The Oscar-winning composer experimented with unique musical inversion techniques, including manipulating guitar sounds and Nolan’s breath.
When composer Ludwig Göransson first met with Christopher Nolan after reading the “Tenet” script to discuss how they were going to implement the time inversion theme for the score, the director already had a musical idea in mind: making the electric guitar sound different. That turned out to be a great catalyst for reverse engineering the musical soundscape.
“I started writing music three or four months before shooting,” said the “Black Panther” Oscar winner, who was available when Hans Zimmer committed to Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Chris was actually in town and we had a lot of time together, listening to demos I created, so we analyzed every little sound, and we started building our sound world very early. When Chris first mentioned that he wanted the guitar to not sound like a guitar, I had to rethink how to record a guitar with a lot of sonic options. That meant layering 100 tracks on top of each other. When we hear the opening scene at the opera house, we have this low, twangy guitar boom.”
There are many ways to invert music, going up and down, but Göransson immediately discovered that the music sounded phony when playing it on the piano. But because he was allowed to attend creative meetings with supervising sound editor Richard King and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, the composer was privy to tackling other inversion issues that could be useful musically. “In order for the reversed fighting scenes to look more interesting, the moves needed to be beautiful,” he said. “It inspired me to invert the music in different ways. I spent six months erasing as much as I could the typical ways that I record music. I wanted to reverse the entropy of an instrument, and to experiment with time signatures.”
Like Zimmer’s “Interstellar” score, which created variations on a theme built around the organ, Göransson constructed his score around a main theme associated with John David Washington’s The Protagonist, emphasizing the electric guitar and synth strings. The result is the most unique hybrid of organic and electronic music ever attempted by the composer. But the revelatory moment for him came when watching the scene where The Protagonist steps into a puddle and the water travels up his leg. “That’s what I wanted the music to sound like,” he said.
That’s when Göransson came up with new methods for how he wanted music to sound in reverse. “One thing that I did was that I recorded three percussion players first in my studio,” he said. “I had them play the main rhythm of the scene. And then I reversed the recording on my computer. And then I played the reverse recording for the musicians and asked them to emulate the recording, which is difficult, but they got pretty close. I recorded that and then I reversed it again.”
And the most elaborate that this process got was for the climactic battle involving two pincer movements from different time periods. This is when the main theme is played by the full orchestra in reverse. “And we did the recording for the cue ‘Posterity,’ back in April, during the lockdown, with 50 musicians self-recording their particular portion in their homes,” Göransson said. “In order to achieve this reverse effect, I first reversed their individual lines, dynamics, and articulations on the page. And then I reversed the audio of those recordings. And I had to layer them on top of each other.”
There was even an opportunity to incorporate the sound of Nolan’s voice into a musical cue for Kenneth Branagh’s baddie, Sator. “We needed a weird sound for Sator, and Chris suggested that I use my breath,” added Göransson. “I tried it and it wasn’t scary enough. So I recorded Chris’ raspy breath and manipulated it to sound scarier.”
Sometimes, a simple sound became the basis for other musical ideas, causing a chain reaction. This was the case when an electronic alarm was created to accompany the sound of a fire truck during the truck heist. Then that sound — a series of synth bass beats — became the basis for the end credits song, “The Plan,” composed with rapper Travis Scott. “I was working on the end credits, but something was missing,” Göransson said. “I wanted it to be a summary song, but in order for it to have an impact, I felt like a new voice needed to come in.
“And I brought up the idea of Travis Scott with Chris because I feel like his voice is from the future. And Chris thought it was a super interesting idea, and we invited Travis to come see the movie. And his reaction was exactly what Chris wanted and they bonded. Then I sent Travis the instrumental for the fire truck scene and he wrote the song over that, which became the end credits. It fit right in and hit the mood of the movie. And I liked the song so much that we took two seconds from the intro — a vocal line that almost sounds like an instrument — and spread that into the main theme of The Protagonist in 12 different scenes.”
Working on “Tenet” became a gamechanger for Göransson and he believes that it has a similar impact on the viewer. “Your brain is already set up to hear certain sounds when you watch a movie today, and Chris wanted to push the boundaries with music,” he said. “And the ‘Tenet’ score is kind of a shock because the music production is manipulating both organic and electronic elements in a way where you can’t really tell the difference.”