Saturday, August 2, 2014

Zimmer's "Man of Steel:" an Impossible Balance

It was a couple of days after Christmas, and we were at my in-law’s vacation condo. I quietly crawled into bed between a feverish toddler and an exhausted wife. Both were finally asleep, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, I had a quiet moment. I slipped in a pair of earbuds and pulled up Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack, which I received from my family. I had been looking forward to getting a chance to sit down and listen to it, and although this was not entirely the setting I had anticipated, I did not want to pass it up.

It was as if I had stepped into another world.

From elegant themes that roll like thunder across distant hills to percussive polyrhythms that border on cacophony, Man of Steel is majestic, expansive, and gracefully melodic, and it continues the exploration of sound that Zimmer began on The Dark Knight and sustained into Inception. Across my examination of these soundtracks, I increasingly hold the opinion that Zimmer represents the best in contemporary soundtrack composition. Man of Steel does nothing but reinforce this view, especially the way in which he augments the orchestra without challenging its identity. Twelve drumset players, metal sculptures, and a steel guitar “choir” hardly represent the instrumentation of the average studio orchestra. That he can make this unique ensemble work as a whole is a feat of his artistic vision.

In any ensemble, an essential concern is balance. Musicians playing a group must instinctively play in relationship to another if all the important parts of the composition are to be heard. Man of Steel’s instrumentation, however, makes a true studio quality performance of the soundtrack problematic. For example, there is a certain timbral change in a drum sound when it is hit hard. Man of Steel pervasively employs the power of that sound, but for that many drummers to play that loud in the same acoustic environment as a string section just isn’t acoustically viable. It would change the intensity of the drums, and therefore the nature of the performance, if they were to play quieter or if there were less of them. In the real world, it just doesn’t work.

Man of Steel is, however, a studio construction, with parts recorded separately and assembled in a virtual setting. In the past, this might have set me ill at ease, but I have come to appreciate the amount of abstraction and vision this approach requires. Zimmer does not just rely on abstract soundscapes. Instead he captures performances of his compositions and assembles them to maximize their emotive potential in a supportive, sometimes propulsive harmonic environment. This allows Man of Steel to be both immersive and incredibly powerful while retaining the sound of human hands on instruments.

What I really like about Man of Steel is its noticeable narrative capacity. It tells a story of the film almost as clearly as the film itself. Superman has evolved and changed dramatically over the course of his existence. He has gone from being a strong, bulletproof guy who can jump really high to being nearly godlike. In his more recent history, there has been a general movement to humanize him, and in Man of Steel, the foregrounding of his struggle as an adoptee was particularly touching. A good portion of the movie is centered on Superman's self-discovery, not just of his powers, but his purpose.

For the careful listener, this manifests in the blossoming exploration of just a few simple themes that provide the framework for the entire soundtrack. Variations and extrapolations allow this melodic material, most of which starts as a murmur at the outset, to unfold into something immensely powerful and textured by the end of the listening experience.

Despite the somewhat surreptitious setting in which I gave Man of Steel its first listen, I was thankful that I took the opportunity to listen to it on headphones, because it is best taken in an immersive environment that will highlight its amazing dynamic range and atmospheric depth. Subsequent listens in other environments resulted in shaking rearview mirrors or nervous glances out the back patio door. Not that any of that stopped me – it has been in constant rotation for months. Man of Steel is quite amazing, to the point that is has made other soundtracks I have listened to since sound dated and clichéd.

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