It’s been said that the perfect movie soundtrack is one that integrates itself so well into the fabric of the film that you don’t notice it’s there. i suspect that belief arises as much from experiencing the jarring æsthetic bifurcation that ensues from badly-executed soundtracks as from witnessing the seamless assimilation of sound with sight. The very best soundtracks of all, to me at least, are so good, so interesting, that they’re utterly unignorable. But it would be a mistake to say, in calling attention to themselves, that they’re too interesting; in the same way as an outstandingly effective mise en scène, or wardrobe design, or cluster of special effects, we’re conscious of their brilliance while remaining firmly locked in engagement with the film. My first podcast focussed on one of the very best examples of that, in Antichrist, and more recently Hans Zimmer has achieved something similar in his soundtrack for Christopher Nolan’s outstanding film Inception. It helps that the movie is as good as it is; i’ve not seen a film as engrossing as Inception in a while, which therefore presents Zimmer with something already extremely impressive to work with. and yet, as Zimmer has explained, he didn’t create his soundtrack with reference to any of the visuals, working instead from just the script, using that alone to ignite his imagination. It’s a risky approach, but a suitably unconventional one for a film that falls so far outside the realm of conventional thrillers.
Zimmer gives himself a number of motifs from which to weave his material, the first and most immediate of which is a simple iambic (short-long) rhythm, heard in a powerful crescendo in the score’s opening track, “Half-Remembered Dream”, continuing as the brooding bassline in the following “We Built Our Own World”. This rhythm originates in a song significant within the film, “Non, je ne regrette rien”, specifically Edith Piaf’s well-known rendition recorded in 1960. The iambic rhythm is heard in the opening of the song, but Zimmer hasn’t just borrowed that; drastically slowing down the tempo transforms the chirpy trumpets into something large and imposing, like a dark, ominous choir of trombones and tubas. Zimmer has used this slow version of the rhythm as his motif, even going so far as to extract the trumpet sound from the slowed-down Edith Piaf recording and incorporating it into his score.
As the score continues in “We Built Our Own World”, this rhythm becomes the heartbeat beneath Zimmer’s second idea, a sequence of paired string chords, each time falling by the interval of a perfect fifth. In contrast to the insistent underlying pulse, the languor of the strings simultaneously suggests both melancholy and a hazy sense of time passing, fitting considering the film’s emphasis on concentric dream-states. Both these opening tracks are short and concise (together barely lasting three minutes), and in no time the third track arrives, boldly presenting the third motif. For the most part, “Dream Is Collapsing” consists of a repeating chord progression—G minor – F# major (in first inversion, music theory fans) – Eb major – B major—over which the guitar oscillates back and forth between G and F#. This intimate opening becomes the minimalistic backdrop for a huge orchestral crescendo, culminating in a fortissimo climax that unites this chord sequence with the principal idea, the iambic rhythm. Together, these opening three tracks form a splendid exposition to the soundtrack as a whole, emphatically laying out the basic elements that will be central to much that follows.
“Radical Notion” is the first to develop these ideas, mulling over the chord sequence in turbulent fashion; it’s a pensive track, that is until around two-thirds through, when a descending scale idea begins to emerge, tentatively at first, but ultimately consuming the entire orchestra, the bass throbbing wildly underneath. The first lengthy track is “Old Souls”, a 7-minute ethereal study reminiscent early on of Vangelis’ music for Blade Runner. Electronics bristle and flutter at the fringes, surrounding melodic suggestions put forth by piano and guitar (beautifully played throughout by the legend that is Johnny Marr); and here’s the first real proof that Inception is also a story about love and loss, with all of the horribly confused and convoluted emotions arising from that. There’s melancholy aplenty in this track, although a fair dose of pent-up anger seems present too—heard more clearly towards the end, as the scalic idea starts brooding in the bass once again. The recurrence of this idea so soon suggests obsession, which ties in powerfully with the mindset of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dom Cobb.
