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Ludwig and the Bomb: An Oppenheimer Symphony

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After Beethoven, few have been the composers named Ludwig. Number two on the list was Ludwig Spohr, reasonably big in his day, though only fourteen years younger than his illustrious predecessor. Spohr’s posthumous reputation makes only the tiniest scratch in the earth darkened by Beethoven’s giant shadow.

Today’s leading Ludwig is Ludwig Göransson, a Swede now settled on Hollywood’s golden shores. Back in 1984 this latter-day Ludwig’s parents had the charming chutzpah to name him after the crazy-haired, hard-of-hearing symphonist. Undaunted by the anxiety of influence (or subjecting their progeny to same), they unleashed their little Ludwig into a musical life that eventually led him to an Oscar for Best Soundtrack and a thriving career scoring for the biggest screen—and the smallest ones too.

Not yet forty, Göransson has the hair (long and often curatedly unkempt) and symphonic ambitions of his namesake. Never mind that before Beethoven turned forty he had churned out far more—and, most would even now claim, far better—music than has Göransson, not least the fateful Fifth Symphony and the joyful “Pastoral” Sixth. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony is made up of a series of lively scenes, among them a brookside flashmob, a technicolor thunderstorm, and a peasant-themed après-party. In other words, a forty-minute extravaganza composed 200 years before the invention of the moving image that is effectively a soundtrack looking for a movie. Luckily, the earlier Ludwig was spared seeing Disney get hold of a stretch of his Sixth for Fantasia of 1940 where he unashamedly used its strain to conjure a floating fairy princess spreading her magic dust over herds of chubby fauns and unicorns and families of pastel Pegasus mommies and babies. This was a long way from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange of 1971, which transformed—disfigured, many would say—the universal brotherhood of Ludwig Van’s 9th into an incitement to sadistic violence.

In 2018 Ludwig G won his Oscar for Black Panther, a film in which only two white actors appear—both of them hit men. That the offscreen composer was white might be thought to buttress a Beethovenian position embracing the universality of music; far-fetched conjectures that Beethoven himself was Black have recently been put to rest.

Göransson’s score for Black Panther had symphonic sweep, choral grandeur, rhythmic energy, and melodic lyricism, these elements often inflected with African touches. The composer collaborated with many African musicians on the project and duly thanked them in his Academy Award acceptance speech, unrushed and heartfelt words that showed him, at least in that public moment, to be a modest and gentle man—a rare breed in Hollywood. Beethoven brandishing the golden statuette as he let loose a defiantly idealistic rant would have made for better television.

Göransson restokes these symphonic fires in Oppenheimer, whose story, like that of Black Panther, turns on a near magical substance. The Black Panther McGuffin is called Vibranium, first seen in the film used to make an axe that is about to be stolen from a museum display case by those two white hit men. Göransson treats the moment when human fingers touch the substance and are instantly elevated into demi-gods with a suspended sonority of electronics and strings, poised as if on the threshold of unimaginable potential and danger.

In Oppenheimer the substance is Uranium. As in Black Panther, this latest soundtrack oscillates between, and cannily combines, the hyperbolically grand and the purposefully grating: cyclic figures of a minimalist stamp spin in place or gallop towards nowhere, heroism abstracted from purpose. Ricocheting figures are imbued with the frenzy of a fly caught between window panes or sub-atomic particles slamming into each other—noise in sympathy with the larger plan of the universe, if there is one.

Oppenheimer is three hours long, the commercially available soundtrack clocks in at half that time, but my impression when watching the movie in a packed theater last Saturday night was that the music is nearly continuous. The exception to this relentless underscoring comes, predictably, with the roaring silence just before the detonation of the test bomb at Trinity in the New Mexico Desert. The Destroyer of Worlds subsequently rings forth all the more deafeningly.

Director Christopher Nolan based his screenplay on the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Nolan wisely chooses not to slog chronologically through thirty years of the title character’s life, from his encounter with the revolutionary theories of quantum mechanics in 1920s Europe, to the left-wing sympathizing and wide-ranging scientific investigations of the 1930s in Berkeley, to World War II and the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, to the Red Scare of the 1950s and the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance that provide the film’s anti-climax. Instead, Nolan folds these events—personal, political, scientific—into a complex matrix whose course might run parallel with Oppenheimer’s modes of thinking: the film is a continuous wave made of narrative particles that jump from one state to the next.

