Channeling the Sound of Dune's Sisterhood
In the epic film Dune, the Bene Gesserit are a sisterhood of powerful spiritual and social leaders who are able to issue irresistible commands by modulating the frequency of their voices. In the latest incarnation of the classic movie, released last month on HBO and in theaters, these voices emanate not from the otherworld but, in part, from a closet in New Jersey, via Loire Cotler B.M. ’93.
Bringing this Dune storyline to life while her clothes hung down on her head is something “only a true artist could do,” Hans Zimmer, who composed the film's score, said at the New York Film Festival this fall.
In fact, says Cotler, the secluded environment helped her burrow into her sound. “Although for many of the sessions I was alone in my tiny apartment closet, I had the most exhilarating feeling of vast inner world.” She recorded her vocals on an inexpensive laptop microphone, which were later layered with cleaner versions recorded in a studio, creating “the kind of gritty, sandy wind effect that we were after, which of course Hans knew it would work; he kept saying, ‘Just sing into your iPhone!’”
In laying down these tracks, Cotler was part of a far-flung but close-knit team Zimmer put together to develop the uncanny soundscape for Dune. He first asked her to join the group on New Year’s Day in 2020, having worked with her two years prior on X-Men: Dark Phoenix. (Dune’s music department also included Steven Doar B.M. ’14, Omer Benyamin ’15, Stephanie Olmanni B.M. ’08, Alejandro Moros ’17, David Giuli B.M. ’99, Juan Garcia-Herreros ’96, and Garrett Edson B.M. ’19.)
The vocal team—Cotler along with Edie Lehmann Boddicker and Suzanne Waters—only had a couple of months together before lockdown, during which time it worked extensively with Zimmer and the sampling team to create bespoke Dune instruments, Cotler said. “It was an extraordinary and labor-intensive process, and so much fun! We were doing all kinds of insane and adventurous things with our voices.”
"[Cotler] was fearless. I mean, there is commitment in every note. Those are the things that...I [was] hunting down right from the beginning: the spiritual, the female."
“She was fearless,” Zimmer said at the festival. “I mean, there is commitment in every note. Those are the things that Denis [Villeneuve, the film's director] and I were hunting down right from the beginning: the spiritual, the female."
This type of vocal work is exactly Cotler’s territory, who draws on a range of influences that span from the Jewish nigunim tradition to Inuit throat singing. Her process, she said, “always starts with meditation, ritual, and rhythmic breathing. For these characters, I would direct my attention to the wisdom and courage of my female ancestors and allow any rhythmic messages to drive my expressions. This kind of invocation allowed me to unleash a unique vibration and discover a special vocal quality to echo the raw power, passion, and secret wisdom of the Bene Gesserit.”
But before this, she’d get into character by listening to Zimmer, who, she said, has a magical ability to guide musicians to new sounds. “With one evocative word, a single phrase or image, very quickly he could transport my imagination into the unimaginable,” she said.
Her sessions channeling different characters took various paths. One might involve conjuring the character of an elder with a weathered voice. “In this instance,” Colter said, “the note might have been broken, smoky, and slightly off-pitch. Another sister was a highly skilled warrior, gritty but piercing and clear with a hint of ululations.” For other characters she’d use a soft and rounded tone, or low-pitched Tuvan throat singing. Many of these techniques are heard in the track “Song of the Sisters.”
Listen to "Song of the Sisters":
The throat singing is something she’d learned from her frequent musical collaborator, frame drum master Glen Velez. The pair recently released an album, 18 Wings, which features harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy and Eugene Friesen, a professor in Berklee’s String Department.
In addition to this project and film work, Cotler, who majored in professional music at Berklee and earned a master’s degree in musical therapy from New York University, offers therapeutic sessions to a small number of clients while she takes a break from working in hospitals and clinics around New York City. “The healing power of music and my clinical training as a music therapist is the golden thread that connects all of my musical activities. It is an essential component to my work as a vocal teacher, recording artist, and performer,” she said.
Her involvement with the Dune music, too, is ongoing. From February to April, she’ll be on tour with Hans Zimmer Live 2022 in Europe. Collaborating with Zimmer, “the maestro himself,” she said, “...was a stunning thing to experience and truly one of the greatest honors of my life.”