When audiences settle in for the unsettlingly gorgeous horrors of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, they are treated not only to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s acclaimed portrayal of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was tricked into slavery and eventually wrote a memoir about his experience, but also to a score by very busy film composer Hans Zimmer. Parts of which, some have noticed, sound weirdly similar to past film scores by Zimmer for very different movies. In particular, the new score has reminded many people of the music for Inception. Is Hans Zimmer repeating himself?
To be fair, the trouble started with a trailer for the film, which actually used music from an even earlier Zimmer score, The Thin Red Line, for its dramatic final minute. That’s not self-plagiarism: It’s common practice for trailers to use tracks from older films for their emotional associations, especially because often the new film’s music is still being written when the trailer is cut.
But that doesn’t explain the curious cue in 12 Years itself. Titled “Solomon” on the soundtrack, the moving riff features a hymn-like progression consisting of five distinct chords grouped into hypnotically circling four-chord groups. (For music readers, we’re in the key of F major, but starting on a pleasingly uncertain B-flat chord that moves through D-minor, F, C, and sometimes G-minor for added pathos.) The strings slide hazily through multiple voicings—i.e., the various ways you can stack the notes of a chord—adding internal counterpoint and volume shifts for cinematic color. All in all, it is, in its simplicity, a lovely theme.
But then, so is Zimmer’s most popular cue from Inception, called “Time.” Even simpler harmonically than “Solomon,” that theme consists of only four chords (G-minor, D-minor, F, C) that cycle endlessly through an eight-measure pattern. The drama of the music comes, again, from the layers of interlocking counterpoint—in strings, guitars, brass, drums, and voice—that Zimmer gradually adds on top of that basic structure. It’s undeniably catchy, though the magic does fade a little when you realize that Johnny Marr only gets to play that jangly four-note groove:
But given that Zimmer is a “minimalist composer with a maximalist production sense,” criticizing his music for lacking complexity would be foolish. Instead, it’s on the listener to tune in to the subtlety inherent to minimalism. To wit: While the 12 Years and Inception theme are very similar harmonically, they are not the same. Indeed, if anything, the 12 Years score represents a further iteration of a bold, cinematic signature sound that Zimmer has been crafting for years. To my ear, Zimmer in his dramatic mode—and he has others—works much like a sculptor of sugar, coaxing the most fantastic shapes and colors out of very basic materials. We already know he favors simple, trance-like chord loops. But his real talent appears when he uses these in a modern, quasi-minimalist riff on a very old and very popular classical form, known variously as the chaconne or passacaglia. Academics quibble about the details, but the technique is basically this: Lay down a relatively short harmonic progression, set it repeating incessantly, and layer some other instrumental voices on top to add variation, usually of increasing complexity over time.
Zimmer has exploited the general idea of the passacaglia to great effect; examples beyond 12 Years, Thin Red Line, and Inception, include The Da Vinci Code and Man of Steel. Within that form, he’s developed certain tricks that are instantly identifiable—and that beautifully suit the emotional economy of the movies. Listen, for instance, for his bittersweet suspensions—a figure wherein one anchor note sounds and then a line of notes descends away from it, at first dissonant and then resolving nicely—which are present in both Inception and Thin Red Line.
All of which is to say that, like any successful film composer, Zimmer has established a style that not only sounds good, but also fits the type of (dark, apocalyptic, yearning-for-hope) movies being made today. Remember when Danny Elfman’s “thing” was the dark, quirky, demented waltz in movies like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Similarly, Zimmer’s is the grand, slow-burn passacaglia, and he will undoubtedly be called on to produce it again in the future. I look forward to hearing what he does with it next.