Oppenheimer: A soundtrack with a deafening silence
Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan's biopic about scientist Robert Oppenheimer often hailed as the "father of the atomic bomb", boasts an epic, layered soundtrack. However, its most potent moments arise from its moments of silence.
The narrative of Oppenheimer delves into various aspects of his life, ranging from his early endeavors in Europe to the establishment of the Los Alamos laboratory, the development of atomic bombs wreaking havoc on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his later activism against nuclear proliferation, which significantly shaped his later years. In this intricate tapestry of storytelling, the music and sound design play an indispensable role.
Ludwig Göransson, the mastermind behind the film's OST, skillfully plunges the audience into the tumultuous emotional journey of a man standing on the precipice of unleashing catastrophic potential upon humanity. Meanwhile, the sound design serves as a vehicle for conveying flashbacks, physical phenomena, and the collision of atoms.
According to Parker, Eliza's harp is the oldest known pedal harp still in working condition in the United Kingdom.
The story of the Holtzman instrument begins in Paris in 1777 when it was crafted and first learned to be played by Eliza. Born as Eliza Hancock in India to an upper-class English family, she was Austen's cousin and 14 years her senior. Eliza eventually became Austen's sister-in-law after marrying Jean-François Capot de Feuillide, a captain in the French army, who later became a comte, or 'count.'
As Eliza's love for music grew, she amassed an impressive collection of manuscripts. During the French Revolution, Eliza, her husband, and her mother fled to England via Belgium, where the harp remained. Tragically, her husband returned to Paris and was executed by guillotine in 1794 for supporting the monarchy.
Settling in England and frequently spending time at Chawton House, Eliza went on to marry Austen's brother Henry in 1797, effectively becoming part of the Austen family. Although Eliza's cherished Holtzman harp did not accompany her to England, she continued to pursue her passion for playing the instrument. Eliza passed away in 1813 at the age of 51, with Austen by her side.
It is widely believed that Eliza served as a significant source of inspiration for Austen, influencing several of her characters. In Mansfield Park, the character Mary Crawford, a captivating harpist, is said to have been inspired by Eliza, enchanting men with her performances. Austen wrote in the novel: "Miss Crawford's attractions did not diminish. The harp arrived and only added to her beauty, wit, and good humor; she played with great obligingness, exhibiting a unique expression and taste that suited her well."
Exploring musical depths:
Sound within Nolan's cinematic universe has been characterized by its resonance and commanding presence, often coupled with sweeping musical compositions. In the case of Oppenheimer, the musical score undergoes a transformation, transitioning from a tender and intimate ambiance to a monumental auditory spectacle that amplifies the narrative's intensity.
The foundation of this score is the violin, a versatile instrument that embodies a range of emotions. The film's inaugural track introduces the violin's capacity to shift seamlessly between haunting beauty, screeching descents, and intimate whispers. This sonic diversity effectively draws viewers into Oppenheimer's internal struggle, aligning perfectly with the complexity of his character.
The violin's suitability for depicting such intricacy is unmistakable. Göransson seamlessly weaves a tapestry of musical heritage, infusing the score with techniques that resonate both within cinematic halls and concert settings.
Drawing inspiration from various musical elements, the film establishes parallels with compositions like the "Lacrimosa" from Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor. This technique manifests when the violin echoes a two-note melody upon learning of the bombings in Japan, a simple yet powerful composition that encapsulates the enormity of the situation.
Strings of suspense:
The violin, a fretless instrument, affords performers an array of traditional techniques, including harmonics and vibrato. Harmonics, which manifest when a finger lightly rests on a string while employing the bow, produce a delicate, whistling sound. On the other hand, vibrato, achieved by subtle movements of the wrist or arm, introduces warmth and expressiveness to performances.
Göransson further embraces non-traditional methods, such as tapping the violin's body with the bow. When these diverse techniques coalesce, they cultivate a captivating tension between the violin's warm and brittle tonal qualities.
A poignant classroom scene vividly captures the transformation of violins from a lyrical solo to a full-fledged orchestral display as characters join the narrative. The violins' progression towards tension-laden strings, punctuated by an interplay of rhythms and techniques, underscores the evolving emotional landscape, oscillating between hope, anxiety, and despair. Eventually, the crescendoing horns herald a foreboding warning of impending destruction.
The deafening silence:
Göransson's relentless score envelops approximately two and a half hours of the three-hour film, harmonizing with the sounds that encapsulate Oppenheimer's world. Footsteps reverberate, synthesizers pulse, clocks tick, and the static hum of Geiger counters converge to create an auditory atmosphere teeming with tension, foreboding, and anticipation.
Incorporating rhythmic intricacies such as triplets, Göransson crafts a crescendo of cross-rhythms during the Trinity nuclear test. The orchestral layers, composed of strings adorned with harmonics and rhythmic motifs, coalesce to evoke a sense of escalating momentum, channeling agitation and drama into the narrative's fabric.
The intensity reaches its zenith, eventually culminating in a moment of silence—the very instant the button is pressed. This silence assumes a role as pivotal as the music itself.
As Oppenheimer delivers a speech in the aftermath of the bombings, his rhetoric accompanied by escalating applause and noise, the sudden withdrawal of sound leaves behind a void—a void where his words hang, stripped of their auditory context. This deliberate exclusion of sound draws attention to the gravity of the situation, accentuating the impact of the film's visual storytelling.
In the ebb and flow of dynamic crescendos, our dopamine levels surge in response to heightened anticipation. Abrupt silence, however, bestows moments of concentrated focus. The interplay between the orchestra's richness and utter silence engulfs us in the film's universe, eliciting a cathartic emotional release.
Within these moments of silence, time seems suspended—a poignant reminder of humanity achieved through intimate, unembellished sounds. Throughout the film's extensive runtime, this strategic utilization of silence stands as one of its most potent narrative tools, resonating long after the credits roll.