, and staccato-sounding choir. “I tried to let them all be part of one DNA so their rhythm could be absolutely perfect, which meant getting out the digital razor blades and lining everything up like crazy,” he said. “Part of what makes all of this so much fun is the misuse of acoustic instruments. Curiously, the rhythm of the drums and the percussion keeps appearing as organized chaos [throughout the score]. I tried to think of something that maybe in 10,000 years you would think of it as a good groove, but right now you’d just hear it as a little iconic motif played by percussion, like weird code.”

Dune

“Dune”

Warner Bros.

By contrast, “House of Atreides,” a noble piece about Paul’s family, was highlighted by bagpipes. That was Villeneuve’s idea. As the Atreides family arrives for the first time on Arrakis, there’s a bagpipe player in the background. “I asked Denis about it and he said he wanted something ancient and organic for such an occasion, so I embraced it. The pandemic had just started, but lo and behold, within seconds, in Edinburgh, I managed to find 30 bagpipe players, who were more than happy to go into a big church and stand at the right distance from each other and make a fabulous noise.”

For Zimmer (who also scored Daniel Craig’s swan song as James Bond, “No Time to Die,” with evocative references to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”), working on “Dune” was like rushing to the edge of the abyss, yet knowing that Villeneuve would catch him. The score is so ambitious, in fact, that there are three soundtrack releases from WaterTower Music: the original soundtrack, the “Dune Sketchbook,” and a companion soundtrack to “The Art and Soul of Dune” (Insight Editions), by the film’s executive producer Tanya Lapointe.

And Zimmer isn’t finished. He’s already composed an hour-and-a-half of music for the second film in the director’s proposed trilogy. “I keep sending Denis music to help inspire him during his writing,” he said. “If they ever say yes to us, if they ever unleash us [we’re ready].”

Warner Bros. will release “Dune” in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Friday, October 22.

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