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How Westworld’s soundtrack echoes its themes

I’ve just finished watching the first season of Westworld, and I enjoyed it very much. I was hooked from the moment it was suggested that there was a deeper mystery within the park, behind all the recorded quests made available to the guests in that real-life version of Zelda or World of Warcraft. The fact that the park’s founder himself (Robert Ford / Anthony Hopkins) didn’t seem to be completely sure about what it was only added to the mystery.

One additional element that gave me a sugar rush throughout was the music. The series’ soundtrack is heavy on piano renditions of modern songs, like No Surprises, Black Hole Sun or Paint It Black. The series’ creator, Jonathan Nolan, explained why here. In any case, the soundtrack is now part of my record collection.

Yet among all these songs, my attention was attracted by an outlier: one classical piece, composed more than a hundred years ago. And, curiously, it is also the only song that has a direct effect on the characters (it is used to soothe the androids). In other terms, the selection of this song was not made at random. So what is it? It is a Debussy piece (opus 68) named… Rêverie.

Now if you have watched the show, you will think that this is an eerie coincidence. I believe it’s more than that. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the use of the (French) word rêverie in the original (English) dialogues is because of the song.

The reason why I believe this comes from the piece itself — from its first few bars. You might not notice it, but the song is off-beat. The first melody you hear is the left hand, going through a simple cycle, up and down and back again (a very mechanical-sounding loop, like a breath). Every time the cycle reaches its top or bottom note, it rests for a full beat. Can you hear it? B-C-D-G… D-C-B… C-D-G… D-C-B…

Then, after two bars, the right hand starts with the main song itself. But curiously, the notes seem to come slightly late, compared to the accompaniment (the left hand). They sound as if the player was responding too slowly, out of touch with the rhythm. This, of course, echoes wonderfully the fact that most of the time, this song is played… by machines (the discarded android in Anthony Hopkins’ office, various gramophones, and of course a tablet or too).

This delay (this “lag”) is voluntary — it comes from Debussy’s original score. If you listen closely to the first bar, you’ll notice that the very first note to the song is a “bottom” note for the accompaniment (a B flat), but instead of resting there for a full beat, it stays only half the usual time (only one quaver, instead of two linked ones, or, if you prefer, “B-C-D-G…” instead of “B… C-D-G…”). Because of this, the song’s real beat always comes half a beat after the top or bottom notes are struck. This creates an imbalance in the song’s rhythm, with the purpose of making it dreamlike (what “rêverie” means in French), slightly disjointed.

The disconnection between the cyclical / mechanical accompaniment and the melody thus reflects the one experienced by the androids, between their programming and the spontaneity that they start to be capable of.

I am certain this choice was completely deliberate.