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The Golden Soundtrack


Over the past years HisDarkMaterials.org has covered many aspects of The Golden Compass’ production. However, there was one facet that we had not yet explored: the soundtrack. Since the announcement that Alexandre Desplat would be scoring the movie not one single article had been published which truly shed light on Alexandre’s work on the project. As the soundtrack is one of the most important foundations of any movie we felt it was time to seek answers from the man who would know best: Desplat himself.

About Alexandre

Alexandre Desplat was born in Paris on the 23rd of August 1961 to a Greek mother and French father. In 1985 he made his debut, composing the soundtrack for the movie Ki lo sa?. Recently he has scored such movies as The Queen (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), Syriana, and The Painted Veil (for which he won a Golden Globe).

Typical Composer

When listing soundtrack composers his might not be the first name that comes to mind. Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Harry Gregson-Williams, or Steve Jablonsky feature more prolifically in blockbuster films; Desplat’s closest encounter with such ‘synthesized’ soundtracks would have to be his score for the movie Firewall, and even that is a far cry from soundtracks such as Transformers.

This fact is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because he might not produce the heroic score that people expect to accompany a movie like The Golden Compass. A blessing because his original take on soundtracks might just lead to a score that is not only epic but also rich and intricate.

The analogue with Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore is easily drawn. Shore was arguably even a less celebrated composer then Desplat when he composed The Fellowship of the Ring. Despite that fact, he went on to write three of the most ground breaking soundtracks in the history of film, winning an Academy Award for two of them.

So when New Line announced that they had chosen Alexandre Desplat to score The Golden Compass it didn’t surprise too many people. After all, The Golden Compass is not your typical fantasy movie and sensibly the soundtrack won’t be your everyday score either.

Strange Orchestra

The events in The Golden Compass take place in the world of protagonist Lyra Belacqua; a world like ours, but subtly different: this not only meant that the production designers had to come up with a unique blended set design, but also that the musical styles had to be characteristic and original.

Alexandre used what he calls a ‘strange orchestra’, a blend of end of 19th and 20th century orchestras, with a lot of varied instrumentation. For example, Mrs. Coulter’s motif features a lot of muted brass, accompanied by a high violin; a symphony orchestra backing it up.

He explained that he always picks the instruments very carefully, trying to come up with unusual functions for them. For example, the ‘friendly’ piano sound has paradoxically been used for Ragnar’s theme; to give it the necessary power Desplat used six grand pianos.


One of the main contributing factors to the Lord of the Rings soundtracks’ success was their intricacy. With characters each possessing their own themes, or leitmotifs, the songs were varied and unique; each track clearly told a different part of the story. Just listen to a track such as ‘The Hornburg’, where the elves’ theme is blatantly spliced into middle of the song, announcing their arrival.

His Dark Materials lends itself to this approach very well. The story is riddled with very strong and distinct individuals and entities allowing Desplat to, just as Shore did, opt for a Wagnerian, leitmotif rich score. This means that the score will probably not have the everyday appeal of a Zimmeresque score such as that of Batman Begins, but will potentially yield a magnum opus spanning 1300 pages of one of the greatest novels of our time; although this is easier said than done.


When Alexandre told me about his approach I remarked that the stage and radio adaptations used leitmotifs too, and I wondered if he’d listened to any of them. He replied that he hadn’t come across any of that music, but that he did have a few very strong influences when writing the score. One of them was Peter and the Wolf, as not only was Prokofiev’s piece based on leitmotifs as well, but the story is also about the journey of a child. John Williams was another obvious influence, one of the first composers to compose such large, Wagnerian scores.

Other greats who inspired Desplat are Maurice Jarre, who composed the soundtracks for such epic films as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and Bernard Herrmann, who scored Citizen Kane and Jason and the Argonauts. These form two of Alexandre Desplat’s major influences; as he recalls, they were these “strange, huge, original scores.” More traditional influences include Jean Sibelius (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Sibelius) and Gustav Mahler (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustav_Mahler). Alexandre admires the latter mainly because of his “wide vision of the orchestra”.


Alexandre Desplat and Philip Pullman met each other in May at Cannes. He recalls that “the soundtrack was very undecided then, there were no themes that I was truly happy about. Should dæmons have own themes? Should every theme have a counter theme? In the end… no, however, themes do have counter themes. The dæmons are there. Some melodic lines are very shaped, whilst underneath a lot of things are happening in the orchestra. That way you can complexify the themes, by adding these counterpoints.”

The difficulty with analyzing the storyline of The Golden Compass lies in the fact that not all actors are tangible. Probably the most important overall player is Dust, but we are only familiarized with it indirectly. This did not stop Alexandre from using Dust’s five note theme as the soundtrack’s core: according to him, it embodies the nature of Dust: its deep, pure, mystical, benevolent power. The instrumentation supports this: the orchestra plays on top of gongs and Tibetan singing bowls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singing_bowl ). Even though the scale is not Asian, the influence is noticeable. The theme resonates slowly, spiritually; leading the listener into a kind of trance.

