‘Tenet’: how composer Ludwig Göransson perfected the sound of time travel
“When you’re listening to the score, you think you know what you’re hearing, but you don’t”
“It was all about experimentation – I couldn’t go back and listen to how other people had scored a story like this, because there isn’t another story like this,” he says. We’re speaking a few weeks after Nolan’s dazzlingly ambitious thriller bravely opened in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. So far, it’s grossed $285 million globally: probably less than anyone involved would have hoped, but enough to make it the fourth highest-grossing film of this very testing year. Whatever happens next, Tenet will probably end up being 2020’s most talked-about tentpole movie.
For Ludwig Göransson, this experimentation meant going back to the drawing board. “I kind of had to erase as much as I could of the typical ways that I record music,” he explains. Watching a scene involving a puddle of water and John David Washington’s lead character, the Protagonist, proved pivotal to his musical approach. “Before he steps into the puddle, you see the water coming up to the shoe – you see it all in reverse,” he says. “That image to me was so groundbreaking. It set in my mind that I wanted the music to sound like what I saw.”
To achieve this symmetry between inverted music and inverted visuals, Göransson devised a “completely new method of how to make things sound reversed” – one which really tested his musicians. “I recorded three percussionists playing the main rhythm of the theme, then I reversed the recording on my computer,” he recalls. “And I played this for the musicians and asked them to emulate the recording, which is extremely challenging for them. But if you have incredible musicians [like mine], you can get pretty close. So I recorded that and then I reversed it again. And the result of that is as close as you can get to the musicians sounding like they’re actually playing in reverse.”
If Tenet feels like a deliberately bewildering piece of filmmaking from Nolan, who previously bamboozled movie-goers with 2010’s super-trippy Inception, Göransson’s discordant score only enhances its unsettling effect. “The Tenet soundtrack is really very different to what you usually hear in a movie and that’s why it catches your attention,” he says. “It can almost be a shock [to listen to] because the music production is manipulating both organic and electronic elements in a way where you can’t really tell which is which. And they blend together with the sound design, and it’s all very heavily manipulated.” Much like the film’s intricate narrative, Göransson suggests its music could take some time to decipher. “Most of the time when you’re listening to the score, you think you know what it is that you’re hearing, but you don’t,” he says.
Tenet‘s end credits feature its theme song ‘The Plan’, an industrial rap banger performed by Travis Scott. Göransson says the film was “in the final stages of being mixed” when he realised he needed “a new voice” to complete his musical puzzle. Scott was the first artist who came to mind because “I think his voice sounds like it comes from the future” – perfectly apt given Tenet’s narrative – so Nolan gladly brought him into the fold.
“Travis was probably one of the first people in the world to see the movie,” Göransson says. “And his reaction to it was exactly what Chris [Nolan] was looking for. So I gave Travis part of the score – a piece called ‘Trucks In Place’, which is from an action sequence where the Protagonist gets on board a fire truck – and Travis went away and wrote to that. And what he came back with was perfect.” In fact, Nolan and Göransson were so thrilled with what they heard that they took “a snippet of Scott’s voice” and weaved it into key parts of the movie. “That way Travis’s voice became an integral part of the whole thing,” he says.
Having seen Tenet “maybe 40 or 50 times”, Ludwig Göransson says he fully understands what’s going on, but hasn’t become immune to its discombobulating charms yet. “The fantastic thing about the way Chris makes movies is that because they’re so conceptually ambitious, there’s always a real depth to the experience,” he says. “One of my goals in composing this music was to underscore the emotional roadmap and hopefully submerge the audience in the spectacular adventure. So every time I watch it, I just feel like I can just sit back and enjoy this cinematic rollercoaster.”