Adrian Daub | Longreads | December 2016 | 15 minutes (3,902 words)
You walk into a local multiplex a few minutes after the lights have dimmed. You find your seat to the first trailer, some confection involving superheroes or zombies. As the light flickers over you, strings churn from the speakers, interrupted at certain intervals by a massive blast of indistinguishable brass, like an alphorn next to an amplifier.
Does this sound familiar? At some point movies started braying at us like ships lost in a fog, and we have come to accept that as perfectly normal. Variations on this sound sequence — a simple string motif interrupted by sudden bursts of non-melodic noise — are everywhere in film soundtracks and trailers. It is the noise that goes with people in spandex standing in a Delacroix-style tableau, or so Hollywood has decided. It is the sound we know is coming when a trailer intercuts CGI objects slamming into each other with portentous fades-to-black.
The internet and the sound’s creator refer to it as BRAAAM. (If you think you’ve successfully avoided it, here’s a sample). It may sound synthetic, but it’s usually produced with brass instruments and a prepared piano. Although it has its roots in a scoring style composer Hans Zimmer employed for much of the early ’00s, the BRAAAM heard in seemingly every trailer was first recorded for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, and has been adapted, copied, and even outright sampled ever since. Is BRAAAM something that happened to us, or is it something we, as moviegoers, desired?
Film doesn’t usually ask us to be as good at listening as at looking. In fact, film sound tends to be at its most effective when it hovers at the very edge of our awareness. We are meant to register BRAAAM as new and different, but we aren’t well-equipped to say what, exactly, makes it different. Six years after its release, Inception invites us to think about our relationship to film music and how it has transformed over the last generation — from a moment when the average blockbuster soundtrack sounded like Richard Wagner, to a moment when the average blockbuster soundtrack sounds like, well, BRAAAM.
Let’s be careful: BRAAAM is not a deviation from some traditional way movies have always been scored; it is the end of one specific era in film scoring and the beginning of another. The lush, Late Romantic idiom it succeeds is just as much a historical artifact, but it was with us for so long that we have accepted it as the sound of the silver screen. In its short history, however, film has also worked its magic to Wurlitzer organs and string quartets — and to silence.
To see how BRAAAM puts to bed the established sound of 1970s blockbusters, consider the first thing we hear as the lights go down for a screening of Jaws (1975). I don’t mean the iconic half-step motif, the alternating F/F sharp that has people scared of bodies of water to this day. The film opens with the Universal Pictures logo, and the soundtrack consists of underwater sounds, distant waves, and echolocation blips — things we might actually hear while in the ocean. The screen fades to black, and after a few more seconds we hear the famous theme. As the opening credits start rolling, still against a black background, the theme coexists with the ambient underwater noise. These gurgles stop only at the moment we get our first filmic image: the moment we actually are in the ocean, we no longer hear the ocean. We hear John Williams.
This first minute of Jaws insulates the viewer from all the horror ahead: when we don’t see the ocean, we hear it. It sounds like a real, recognizable ocean. Once we finally see the ocean, the sound design signals to us that this is no longer our ocean, with its million garbled noises and distant signals. It belongs to cinema and to one single predator: everywhere there is water, there is that bass, there is Jaws. John Williams and the sound designers are careful to stage a gradual progression from our ocean to the fictional one of the film.
BRAAAM means to freak us out.
There can be something deeply reassuring in this neat separation between music and sound design: we move from one thing to another in stages, like nodding off into a dream. But this is a separation that soundtracks have tended to break down in the last few decades. Listen to Hans Zimmer’s scores for Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies on CD in isolation from the image, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “oh, I thought Batman’s cape made that noise!”
Comedies have often exploited our tendency to associate orchestral music with a certain placelessness. Think of moments where the camera pans to reveal the underscore is actually being played in-scene, most iconically in Blazing Saddles (1974), where Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart rides across the desert to music by Count Basie and his Orchestra — only then to ride past the actual Count Basie conducting his Orchestra. An unspoken rule has been violated, and it’s funny. Composers like Zimmer use it to take away one more coping mechanism we have in dealing with the visual intensity of film.
