Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Movie Music Musings: The Matrix Trilogy Part 1

Let’s travel back to the 1990s era of film music. The biggest film and film score of the decade was Titanic and James Horner was at the top of his game providing scores for other big films like Braveheart, Legends of the Fall and Apollo 13.  Hans Zimmer was perfecting his action sound that would dominate the next couple decades. But in the 90s he was giving us great scores like The Lion King, The Thin Red Line, and The Rock. David Arnold was blowing us away with explosive scores to Stargate, Independence Day and Tomorrow Never Dies. Jerry Goldsmith was cranking out the scores as diverse as Star Trek: First Contact, First Knight, Congo and L.A. Confidential. Of course you had John Williams who was hard at work with scores like Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Amastad. But all of us film geeks were waiting for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. And that is just a sampling, but you get the idea.

Out of nowhere came the score to The Matrix and it was like none of these other scores. It was like no other film score: period. The closest you could come would be some of the more experimental scores from the 1960s and 1970s, like Goldsmith’s score to Planet of the Apes or Rosenman’s score to Fantastic Voyage. But even that comparison doesn’t really work, because The Matrix uses much more modern electronics and styles. It sounds a bit like the work of Eliot Goldenthal (who created the wonderful score to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and some of the key music in Heat). Still composer Don Davis gave this score a unique sound.

Davis wasn’t new to the film score business, but he often worked behind the scenes as an orchestrator, and had composed for television on a number of occasions. In this case the directors (the Wachoski brothers) gave Davis creative freedom, only asking that The Matrix not sound like any other current blockbuster film score.

The 1990s were heavily influenced by Williams’ impact in the 1980s, with big themes and orchestral action carrying the day. Electronics were falling out of favor for the most part (Zimmer being the big exception). So Davis chose to score The Matrix using primarily dissonance, layers of sounds that conflict and yet work together, and electronics that seem to seethe under the score. Davis warps some of the orchestral sounds, especially when “reality” is warped in the film. He also uses a bit of choral accompaniment to add punch to key scenes.

There are a few motifs in the film. There is the familiar theme for the Matrix itself, heard in opening credits (and in the same place in all the sequels). Davis will pull this battle of two discordant notes out whenever the Matrix was being manipulated. There is a electronic burbling used when Agent Smith is on the screen, a very unsettling sound. Finally there is a hint of a love theme that would mature over the next two sequels.

The score to The Matrix plays more like a suspense and horror score. Davis creates tension and unease in the music by layering dissonant music and building it up. The first half of the score is dominated by this intricate and disturbing music. Later on when the action material kicks in, the music becomes dense and furious. The result is not traditionally bombastic but powerful and not in the overtly masculine way that Zimmer pioneered.  I love the track Ontological Shock. It shows off the action writing, the Matrix moments and a bit of bombast as our heroes rescue Morpheus from Agent Smith’s clutches.

Davis wasn’t responsible for any of the techno music use in The Matrix. Since his work was so dissonant, most people remember only the techno tracks used in the film. This is a bit of a shame, because the score is a real gem, standing alone at the end of the 90s.

Varese Sarabande released a very short score only album at the time of the films release. It clocked in at 30 minutes but was missing some of the more intense music from the end, as well as the music when Neo learns and executes his Kung Fu. There was also a song compilation CD, which I could talk about… but I won’t. Instead I’ll mention that in 2008, Varase Sarabande released a limited edition of the complete score to the Matrix clocking in at a healthy 78 minutes. Yeah, it’s a bit of an overkill as a complete listen, but a very nice hour long edit can be made from this version and it gives you a nice taste of Davis’ intricate work.

But this wasn't the end of the series of Don Davis' wonderful music. He would continue to evolve this unique sound in Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions.


  1. Movie scores still are not only a niche market, but widely regarded as a niche art form, even though much of the work is remarkable -- and thanks again for calling attention to various pieces. I wonder if in a century or so the work will be better appreciated.

    1. You make a good point. I remember in college I had a classmate who felt that movie music was like opera music of the 1700s. At the time it was cranked out and while some composers were regarded well at the time, it was just kinda there. But jump forward a few hundred years and suddenly these classic operas and symphonies are gold standards.

      I could see film music going down that route. The styles have evolved so much over the decades, and there are so many types of film music it can be argued that film music is not really a genre unto itself.

      Then something like "The Matrix" comes along and doesn't fit in any of the standards. But I think that is what makes it (and its follow up scores) so interesting and worth seeking out.

      Glad you are enjoying these ramblings. I'm enjoying writing them. I think 2014 is turning out to be the movie music year for this blog. :)

  2. I enjoy your reviews and enthusiasm for soundtracks although I don't buy a lot of them--I generally prefer their cousin, classical. However, I do own a few of them. A Clockwork Orange is one of my favorite ones probably due to the classical interpretations on it. In the documentary film, Cinemania, one of the main characters has a rather large collection of vinyl soundtracks (yet no turntable to play them on). Since I'm a big music fan though, it certainly got my attention when he started pulling out a few choice albums and commented on them and their composers.

    1. Glad you're finding them interesting. It is an aspect of film making that gets overlooked sometimes.

      I enjoy classical music a great deal too, but I'm less well versed in it. I think what appeals to me about film scores is the story telling aspect of the music. Classical does this too of course. But when you get a real master of musical storytelling like Goldsmith, Williams, Herrmann or Rozsa - it really is an amazing thing to hear. These guys could score the surface action and the emotional context, usually at the same time. It is one of the things I admire about Goldsmith. He could use two themes in counterpoint to create this vibrant listening experience. It would support the action on screen, but add another layer to the emotions.