Falling Kanji: The Music of the Matrix is Its Own Simulation

One thing’s for sure: you already know the films we’re about to discuss. Whether through child-like wonder, calloused pessimism, or just through Elon Musk’s tweets, you’ve heard of the theory that our reality is just a run-of-the-mill computer simulation. But the idea is now in the mainstream mostly due to the success of a tiny 1999 flick directed by two Australian siblings, starring a Beirut-born Canadian actor and a diverse supporting cast, all heavily featuring vinyl clothing. OK, there aren’t many ways to poorly describe The Matrix, but that’s mostly due to its ubiquitous nature! And said omnipresence in pop culture is in no small measure due to the sounds and songs accompanying it. 

Upon its appearance, and then through its back-to-back sequels, The Matrix has popularized, generalized and overworked the idea of destiny and choice of one’s fate, using the setting of machine-generated simulation as its crutch and selling point alike. The result is one of the most well-known trilogies of all time. Pieces of its dialogue, imagery, and aesthetic have been meme-ed ad nauseam: the Red Pill, I know Kung Fu, Whoa! and bullet dodging, just to name a few. But the impact of its music, a snapshot of its time, if there ever was one, is often overlooked. 

Putting Sounds to Themes

The Wachowskis have created an oeuvre defined by saviors awakened to their true potentials. They then topple oppressive, controlling systems that bind them—the Matrix trilogy, Jupiter Ascending, V for Vendetta. However, their through-line of a non-conforming, third type of characters in a binary world often comes wrapped in elements of emerging, underground culture. The costuming inspired by the club scene, the diversity of the people of Zion, the exaltation of those who have been freed from the inputs of the machines – they all hint at a deeper reality, where people can outwardly be who they are within.  

The music of their films, especially their iconic trilogy, is no different. The song choices and arrangements in the Matrix come from anything but the mainstream. The movies themselves reveal, then analyze, hidden or obstructed worlds to be discovered and changed by their protagonists. That through-line is anticipated and highlighted by the music, mid-to-late nineties anti-system anthems in the breakbeat, rap metal (remember when that was an exciting new thing?), and trip hop genres. The song choices are underpinned throughout by Don Davis’ score, filled with arrangements that include industrial sounds, metallic tunes and sharp incisions that highlight the grandiose scale of the film, as well as its high-brow ideas. 

The world of The Matrix – Elements from our Reality

The first film’s original soundtrack was released in album form. The Matrix: Music from the Motion Picture ended up being something of a hit, even peaking at 7th on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart. The score was released on a separate album. The Matrix: Revolutions received a similar release treatment, while the middle entry in the series, The Matrix: Reloaded, bucked the industry standard by releasing a single 2-disc album featuring both the original soundtrack and score. This serves to further highlight the interconnected nature of the song choices and original score.  

The success of the first film generated significant interest in the release of new material from the world of the Matrix, with animated fare like the obviously titled The Animatrix and Enter the Matrix, a companion videogame for the second and third entries in the franchise. Music and sounds throughout Matrix properties have remained consistent, with the scores of the existing three films being helmed by Don Davis. 

A Trilogy ends, A Quadrilogy is born?

Davis’ musical direction continued to push the Savior myth and religious themes throughout the music of the franchise, further anchoring Neo’s story in a Messianic pattern. However, none of the musical arrangements found on the cinematic trilogy’s scores is more poignant and literal of that idea than Neodammerung. The song, translating loosely to “twilight of Neo,” accompanies the final duel in the Matrix between an overpowered, albeit pessimistic demigod of the medium, and the liberated and domination-bound Agent Smith, both of them creations of their previous interactions. The chanting accompanying the bout between the two foes is taken directly from the Upanishads, furthering the hero myth to textual levels. Here, the Matrix combines with one of its main source texts, questioning our role in the reality we inhabit. 

What’s next for our reality (aka this increasingly unlikely series of events)? Well, the Wachowskis are cooking up a fourth iteration of their magnum opus, with Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Jada Pinkett-Smith, while new faces have been recruited to continue the saga: Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Priyanka Chopra and Neil Patrick Harris, to name a few. Lana Wachowski has worked on the new entry with returning creative partner David Mitchell, writer of Cloud Atlas and screenwriter of the Wachowskis’ Sense8 Netflix series, where interconnectivity is an essential theme. 

The musical aspects of the sequel are unclear, but it will be fascinating to see how, two decades onward, changes in music genres and pop patterns will inform choices. What will be the sounds and influences to convey the continuation of our journey in, around, but especially out of the Matrix? 

The Matrix 4 is set to be released in theaters and the HBO Max streaming platform on December 21, 2021. 

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