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Okay, Well, I Can’t Stop Listening to the Tenet Soundtrack

It’s great working music — transforming the most innocuous chore into a zero-sum action movie climax. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

We know a lot of work goes into the scores for Christopher Nolan’s movies. And we also know that the scores themselves do a lot of work: Several of his films feature pretty much wall-to-wall music, which provides a bed of gentle noise upon which action or dialogue occurs — before seamlessly rising to the fore with thundering percussion and gusts of brass. Sometimes, as in Dunkirk, the score just winds and grinds and quavers low in the background, feeling less like proper music and more like something twisting in the pit of your stomach. This much score is often considered bad form in filmmaking, and I’m sure it drives many of Nolan’s critics crazy. They may feel he’s either cheating or betraying some made-up rule about formal “rigor.” But, personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nolan’s collaborations with Hans Zimmer (such as in the Dark Knight films, Inception, and Interstellar) have been particularly notable, and the composer probably deserves as much credit for those titles’ success as John Williams did for Steven Spielberg’s run of hits in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Zimmer didn’t score Tenet — he was too busy with Dune — so, for his latest effort, Nolan collaborated with the Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, Creed, The Mandalorian), who has taken some of Zimmer’s motifs and ideas and expanded upon them. Indeed, the Tenet score feels largely like a series of creative riffs on Zimmer’s track “Mombassa” from Inception, a fast-moving, highly synthesized piece of music which accompanies a pretty intense foot chase in the film. There are also moments in the Tenet score that playfully evoke Inception’s blaring, much-abused braaahms.

And unlike Tenet the movie, Tenet the score is easy to experience; you could legally listen to it right this minute if you chose to.

You will certainly hear Zimmer’s influence in a track entitled “The Algorithm,” which features an orchestra playing what sounds like a symphonic, staccato version of a techno beat — an old Zimmer trick — through dreamy soundscapes. But Göransson finds ways to make it his own. Instead of blooming into a full crescendo (as it might have in, say, a Batman movie), the track morphs in and out of other forms. At one point, the orchestral rhythm is consumed by a flight of strings, whereupon the piece gives way to a full electronica beat, which is accompanied for a while by melodic, undulating waves of fuzz, before the coup de grace: The orchestra returns (now playing in reverse) and, together with the techno beat, charges forward, drum machines and inverted orchestral swoops all building, building, building …

Nolan likes his soundtracks to not just speak to the themes and narrative turns of his films, but to actually embody them. Interstellar is a movie about death and running out of time, so its score is features ticking clocks accelerating and crashing into funereal organs. Inception’s aforementioned braaahms are, in fact, the extremely slowed-down opening bars of Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien,” the song used to communicate to the film’s dream-thief heroes that they’re about to be awakened. (That the movie itself is all about regret adds an extra level of resonance; returning to the real world requires overcoming one’s crippling remorse.)

Something similar happens with the music for Tenet. Without spoiling too much, the film involves characters who are able to move backward through time so that they experience everything in reverse. To that end, Göransson has said he “wanted to think about how to invert instruments, how to invert an orchestra and how to manipulate sounds so they sound inverted … I experimented with having a live orchestra play my music and reversing the sheet music so they played it backwards. Then, I took the recording and reversed it again, so the result sounds like an orchestra playing backwards in real time.” Along the way, he mixes in external, narratively relevant elements like heartbeats and heavy breathing — and, occasionally, snatches of Travis Scott on a vocoder, borrowed from the singer’s soundtrack single, “The Plan,” which, with its mentions of inversion and Boeing jets and the opera and “red and blue” and “tenants,” seems to function in Tenet not unlike how LL Cool J’s rap song about hyperintelligent sharks functioned in Deep Blue Sea (“Other fish in the sea, but Barracudas ain’t equal / To a half-human predator created by a needle.”)

Because time is a key element in Tenet as well, the score also features layers of rapid percussion and competing rhythms, to impart a sense of time’s acceleration. Göransson then warps and processes those cadences, with different instruments trading them off like a relay race. (I’m not a music writer, so forgive my silly metaphors.) “Posterity,” the score’s most representative track — and, to my mind, its most beautiful — begins with what sounds like a harp forced into a rapid rhythm, punctuated by gentle piano chords. That’s then joined by something that sounds like a tabla gone wild (though it’s probably just another electronic drumbeat) — a hollow, skipping, circular sound, which is processed further and combined with eerie, distant whistles, muffled electric guitars, a driving techno beat, more Moogy blasts of sonic fuzz, all the while keeping its incessant forward motion, speeding towards what seems like an elusive crescendo.

The pieces themselves are often long, but the musical climaxes of Tenet are short, in keeping with the film’s most intriguing narrative conceit: People moving forward in time and those moving backward in time (who are sometimes the same person … long story) only connect for brief, quick instances — and those happen to be the most consequential (and often most moving) moments of the story. Tenet is a long movie, but it’s also fast — maybe even too fast to keep up with at times — and its score is probably the fastest one in Nolan’s filmography. It might also be the most playful, with all those electronic beats giving it the quality of a throwback caper; it could just as easily be the score for Game Night.

I think it’s that constant, spirited, rapid-fire, rat-tat-tat quality of the Tenet score that makes it so exciting. It’s great working music — those remorseless rhythms sound not unlike typewriters and offer great accompaniment for anyone whose job nowadays requires a lot of typing and clicking on computers. There’s an alarming number of us. (Though, yes, it does make great writing music, specifically.) It’s also great running music, great walking music, great just-doing-anything music, transforming the most innocuous household chore into a zero-sum action-movie climax, lending some grandeur to our otherwise increasingly constrained lives — lives so constrained, many of us can’t even freaking see Tenet. Or, to put it in more technical terms: Folding laundry — tick-tick-tick — doing the dishes — tickyticky-tocktock-ticky-tock — scrambling eggs — ticktickitytocktocketytickticktock-tock-TOCK — dishing out those eggs you just scrambled — Bra-BRAAAAHM. It’s enough to make you want to do stuff.

Okay, Well, I Can’t Stop Listening to the Tenet Soundtrack