By keeping sound design and score separate, Jaws tells us everything is going to be alright, no matter how scary the images. BRAAAM means to freak us out.
From Zimmer’s Batman scores, via the many knockoffs for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to Marco Beltrami’s score for World War Z, the main ingredients — churning strings hectically repeating the same four- or five-note motif, with a BRAAAM dropping every so often — are both pulse-quickening and exhausting. They go well with shaky close-ups and big, effects-driven wide shots. The middle ground between these two — the kind of master shot where Dubai isn’t being thrust into London by an alien spaceship — would have made more traditional composers reach for a melody. Think of Bogart and Bergman on the airstrip in Casablanca, or Vertigo’s Scottie and Judy in the hotel room: people interact at close range, and the music suggests one reading of the emotions at play. BRAAAM filmmaking has little patience for this type of melody or for this type of interaction, and the music telegraphs the rush to get to either close-up or massive master shot.
No one leaves the theater whistling BRAAAM, but they’re likely amped up by it. BRAAAM is an extreme kind of film scoring, one that uses only the bare rudiments of melody. It’s a style that is at once instantly identifiable and completely unmemorable. In Inception, composer Hans Zimmer uses it with just that intention: it’s meant to work its way into your brain without you having much say in the matter — appropriately so for a film all about manipulating dreams and the unconscious. Like the dreams in Inception, BRAAAM has a convoluted genesis: Zimmer knows we can’t guess it from one viewing, but we might ultimately figure it out.
The BRAAAM we hear in Inception is studio-recorded, but it samples sounds that exist in the actual world of the film. The movie’s characters use Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” to jolt themselves out of their dreams; BRAAAM follows the rhythm section of Piaf’s song, as though “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” had been slowed to a crawl. This gesture — taking an aspect of the film’s soundscape and turning it into a part of the soundtrack — violates the rule that Jaws establishes for its audience: “sure, this music will freak you out, but in the end, it’s just music.”
Like the chains and electronic noise of the scores for The Dark Knight or The Bourne Supremacy, BRAAAM doesn’t have a clear home either in the world of music or in the world of the film.
Zimmer has told conflicting stories about whether certain parts of BRAAAM are actually sampled or not: in some interviews he claimed to have directly lifted “notes” from a master of Piaf’s song, but he has also said he’d created BRAAAM by using a piano and some brass instruments. (There is evidence Zimmer didn’t actually sample Piaf, but asked instruments to approximate what a radically slowed-down “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” would sound like.)
In Inception, reality is retrofitted with strange causal connections to create the spaces in which the dreams take place. BRAAAM pushes a song that characters hear in their waking life into the soundscape of their dreams. It translates the song for the audience, or pretends to: the rhythm of the BRAAAMs mimics the rhythm of Piaf’s song, but it is created by a sequence of specific sounds, not by sampling the song entirely.
It’s impossible to tell where exactly the use of actual in-world sound (i.e. Piaf) ends, and where the out-of-world sound of the score begins. The score intensifies and to some extent absorbs the sound design — it becomes the reminder that even things we aren’t hearing within the scene can be part of the film’s world. Like the chains and electronic noise of the scores for The Dark Knight or The Bourne Supremacy, BRAAAM doesn’t have a clear home either in the world of music or in the world of the film.
In the classic mode of film scoring, either in the Golden Age of the ’30s and ’40s or in its self-conscious revival in the ’70s, the orchestral score stood back from the image. It commented, and let the viewer know it was commenting. The distance made it unobtrusive; humming along to the soundtrack, we forgot that the image had a soundtrack at all. Modern soundtracks, by merging sound design and orchestral score, can be recognizable, but they are unmemorable and unportable. How many viewers can leave a screening of Star Wars and not have the film’s many themes stuck in their head for days? How many people can take the music of Jason Bourne with them? These soundtracks are highly proprietary. The purchase they have on the image is immediate; they seem to emerge from the image itself, as though BRAAAM were the sound of a collapsing dream city.