The cryptically-titled “528491” follows (these numbers occur throughout the film), a passacaglia built upon a 9-note ground bass that slightly hints, in its intervals, at the obsessive scalic idea from earlier. For a while it feels like a bit of ‘padding’ material, not really going anywhere significant, deliberately avoiding the score’s main motifs. But it soon becomes clear it is most definitely going somewhere, the strings rising to impossible heights, whereupon the entire orchestra inflicts a series of hammer blows worthy of Mahler. This prepares the way for the abrupt plunge into “Mombasa”, the soundtrack’s central movement, that launches itself at breakneck speed, hurtling along above skittering strings and percussion (preoccupied with nicely irregular dotted rhythms). Once again, Zimmer uses this as a backdrop over which he can lay bigger ideas, and there are several; the first is a deep, menacing idea rising from the abyss (1:06), answered by a quick, descending response, almost bludgeoning in its power (1:36); another bass idea (2:39) introduces octave-wide downward glissandi, getting the brass—especially the horns—momentarily excited. But it’s the return of the first, rising, idea that decides the track’s ultimate direction, building to a huge melody in octaves.
One could almost do with a few minutes to draw breath after music like that, but the score continues immediately with “One Simple Idea”, which thankfully returns to a more sedate pace. The guitar returns, its circling idea punctuated by impossibly pounding bass thuds; at first, it sounds like the strings are going to bring back the falling fifths motif, but a new idea emerges, reserved at first, before rising and swelling with growing zeal. “Dream Within A Dream” returns to the chord progression motif, now stretched over a percussive underlay, the G/F# oscillation passed around from brass to strings and back again. Zimmer lets it grow before switching attention to the descending scales first heard in “Radical Notion”; for a time, things remain dense—cross-rhythms pepper the texture, and there’s a brief pause on a lovely chord simultaneously major and minor—until the dissonances clear and a melody starts that seems new, but in fact was heard in germinal, even microscopic form at the start of the opening track, on the piano. Built upon rising sevenths, it takes on something of the emotional discomfort heard in “Old Souls”, dominated by the brass, with occasional tutti accents that instantly bring to mind Jerry Goldsmith (think Basic Instinct).
The delicacy of “Old Souls” is revisited in “Waiting For A Train”, the aural equivalent of a warm bath, Zimmer luxuriating in delicious ambient textures. It’s the soundtrack’s most lengthy movement (9½ minutes), and also its most ambitious; after 3 minutes the softness breaks off, seemingly suspended in an episode racked with uncertainty, the strings reluctant to move, holding their notes for long periods of time as the brass offer a drawn out major chord by way of encouragement. Eventually, things start moving again, and the final third turns the rising sevenths idea upside down, sounding bruised and resigned as they fall. Edith Piaf briefly appears in the periphery, before being swiftly swallowed up first by the sevenths, then by the chord progression motif; it’s halted shortly before the end, the music turned static, only to erupt once more in a blazing final statement. “Paradox” explores high string harmonics over hollow, whistling electronics, out of which solo strings meander, drawing on the powerful scalic idea, reducing it to something infinitely more intimate. A strange series of octave crescendos ends the track, projecting a potent sense of finality. This is extended in the soundtrack’s coda, “Time”, returning to the rising sevenths idea that began everything some 45 minutes earlier. It’s the score’s most low-key moment, the music occupying low registers for some time before working its way into loftier regions. This is turned a majestic final chaconne, broad and impassioned, before ending whence it all began, soft chords gently picked out on the piano.
Two further tracks are available for free download from inceptionscore.com. “Projections” doesn’t offer anything substantially different, to a large extent simply recycling earlier material. “Don’t Think About Elephants”, on the other hand, is well worth hearing, exploring the chord progression motif in a new way, one that takes some superb twists and turns, shimmering with energy.
It’s a remarkable achievement by Hans Zimmer to create a soundtrack capable of being both so devastating and so delicate. Its blend of orchestral forces with electronica and pounding bass draws some comparisons with Don Davis’ scores for the Matrix trilogy, but Zimmer’s Inception score is amazingly fresh (a rare achievement for film scores), the basic elements superbly suited to the visuals. It integrates itself perfectly into the film—but, regardless, it’s impossible to ignore; and that, to my mind, makes it a perfect movie soundtrack.