Even though fastidiously opulent in its production design that brings to the screen three decades of mid-century film, clothing, and décor, Oppenheimer embraces the famous dictum “Time is an illusion” pronounced by Einstein (played in the film with a resigned aloofness by Tom Conti), an ancient prophet surpassed by history, wandering not in the desert but across the spreading lawns of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where Oppenheimer will, for a time, serve as director.

Göransson’s music is the invisible force that binds the film’s atomized narrative, bridging those ruptures in narrative fabric when plot elements and competing ideas of history and science collide. The wormhole edits across decades are bridged by the soundtrack. On a broader frame, too, world-changing discoveries and developments in the desert resonate musically across time with the political maneuverings that will be Oppenheimer’s undoing a decade later.

Titles seen at the beginning of the film—“Fission” and “Fusion—” attempt to delineate two temporal zones and create some clarity out of this potential confusion. The “Fission” sections (Europe—Berkeley—Los Alamos) are shot by cinematographer Hoyte von Hoytema in rich color as wet and intoxicating as the cocktails that are served up in quantity. Oppenheimer’s is a chromatic life of scientific and sexual conquest.

“Fusion” brings these together in the later security clearance hearing and is screened in stark black-and-white, as if Oppenheimer’s colorful ambition and chromatic scientific imagination have been depleted by radiation. The bomb has bleached his ruddy cheeks and penetrating blue eyes. The music is worried, elegiac, detached, defeated.

Cillian Murphy plays the title role with disdainful egotism undercut by moral doubts. As with the movie’s fusion/fission sections, his Oppenheimer wants to have it both ways. The monomaniacal scientist can’t help but unleash the destroyer of worlds, the moral philosopher in him wants to stuff the genie back into the lead bottle.

To capture this duality, Göransson generates cyclic motives that evoke the elemental truths but also drive inexorably ahead towards knowledge, however destructive it may be. Ruminations on quantum theory and scientific ambition lead Nolan to generate abstract moving images of arcing colors, that could be sub-atomic particles or the explosions of stars—both subjects that engaged Oppenheimer’s genius. Göransson is adept at creating static sonic backgrounds against which spark rhythms and motives, suggesting scientific insight and human conflict. Hypotheses about the universe at all levels—from atoms to stars—are imbued with metaphorical resonance, as in Göranssons “Gravity Swallows Light,” which begins with a ponderous, time-tested, even Beethovenian, descending bass line marked with tragic inevitability. Scraping sound effects work like grit thrown into the celestial mechanism that produces the harmony of the spheres. In detuning the world, Göransson creates a gnawing anxiety against which yearning melodies disintegrate into resignation and loss.

In the end, when the stardust settles, it is not Göransson the would-be Beethovenian we hear, but instead a hearkening to the synthesized narcosis of the Vangelis of Blade Runner. Another descending bass figure reflexively summons thoughts of Promethean Oppenheimer’s undoing. The music ascends as if on heavenly mushroom clouds pulsing with synthesizer radiation, the cry of the cosmos beyond and the thwack of rotors and missile ignition systems engaging down below. The final sonic portrait is of a man doomed by the successful quest for atomic fire—but a man sainted nonetheless.

Oppenheimer is good for a couple of guffaws at Dr. Atomic’s blinding narcissism, but otherwise delivers no laughs. This fusion of musical sound and moving image is deadly serious stuff.

In 1801 Beethoven wrote the music for a ballet called The Creatures of Prometheus. Its overture still has a place in contemporary symphonic concert life. The thunderbolt opening chords and heroic resolve of the slow introduction make way for an antic allegro that might be heard to parody the overture of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, as if, perhaps, there is something bizarrely comical in stealing fire from the gods and deeding its destructive force to the human race. As in the dark farce of Dr. Strangelove, the world might end not with a bang or whimper, but with a laugh.