“Oppenheimer” composer Ludwig Göransson guesstimates there’s “about two and a half hours of music in the film,” which he recorded over the course of five days.
The film marks his second collaboration with Christopher Nolan, after the pair first teamed up on 2020’s “Tenet.” Göransson describes the “Oppenheimer” score as “dynamic.”
“Sometimes, it’s just the use of a singular instrument, and other times we bring in a whole ensemble. It fluctuates,” he says. Nolan’s most ambitious film, about the race to create a nuclear bomb during World War II, in turn became Göransson’s most ambitious score — it was different from anything he had done before.
Göransson says Nolan wanted a violin-heavy score for the film, which stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. “His thought process was that the violin is a fretless instrument. You can go from the most romantic melodic tone and within a split second turn the tremolo into something neurotic and manic,” the musician explains. So he enlisted his wife, Serena, who is also a violinist.
“Violins have been used a lot in horror movies, and Serena and I looked at how to take that technique of horror clusters and turn it on its head into a beautiful melodic vibrato,” Göransson says. “I had never read a script like that before where he immediately puts you in the mind of Oppenheimer. You’re seeing the world through his eyes. Oppenheimer is a genius, but he also has demons in his closet.”
Musically, that meant he had to establish an unsettling tone from the beginning: “You feel this unease in this character, and it shifts.”
Göransson says the score essentially follows three movements to reflect the different phases of the film, as Nolan follows Oppenheimer’s love of physics into the building of the atomic bomb and the Trinity Test in Los Alamos. There’s also the United States Atomic Energy Commission hearing, woven across several timelines, and Oppie’s romance with Kitty (Emily Blunt) and dalliance with Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock.
After Göransson first read the script, and before he started working on the first movement, Nolan invited the composer to an IMAX theater to screen some of the visual experiments he was working on. “I remember being in the theater and being hit with fluorescent lights. That was so jaw-dropping for me, and that’s how I wanted the music to sound,” Göransson says. He knew he needed a live string orchestra, but his biggest challenge was how to capture the energy and movement through tempo.
Göransson explains, “It starts with a haunting melody, which starts off as an intimate solo violin. When you see him in class, there’s one person followed by four people joining him. So we added four violins, and when the whole class shows up, we have an entire orchestra come in.”
For the scene in which physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) asks Oppenheimer if he can “hear the music,” Göransson created a two-minute piece with 21 tempo changes. “I thought we had to do it in segments and record it bar by bar,” he says. “But Serena said, ‘They’re great musicians, why don’t we try different recording techniques and figure out how to do it in one continuous take?’ So, we figured out a way to do it, and that’s why you hear this crazy energy that is causing that momentum.”
Thumping bass and metallic ticking, like a clock, define the second music movement, as the race to build the atomic bomb kicks off. When Oppenheimer and Co. launch the famous Trinity test of the nuclear weapon, the film cuts to silence. “Once he presses the button, there’s no turning back,” Göransson says. “And that’s how it all builds up towards that piece of silence.”
But it wasn’t until Göransson was watching the finished film that he realized he had used no drums at all. “There are some [percussive] elements such as the foot stomps or the explosion, but it’s so cathartic because there aren’t those bombastic sounds,” he says of the decision to use strings, piano and harps to give “Oppenheimer” an emotional core.
For the film’s climactic third act, focused on the aftermath of the bomb and Oppenheimer’s hearing, Nolan asked Göransson to come up with a “20-minute piece of music with a lot of action and high stakes.” As Nolan began editing, he asked Göransson to come up with another 15-minute piece.
Oh, and did he mention the entire score was recorded within five days? “It was a tremendous, crazy recording session, and we had a lot of music to record in a very short amount of time,” Göransson says. “But we did it with an incredible group of live musicians.”
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