The Musicology of Inception: A Simple Score, or Musical Genius? (Part Two)
II. A Layered Cake of Musical Notes
While much has been said about Christopher Nolan's and Zimmer's attempt to make the music of Inception a character in the narrative of the film via "No Regrets", very little has been said about Zimmer's attempt to make his score reflect a key element of Inception's novum:
the dream within a dream--within a dream. This seems to me to be a gross oversight on the part of critics, particularly those that have criticized Zimmer's limited technicality.1 For the rest of this piece, I am going to focus on "Time," one of the most popular songs from the album, which accurately reflects what I am trying to argue.
What Zimmer's score seems to do most effectively is expand upon the notion of layering within Inception's narrative. Anyone who has seen the film knows that it is a sequence of things built on top of one another, all of which come crashing down in the final moments of the film. Much like the film, Zimmer's song "Time" is also built in layers, but not in the traditional sense of layered musical scores. Most scores, after all, are layered, because they must be in order to accommodate the range of instruments that make for beautiful music. But "Time" is layered in a much different sense, because it does not begin as a sea of harmonic instruments, but as a pair or trio of sounds (a piano and one or two electronic-sounding elements to enhance the deeper tones). The song starts here because it is establishing the basic structure of the entire song, and the structure of the narrative, which we'll come to shortly. Every 32 beats (in 4/4 time, in case you're wondering) is a repetition of that particular layer's contribution to the song, repeating essentially the same 32 beats through all the succeeding layers; these layers typically introduce one to four new instruments, from strings to brass to percussion. All of these elements build and build until the climax, which is a sudden tapering off of all but a reduced form of the strings, the piano at normal, and a heavily reduced monotone base beat that sits underneath the rest, almost as if it were an echo of all that came before. From there, the song is reduced layer by layer until only the piano remains.
Why is all of this important? Because this is the exact structure of the movie, and not in the sense that all movies are a building and building of elements to a climax. No, "Time" is an echo, if you will, of the dreamscape of Inception. The dream within the dream--within the dream. Each addition of a level of dream is as much a repetition of what came before and an addition of something new as the song "Time." Even the tapering off of the song is a mirror of the sudden eruption of the layers by the "kick riding" that occurs.
But "Time" also has a curious placement in Inception, which says something else about how Zimmer's score and Inception's narrative consist of multiple interpretations. In the film, "Time" plays from the moment Cobb "awakes" on the airplane to the moment he sees the faces of his children. To interpret "Time" in this context is somewhat tricky, because it would seem that the layering of the music is not necessarily relevant to Cobb's final moments. Layers, however, do exist for Cobb, not simply because he is a former "architect" (builder of the dreamscapes) or a dreamscaper. The buildup of Cobb's narrative, as I have discussed in part here, is one of psychological elements. Cobb's relationship with his wife and his children, and even those around him, are caught in two fundamentally oppositional elements (in the sense that one is a singular, and the other is a multitude): his obsession with getting back to his children at any cost, and his obsession with the death of his wife, his involvement in it, and his need to change the course of his own history through his memories. The latter of these is most important to the discussion here.
One of the important scenes of the film is also the most telling when it comes to this idea of "layering" in relation to Cobb. When Ariadne descends into Cobb's dreams, she discovers that they are actually a buildup of his fears, regrets, and memories, the last of which have been damaged to varying degrees by the first two. The result is Cobb's mind consists of layers (relayed through the metaphor of an elevator) that are not entirely secure, since most of them can be punctured by the projection of his wife (typically the distorted version of her, which seems to be the strongest). The fact that these issues spill over into the other dreamscapes we're exposed to throughout the film is something worth acknowledging. Cobb's psychological makeup, thus, is affected by its layers and the interaction of his competing desires (children and wife). While those layers are not necessarily building up in the same sense as the climactic dreamscape of the film, they are at least reflected in how Cobb's narrative invades that dreamscape and closes in the same hurried fashion, something I noted earlier in the design of "Time." Since "Time" is as much a reflection of the layering of the narrative as it is an introduction of tension, the end of the song and the sudden burst of emotional closure for Cobb in the end of the film go hand in hand. All that tension between Cobb and his wife, and Cobb and his desire to see his children again, is suddenly suspended when the faces of his children are finally revealed, perhaps behind the mask of the dream, or perhaps in the real world once and for all.
"Time" is not by any means the only song built in layers; many other songs from the album do reflect this element, but "Time" seems to most accurately reflect the structure of the climactic layer of Inception's major dream sequence. What this seems to say about Zimmer's score is that it is an attempt to mimic film narrative by becoming a musical expression of that narrative. Yes, Zimmer is not the only one to do this successfully, and he is certainly not the only one to try, but neither of those are important to discussing why his score seems to work so well with Inception. What is important is acknowledging that the layering and the manipulation of sound that takes place in Zimmer's score are attempts to actively engage with visual medium, to prevent the reduction of song or film to irrelevancy through extraction of either. By this I mean that the music for Inception is sewn into the visual medium; to extract it would be to sever it from its meaning and purpose, both of which music can live without, but at a cost. What that cost is, I'll leave to others to decide.
In the end, I think it would be safe to say that everything I have discussed in regards to Zimmer's score was intentional, because it fits so accurately with Inception's narrative that saying these connections are mere coincidences almost feels like a cop-out. There is something brewing in this musical style. We'll just have to wait for Zimmer's next soundtrack to see where he intends to take it next.
1. There are few times in film score history (or so I think) in which a score so accurately reflects what occurs on screen as Zimmer's score has; even great scores are often overly externalized from the medium, both in the fact that they are sometimes applauded as music, while the film is generally disliked or given less-than-graceful accommodation, and that some scores simply cannot compete with or offer anything extensive to the film narrative, thus turning these scores into set pieces that are only there because they are pretty.
But pretty is not what most critics of Zimmer's score have said. Some individuals have called Zimmer a hack who doesn't necessarily lack the skill to produce "quality" material, but absolutely makes the conscious choice not to do so; as I've said before, most of these critics are missing the point of Zimmer's scores, which is not to create traditional forms of film music, with technical grace, instrumental range, and so on, but to create music that attempts to embed itself into the narrative of the film it is supposed to go with. To be fair to the critics, Zimmer is not always successful at this--no experimenters are.