From timbre to form and even pitch, everything we do in sound and music is about time. And hit movie Dunkirk offers some accessible examples of that.

Some of the most obvious things you can say about music turn out, oddly, to be the most profound. Producer/composer Nicolas Bougaïeff was over in the office here in Berlin the other day to tutor electronic music producers (more on this soon), and one of the things he tried to get across was thinking about time. That is, from the largest element to the smallest, from biggest structure to tiny details of timbre, “all musical parameters are about segmenting time.” As Dr. Nick put it, that’s “adding significance to an infinite stream.”

But that’s a big deal. In the midst of talking about perfect kick drums or which branch of tech-house someone thinks will do well on Beatport, it’s easy to forget what music really does. We change the perception of time by segmenting it with vibrations of air. (Seriously, I imagine you can – and if you love music, should – keep thinking about that for the rest of your life and not ever tire of the issue.)

Now, this can very quickly get academic. So let’s look at an example that you could share with just about anyone – a film score.

VOX has a great piece up this week looking at Dunkirk, the box office smash from director Christopher Nolan. (I’ll leave out film criticism here, apart from saying seriously, feature Indian people next time. But we can focus on sound.)

There’s actually a lot going on here.

First, there’s the fact that Hans Zimmer purposely references time itself with his signature clock-ticking sound. (This somehow works even if Millennials have grown up without mechanical timepieces.) That’s a reminder, perhaps, that nothing is too cliché if deftly handled.

The main feature of the video is Shepard Tone – the illusion of ever-rising tones created by overlapping ascending sounds, barber pole style.

Hans Zimmer has taken that gesture, known mostly from electronic sound, and rendered it in strings. Actually, the glissandi and tick-tock sounds in his work I think bear a striking resemblance to more experimental composer Iannis Xenakis, specifically Metastasis. (Tell me the THX Deep Note doesn’t do that, too!)

Vox does a perfect explanation of the Shepard-Risset Glissando – well, perfect, apart from the narrator incorrectly pronounces “RisseTTT.” French, people. 😉

What they miss is that Zimmer’s score in this case uses the Risset trick, but applied to rhythm, not only pitch. (That’ll be your Risset Accelerando.) That rendition of the illusion is actually even more mind-bending, as you can hear in this example:

Maybe what’s equally interesting is that this gesture is wrapped up in instrumental writing, in timing, and in incidental sound design, too. It’s a local gesture, but also the basis of the larger composition of the film. And it’s in Christopher Nolan’s sound effects, as well.

And there’s an emotional design here, as well. This is about suspense, about what keeps you at the edge of your seat.

I think that’s an ideal reflection for our electronic music creations. Often, we can get caught up in designing a particular sound … or, alternatively, lost in trying to make the form come together.

Here is a reminder that all of this is about dividing up time – and about the way in which that impacts perception and emotion.

So even the microcosm of a single sound can be about the desired sense of mood. And actually, that should be liberating. It’s actually not so academic, after all – the Risset tones are kinetic on the level of something you’d see on a kid’s toy. Think what other rules you might be able to design. You’re free to play directly with the connection of mood and motion, noise as a means of disrupting time.

And on that note, happy music making.

  • polygooner

    As alluded to at the end of the video, Christopher Nolan himself gave Zimmer a watch he had owned, and really like the sound of the ticking. So the idea of a ticking clock was there from the beginning, initiated by the director. And Nolan had determined that he didn’t want to make a conventional war film, but instead a suspense film. To which end he had been watching Hitchock and Clouzot, amongst others. And of course, suspense films often work against a sense of foreboding and time running out.
    This is probably Zimmer’s best score for a long time, devoid of the bombast he can be prone to. But what really makes it work is the combined talents of the sound design and dubbing team. The score is seamlessly interwoven with the FX and atmospheres. To really appreciate I recommend seeing it at an IMAX cinema if you can, where the sound system really shines. The LFE alone is shuddering.