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Oppenheimer soundtrack: why does the violin play such a prominent role?

by Madonna

Oppenheimer is one of the most anticipated films of summer 2023, with IMAX cinemas selling out ahead of its opening weekend on Friday 21 July and critics praising its soundtrack ahead of the release.

The three-hour-long biopic directed by Christopher Nolan follows the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist and the so-called ‘father of the atomic bomb’.

For a film this powerful, an equally commanding soundtrack is a must and viewers are met with a violin-heavy epic orchestral montage of pain, grief, drama and anxiety. Almost as equally important as the music is the silence purposefully utilised throughout the score, often leaving the audience with a mixture of unease, dread, and anticipation.

Starring Cillian Murphy as the titular Dr Oppenheimer, the soundtrack follows his innermost thoughts and turmoil, using a range of musical techniques to highlight this rollercoaster of emotions.

Take a (spoiler-free) dive into the soundworld of this intimate film and learn more about the composer who was given the unimaginable task of scoring one of history’s most horrific acts of war.

Who wrote the soundtrack for Oppenheimer?

The Oppenheimer soundtrack was written by Swedish composer, Ludwig Göransson, the latest in a string of high-profile projects for the rising-star composer.

The 38-year-old musician is a highly acclaimed composer and producer, with an Oscar, two Emmys, and three Grammys as proof of his prowess.

Recent highlights include composing the music for the runaway Disney+ success, The Mandalorian, and Marvel’s box-office-shattering Black Panther and its sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. It was for his score for the first of the Black Panther films that Göransson received his Academy Award for Best Original Score.

Göransson and Nolan previously collaborated on the director’s 2020 film, Tenet, and this prior relationship set up their partnership for Oppenheimer.

On two tracks, Trinity and Something More Important, additional music was written by American composer Thomas Kotcheff alongside Göransson.

What instruments feature in the soundtrack for Oppenheimer?

While silence is one of the most powerful features employed throughout the three-hour-long film epic, the instrumentation choices on the soundtrack are just as important and central to the plot of Oppenheimer.

The violin features heavily throughout Göransson’s soundtrack and was an instrument sure to be embodied deep within the film from the get-go.

While Nolan gave Göransson mostly free rein on the compositional aspects of the film, he did have one suggestion for the Swedish musician’s soundtrack.

In a video interview with the Universal Pictures marketing team, Nolan said, “I had no preconceptions about the music for the film. All I had was the idea of basing the score on the violin.”

Göransson highlights the tonal choices a violin-based soundtrack gave him in the video interview, revealing, “There’s so much in the performance of the violin. Within a second you can go from something beautiful to something completely horrifying.

“And there’s attention to the sound in a way that I think fits the highly strong intellect and emotion of Oppenheimer very well.”

Göransson’s wife is violinist Serena McKinney, and together, the musical power couple explored how micro-tonal shifts, glissandos, and intense vibrato could bring out the instrument’s acoustic emotions within the film’s soundtrack.

The Swedish composer described the soundworld they unearthed as one that travelled from “the depths of an intimately personal journey to the brink of utter destruction”.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Göransson said that the music he recorded “surpassed what I believed to be humanly possible”.

Underscoring visuals of atoms spinning, Göransson describes how the score sends “forty violins into a breathtaking frenzy”. The string instrument remains a prominent part of the wider epic orchestral web that accompanies all the drama and destruction following Oppenheimer throughout the film.

Göransson also hides the rhythmic beat of a Geiger counter (a piece of equipment used to measure radiation, and highly associated with nuclear industry) throughout his musical writing, with the pattern weaved tightly into the soundtrack.

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