Hans Zimmer and the sound of negative space

I’ve been listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer lately, mostly Dunkirk, Bladerunner 2049, and Interstellar.


Zimmer’s music reminds me that my brain is wired, um, differently. I hear and see structure (and lack there of) in the music that other people don’t seem to see or hear, when I try to describe the music, everyone looks at me funny. This is nothing new, and nothing unique to Zimmer: when I was younger I used the excuse of “wires in my brain are crossed”.  Maybe this is synesthesia, maybe I’m just weird. Either way, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, because getting colors, shapes, and physical spaces from sound is hella fun.


We were listening to the Dunkirk soundtrack, and before the part where it turns to hornets, my husband asked me why this music made him feel anxious. I’ve been thinking about that for a while. Why does the Dunkirk soundtrack make a listener feel anxious, even if that person has no idea of the life and death situation the music was written for?


Here’s what I have come up with:


It’s the negative space, and the lack of handholds.


That didn’t make any sense, did it?  The music to Dunkirk feels fairly slow, with melodies melting into each other.   There is no marchy snare drum (oh, hai music from Gladiator and Pirates!) to tell you where you are. Out of habit, I assume the Dunkirk music is written in 4/4, but who knows, it could double time, a waltz or some post modern bizarro time.  There are no clues, no handholds to tell you where you are supposed to be tapping your finger.  The architecture of a lot of this music is completely open, there are no rooms, no doorways, nothing to tell you if you are in a hallway or a kitchen or a bathtub. It isn’t empty, not by any means, but it is completely open. There is architecture and structure here, just nothing like what I’m used to.  It is a huge open space, I don’t know where I’m supposed to be going on looking.


There is also the slower pace. If you’ve seen Dunkirk, you know it is two hours of solid tension. You really have no idea if anyone will be alive at the end. While you are biting your nails because omgeveryoneisdrowing, the music is going along at its own, slower pace.  Nature doesn’t give a shit that you are in a hurry, and neither does this music.  The water is just there, doing its watery thing, it doesn’t really care if you drown.


It’s just you, and the music. No handholds, no signposts, nothing to tell you where you are. This is the kind of music that forces you face yourself, that forces you to be patient. In and endless cavern, whose end you will never reach no matter how fast you run so you might as well slow down and take it all in, you can’t help but feel insignificant. That is why this music makes you anxious.


I drunkenly fell asleep to the soundtrack of Dunkirk once.  Very intense dreams, woke up very disturbed and freaked out.  As much as I enjoy napping to instrumental music, that is not a particular experience I would like to repeat.


The Interstellar soundtrack has an opposite feel, for me. Instead of the music making me feel anxious, the Interstellar music is full of hope, growth, green, movement, stairs, warmth, invigoration, energy.


What I call the “spiral staircase” melody, it’s full of handholds – you always know where you are. This melody, and variations thereof are heard when the ship is leaving earth, and also at the end when he is falling through space and tapping messages on the bookshelf, and lots of other moments of discovery in the movie.  There are handholds everywhere, both musically and visually, you can grab onto them and go wherever the sound takes you.  This is the kind of music that can take you literally, anywhere.  Want incredible dreams while you are sleeping? Listen to Interstellar!


The big weird gorgeous trainwreck of a set piece in that movie is the black hole, and it’s this big bad destructive thing. But the music? Sounds like a fucking supernova, the opposite of a black hole.


I guess all that makes sense, right? Interstellar is about hope, going up and out, trust, telling a black hole of fear to fuck off because we are made of supernovas of hope.  Books can start getting knocked off my bookshelves any day, I am ready!


If you listen to the Interstellar soundtrack, and you like it, I highly recommend finding a recording done by an orchestra. Live music always has differences to studio polished music. When listening to the orchestra recording, I heard different heights of music. The dynamics were completely different, in a good way.


The music to Dunkirk sounds like a big open white space with no directions and no handholds, Bladerunner 2049 is similar but it is a dark underground cavern with edges in surprising places, and Interstellar’s music flies me through that giant unknown, and shows that this structureless architecture is what hope sounds likes.


So, Thank you Hans Zimmer for writing this amazing music and allowing me to experience it. Everything you write is all that more enjoyable to those of us who have wires crossed in our brains.