Musical ideas like BRAAAM are how soundtracks tell time and trace history. From the Golden Age on, Hollywood liked its music timeless; composers spent considerable effort to craft a generically “classical” sound that feels at home everywhere and nowhere. They were so successful that we have forgotten that this style itself was distilled out of a wild mix of influences already four decades old when it was first cooked up. And it’s a style that is still with us. A score like Michael Giacchino’s Star Trek Beyond, from earlier this year, is frank in its historicism yet so broad in its borrowings, it’s hard to say what decade it means to throw us back to. There’s a little ’60s pizzazz, some ’70s minimalism, some ’80s blockbuster lushness, some ’90s electronic noodling. Something for everybody.
If you’ve ever wondered why Batman Begins sounds like Pirates of the Caribbean, which sounds like The Da Vinci Code, Remote Control is the reason.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Inception is a score meant to be identifiable — even to the most casual listener — as new. The churning strings are the Dr. Jeckyll to BRAAAM’s Mr. Hyde; you can’t have one without the other. The static blasts need a simple motif to anchor them, and the simple triads or four-notes that make up so much of recent blockbuster scores almost beg for some kind of interruption (for instance: BRAAAM). In Zimmer’s more commercial soundtracks (think Pirates of the Caribbean), there is lots of very simple melodic material, while in his more arty efforts (from Terrence Malick’s 1998 The Thin Red Line onward), the melody is pared down to almost nothing. In either case, Zimmer consciously rejects the lyricism that classic Hollywood scores rely on.
Part of it is the way his soundtracks are put together: Zimmer’s approach resembles the sampling we’re used to from pop music — themes are not simply repeated by musicians, but instead montaged by the composer. Over the last few decades Zimmer has created something of a cottage industry that churns out soundtracks at a Herculean clip: In 1989 he founded Media Ventures, which was later rechristened Remote Control Productions, a kind of soundtrack workshop where Zimmer and about forty collaborators crank out sample-based soundtracks that are largely created in-studio (their combined list of credits is too staggering to list here). If you’ve ever wondered why Batman Begins sounds like Pirates of the Caribbean, which sounds like The Da Vinci Code, Remote Control is the reason.
This production process leaves one major trace in Remote Control’s style. We’re all aware of it, even though that awareness rarely rises to full consciousness while we try to follow transforming robots and shaky-cam shots up on the screen. Our new film sound is both massive and curiously thin. This isn’t necessarily meant as a criticism: in a film like Interstellar, which alternates between intimate humanism and cosmic scale, between claustrophobia and terrifying endlessness, a sound that is big but unlayered makes a lot of sense.
Remote Control’s product shares an immaterial quality: the orchestral body goes missing in Zimmer’s scores. Where before you heard eighty-five unionized studio musicians and a few guest instrumentalists brought in for a week of recording, you now hear a single person playing with loops and samples in the (far more economical) confines of their massive studio. Remote Control applied to the finished soundtrack techniques that had previously been reserved for blockbusters’ temp tracks. Zimmer’s sound is an ad-hoc sound: it’s the temp track that stuck. It splurges on detail and indulges its first instincts — which can be great, if the instincts are good.
It’s not exactly surprising that Hollywood found something to like in a technique that is cheaper, faster, and more versatile: it works well with the way Hollywood edits films in the digital age, and ensures that your film will sound the way you expected it to. What is remarkable is that we, the moviegoers, went along with it. If I said earlier that there is a loss of materiality here, it isn’t clear who is losing. Do you miss it? What did a hyper-polished soundtrack do for us — think of frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernhard Hermann — and why do we no longer ask for it? Who was the target audience for a neat touch like the Tristan und Isolde references in Vertigo? It is unlikely that Hermann pictured millions of moviegoers cracking a smile at a sly Wagner reference. Perhaps he thought his peers would notice, his musicians might care, or that Hitch would be charmed.