Lyra has a myriad of themes associated with her as well. Not only does she have her own theme, but her courage has a theme, and she shares a theme with Roger as well. The various groups all have their particular themes, so there’s a Gobblers theme, a Somoyed theme etc. Iorek has French horn – here comes the cavalry perhaps?

Composing these themes was basically a “journey to find the right colours.” It wasn’t simply a case of choosing a few notes and instruments. Alexandre remarks that he does not simply want to have “an accordion in Paris; it has to be more subtle, like the subtle knife. You want facets. It’s about mixing colours.” This meant that the Gyptian’s theme consists of a myriad of instruments, ranging from Arabic Tarbukas and Japanese Taikos to Romanian Gypsy clarinets and Italian Mandolins.

Seeing how the Gyptians are based upon the Dutch I enquire about the presence of Dutch elements in the theme. He laughs and remarks that the Dutch only have tulips and cheese… no instruments. Well I suggest, how about using clogs as woodblocks? Sadly this idea doesn’t stick, and Alexandre patiently explains that he based his Gyptians mostly upon Nomads from the desert. Therefore most instruments used in their themes relate to either the nomadic or warrior life.

Desplat remarks that the fun thing about the themes is that they are not just static, but that you can play with them to indicate connections between the characters. For example, when Iorek and Ragnar confront each other, Iorek’s theme goes up one octave, whilst Ragnar’s goes down one. This clearly indicates who the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters are in this conflict.

Then of course there is the fact that this is merely movie one of three. There is very little closure at the end of the first movie, and all the characters in The Golden Compass have to be evaluated in context. As Alexandre explains, you have to ask yourself “What is the character’s journey? Do they change? Do they turn?”

What this means in practice for a character like Lee Scoresby is that you simply cannot assign him a theme and be done with it. He’s not a very recurrent presence in The Golden Compass, so although he has a leitmotif associated with him it’s not yet ‘there’ in terms of climax. The theme will only truly come to its fruition during a certain scene in The Subtle Knife. Desplat tells me that he took great pleasure in “thinking how the music would echo.”


Some of Alexandre Desplat’s favourite scenes to work on were the ones featuring Lyra, especially as he loved working with Dakota. “This little girl, standing in front of so many dangerous situations.” Her combined scenes with Iorek were another thing he enjoyed. Perhaps his two favourite scenes are ones featuring Mrs. Coulter. First of all the shot where Kidman she arrives at the college dinner, and secondly the scene when Lyra and Coulter are in the sky ferry. “[The scenes] are visually amazing, with art direction to die for… Kidman has never been that beautiful.” He laughs: “You’ll notice when you hear the score.”


Were there any Eureka moments when composing the soundtrack? Alexandre explains that before he found the Dust theme he must have written between 50 and 60 hooks, so finding the one he was happy with really was an occasion for celebration. Other eureka moment were the discovery of Billy Costa’s theme, and Lyra and Roger’s theme. Desplat remarks: “Those discoveries are already far behind. I’m currently under the deck; shoveling coal into the engine. My pleasure now comes from standing in front of the orchestra; listening to how it sounds.”


I asked Alexandre about the extra scenes, for example the one where Asriel gets captured, and how composing the music for these worked. He explained that it’s like being presented with a puzzle with a missing piece: “The music has to be in accordance with the overall movie, and it’s just a case of finding connections. You want to emotionally and rhythmically link the soundtrack. You want to have it in place.”


The Golden Compass has turned out to be a project of such a scale that it has the tendency to overwhelm those on the project. I enquire if there wasn’t a point where Alexandre felt like giving up? He remarks that he certainly had those moments; after all, it is his first huge project: “There is this constant anxiety… can you find all the great ideas that you dream of? Can you deliver that epic Hollywood sound? You have doubts; some days without any inspiration.”

Of course, with the project all the normal pressure is a factor 10 greater. I ask him if he would describe it as an iceberg – you can see it coming, but there’s still some 90% that you can’t see. You can’t really know what will emerge. He asks if it isn’t 66% percent that you can’t see? In any case, he does agree with the metaphor.


There have been a lot of script rewrites in the movie, some to make it more accessible to people. I wondered if the temptation was ever there to do that for the soundtrack? Desplat replied that artistically the movie is on a pretty high level, and that he didn’t want to compose the ‘trailer’ type of music, as generally you only watch a trailer once; it’s purpose is to “offer the audience desire.” Once they’re actually viewing the movie it’s about something else entirely. “The story is an intellectual journey. In the foreground you have action and emotion; you can show that in trailer. But behind that … the story, and the music, is esoteric and intricate.”

Alexandre muses if Star Wars had this idea as well? I remark that His Dark Materials doesn’t boil down to a simple Good vs. Evil storyline. It’s something new, scope and material wise. He agrees, adding: “This movie doesn’t give answers, only asks questions. It leaves people wondering, instead of telling people what to think. It’s not a mannequin movie. Who is completely good? Are you always good because you’re Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist? It’s up to everyone to find their own soul.

Comments (1) — Add Yours

I liked the music despite what some say. He has recently been in some big movies as well. I think doing the Golden Compass boosted his career.

# Posted by ArG on 20:19, 3 August 2010

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