The music made by Remote Control, by contrast, exists for us: it’s for us to recognize when the marching band plays it at the next home game, it’s for us to dance to in the inevitable DJ Tiesto remix, it’s for us to curate for the “Epic Study Music” lists that proliferate on Spotify and YouTube. It sounds deliberately like other films and no longer glances over its shoulder to nineteenth-century music. An old economy of prestige has dropped out, and has been replaced by another one. It reflects the fact that modern soundtracks draw on and circulate via sample and remix, citation and advertising. Not for nothing does BRAAAM sound like something we might find in an EDM track, especially as a “drop.” Zimmer’s soundtracks are embedded into new and different circuits, and those circuits have in turn transformed what we expect to hear when the lights come down at the multiplex.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s easy to romanticize Golden Age scores — and easy to condemn the more crassly commercial aspects of Zimmer’s assembly-line approach to composition. We’ll probably look back on BRAAAM-era scores with ambivalence. On the one hand, the way they are assembled, their thinness, and their refusal of highly lyrical themes have allowed them to let in new sounds, sounds that a week with the London Symphony Orchestra would fail to produce. That’s exciting. But unfortunately, the new style risks replacing one style of pretentiousness with another.
Zimmer and others of his generation developed a sound that left behind the Late Romantic idiom of Golden Age Hollywood scores and instead resembles compositions by far more avant-garde art composers. It’s remarkable that Zimmer’s score for Inception, for all the all-too-expedient self-citation, sounds like the work of several contemporary composers of classical music, composers who wouldn’t be caught dead at your local multiplex. BRAAAM itself sounds like noise music, like that of Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) or the performance artist Hermann Nitsch (b. 1938); other textures resemble the work of Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952), an eminent Finnish composer. And when the intensity of BRAAAM relents in favor of a more reduced, confined sound, a score like Inception or The Da Vinci Code begins to dig deep into the idiom of minimalism.
Zimmer’s scores for Christopher Nolan are a culminating moment in this appropriation: the moment when a billion-dollar popcorn movie can use minimalist music to position itself as a thoughtful blockbuster.
Zimmer is in good company: over the last thirty years, film composers have pressed the sound of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Arvo Pärt into service for their soundtracks. Their compositions rely on simple, repeating, and varying patterns that tend to avoid melody. They reduce or remove those foreground melodic elements that would normally carry a scene’s emotions. They rely on smaller ensembles, often entirely made up of strings.
This isn’t the minimalist music John Carpenter used to unnerving effect in the ’70s, or that the prog-rock band Goblin turned to for Dario Argento’s horror films. Those soundtracks had a deliberately lo-fi aesthetic. They felt, and frequently were, DIY. The new minimalists, whether they’re classically trained like Philip Glass, or rock transplants like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, instead show off their sparseness as a status marker. Carpenter’s music felt scaled back because Carpenter needed to save money; Greenwood’s sparseness reads as classy. Many of the film composers who work with this new minimalist idiom record with the Kronos Quartet and put out their scores on classical music labels like Nonesuch.
Their deliberately scaled-back sound entered the world of film scores via the most arthouse-y prestige fare: Errol Morris documentaries, little-seen experimental films, and ill-fated passion projects. When this sound gradually entered the multiplex, it aimed to class up productions that fell somewhere between art movie and blockbuster. Philip Glass’s highly derivative score for The Hours brings a soupçon of auteurism to what is otherwise rote Oscar bait. Zimmer’s score for Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line similarly walked the “midcult” line between open commercialism and uncompromised artistry. Zimmer’s scores for Christopher Nolan are a culminating moment in this appropriation: the moment when a billion-dollar popcorn movie can use minimalist music to position itself as a thoughtful blockbuster.
What likely aided this final step, from Oscar bait to comic-book movies and tentpole releases, was the detour the Philip Glass sound took through the recent wave of prestige TV. This is how we’ve expected smart television to sound for about 10 years — Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, Mad Men, all relied on Glass-style minimalism to telegraph that they were more than “just” genre shows. When Cersei Lannister burned down the Game of Thrones-equivalent of the Vatican at the end of the show’s sixth season, the show underplayed the drama by following the playbook of The Hours: the movie opens with three women across three time periods getting ready for their day; Game of Thrones stages a number of major characters suiting up for a big trial that will never come. The music, by Ramin Djawadi, is as frank in breaking with the show’s normal sonic vocabulary as it is in imitating the undulating patterns of Philip Glass’s score.
Soundtrack minimalism is an aesthetic ostentatious in its restraint: see what we’re not doing, it says. Please notice what we don’t sound like. Much of modern prestige TV aims to sidestep all the hallmarks of now-maligned ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s television-making — episodic storytelling, lesson-learning, uplift, the reset button technique — and recognizably thematic soundtracks are among them. Unusual orchestration, like counterscore (the practice of pairing a massive set piece with a highly reduced sound, like a climactic battle using just a piano or a single voice), wants us to notice the distance from an established, perhaps even clichéd, filmic soundscape, even as that soundscape itself is making rarer and rarer appearances.
Such ostentatious refusal of cliché is of course at risk of becoming a cliché in its own right, one that combines self-congratulation and phony boldness. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes as a mournful voice ooohs and aaahs while characters mouth “no” with outstretched hands in muffled slow motion, you’re living proof. Minimalist scores are in many ways just as pretentious as, say, Vertigo‘s, but pretentious in a different way. They pretend to be difficult music without being any such thing — in their most bathetic moments they sound like the Easy Listening station at your dentist’s. Minimalist scores congratulate you for being a smart listener, just as a film like The Hours makes you feel like a sophisticated viewer while ladling out arthouse clichés by the bowlful. Vertigo made you feel special if you got a Wagner reference; The Hours makes you feel special for not looking for references.
As listeners we seem to desire depth, but we prefer that depth to be on the surface.
Clint Mansell’s score for Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream was unspeakably intense and deliberately unpleasant. Yet outside of the context of Aronofsky’s stylized grimness, it became to mid-’00s trailers what BRAAAM is to mid-’10s trailers: an unremitting earworm and still-flogged dead horse. As much as they appear to tip their hat to art music, compositions like Mansell’s are hyper-commercial. Hollywood has started to bank on the whiff of auteurism that clings to minimalist sound: the scores James Newton-Howard wrote for M. Night Shyamalan’s early thrillers played a big part in creating the self-serious, auteurist atmosphere of these films. While they were great at establishing mood, they also turned out to be a bit of a con, giving a sheen of prestige to truly abysmal efforts like The Village.
But our association of minimalism with auteurism is not simply a matter of habituation. The patterns, repetitions, and structures of minimalist music seem to cut to something these films want to say, but that they lack the means to communicate. The question is of course if they really ought to rely on their music to do the talking for them. The repeating textures and subtle-yet-recognizable variations tend to suggest correspondences, deep affinities between cross-cut scenes — even if they are alone in claiming such correspondences. Minimalism, in other words, is the sound of complexity. It becomes all the more important when image and screenplay aren’t complex.
This is the danger of BRAAAM-style minimalism: not bad soundtracks, but bad filmmaking. These scores can flatter us into believing that what we’re seeing requires careful attention, when in fact it’s really just the music that reads as prestigious. Thanks to the way their sound has evolved, they have tremendous power to suggest portent, mourning, and gloom, when the film itself is just punch-drunk on an unearned sense of its own sophistication. Any soundtrack can sucker us into hearing bad music; BRAAAM at its worst can sucker us into seeing bad films.
As listeners we seem to desire depth, but we prefer that depth to be on the surface. Zimmer’s sound, which moves from earth-shaking BRAAAMs to delicate Glass-style undulations, wants to sound like the concert hall, but in the end is tailor-made for the age of the home theater. BRAAAM doesn’t work your grey matter so much as your subwoofer. Its current prestige indicates that prestige is itself in the process of transforming, and that the limits between art and entertainment are being renegotiated. Our listening competencies are perhaps diminishing, or at least undergoing a fundamental change. Do we have anything to regret, or do we simply answer with a BRAAAM?
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Adrian Daub is professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of four books on German thought and culture in the nineteenth century, as well as (with Charles Kronengold) “The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism” (related story here). He tweets @adriandaub.