Electrifying Cellist Tina Guo Plays an Integral Role in ‘Dune’ and Other Scores by Hans Zimmer

In the past 15 years, Guo and the German-born composer have collaborated on numerous projects, both in the studio and onstage

By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

“I love that film and soundtrack music aren’t limited by preconceptions or genres,” says cellist, composer, software developer, and entrepreneur Tina Guo, 38, whose extensive film work includes the 2022 Academy Award–winning soundtrack to Dune. “Anything goes, and experimentation or seeking to always do something new is so wonderful and so exhilarating—depending on the project, anything from classical to electronic to heavy metal to country to new age to tribal to jazz. Literally anything. People used to tell me that I should ‘stick with one genre,’ but this is the perfect playground for me to release all of my creative energy.” 


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Yet, as a first-year student of classical cello at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, home to the Hollywood film industry, Guo never gave film work a second thought. She’d left home at 18 and moved to L.A., with “no money, no friends, and no cello,” she told VoyageLA. “I was focused on just trying to make money, playing classical concerts as a soloist, which I started doing my freshman year, and dreaming of one day becoming a metal electric cellist,” she says, noting an affinity for heavy metal, industrial, and tribal music. “I started recording on some student-film soundtracks for composers in the USC Film Scoring program—the first experience I had in the studio—and I found it fun to sight-read and record music on the spot. But it wasn’t something I had intentionally focused on.”

Tina Guo with electric cello
Photo: Pasha Riger

That changed in 2009 when renowned film composer Hans Zimmer came knocking. Guo already had solid credentials as a rock-cello goddess, performing in face paint and provocative, futuristic costumes, touring Australia in 2007 with the all-female crossover band Metaphor, and playing with the Foo Fighters for a televised audience of millions at the 2008 Grammy Awards. Zimmer—who has racked up four Grammy Awards and two Oscars (for The Lion King and Dune)—had watched Guo’s theatrical “Queen Bee” YouTube music video, her first electric, heavy-metal cello video. He was impressed—the video had won Best Short Film/Music Video at the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival and a downloadable version of the song was included in Rock Band for Xbox and PlayStation 3.

“He reached out and asked if I would be interested in recording on [the soundtrack of] Sherlock Holmes, which ended up being on the acoustic cello,” she says of those sessions.

Zimmer would keep her on speed dial. In the past 15 years, Guo and the German-born composer have collaborated on numerous projects, both in the studio and onstage: In 2016, she cowrote, with Zimmer, and played the cello solo on the “Wonder Woman Main Theme,” for the Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice soundtrack, which also was featured the following year on the Wonder Woman standalone film, and subsequently on the 2020 sequel Wonder Woman 1984.

“Hans was working on Batman v. Superman with his team at Remote Control Production to compose the new theme for Wonder Woman, who appears at the end of the movie to save the day. He had ideas of the warrior vibe and energy and asked me to come in,” says Guo. “I brought my electric cello, and we proceeded to play around with ideas, bouncing back and forth until the ‘Theme’ was created in about an hour. Then, we recorded the main riff over and over and over again, which is the real trick, to get the perfect performance, and then we used additional sound processing and multitracking to create the tone. I’ve learned so much from Hans about production and sound design, not just playing notes, but also that the quality of the sound and tone makes such a huge difference. Various arrangements and variations were then created and recorded for the different scenes where the ‘Theme’ would appear.”


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More recently, Guo can be heard on Dune: Part Two, set for theatrical release on March 1, following a long delay due to last year’s SAG-AFTRA strike. “Hans loves to seek out collaborators with their own unique perspective and voice,” she says. “He has ‘discovered’ so many amazing musicians on YouTube that he works with now. I love that he’s fearless and very rebellious, and I think we connected on that energetically in the way we approach art. Like any friendship, our relationship has deepened over time and the workflow improves with each project we work on, whether that’s remotely or in person. I appreciate Hans’ trust in my ideas and my approach, and it’s always an exciting process working with him as he’s able to pull out performances and sounds I never imagined before!”

Hans Zimmer and Tina Guo recording the Dune soundtrack
Hans Zimmer and Tina Guo recording the Dune soundtrack. Courtesy of Tina Guo

Guo, a Grammy-nominated cellist and BRIT Female Artist of the Year, has a rebellious streak of her own. She grew up in Shanghai, China. Her parents—the concert cellist Lu-Yan Guo and her concert violinist mother, Fei-Fei Soong, now co-artistic directors of the California International Music and Art Festival—introduced their daughter to classical piano at age three. Two years later, after moving to the States, Tina began studying classical violin under her mother. At seven, her father introduced Tina to cello. “I was forced into the family trade,” she says. “Daily cello lessons and eight hours a day of mandatory practice made for a miserable childhood, but a grateful adult.”

As a teen, Guo began exploring rock and experimental music, including the regional tribal music of China and Mongolia. But she has nurtured her classical roots as well, appearing as a soloist with prominent symphonies and performing Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet with violinist Midori Goto at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

I first encountered Guo a few years ago while writing a Teen Strings article about string players who bedazzle their gear. She already had a vibrant solo career, having fulfilled her childhood dream of playing rock cello. Her latest single is “The Water Phoenix,” an original tribal-rock tune influenced by her Chinese heritage and released on her own label, Guo Industries [see “Guo Goes Solo,” below]. You may unknowingly be familiar with Guo’s playing, even if you’ve never seen her in concert or listened to her solo albums. She appeared onstage a decade ago with Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, with which she performed from 2011–14, and her cello solos can be heard on the popular Call of Duty video game series. Guo’s extensive credits as a soloist also include such film, TV, and game scores as Dunkirk, Inception, Iron Man 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Boss Baby, Clash of the Titans, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Olympus Has Fallen, Escape Plan, CSI:NY, Vikings, The Borgias, League of Legends, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, III, and IV, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and Extinction.

All of this activity has helped fuel a social-media presence in excess of 1.8 million followers. “Social media is extremely important for the modern-day musician when it comes to marketing and having direct, authentic contact with your audience,” she says. “I don’t think of it as something separate from me, but just simply sharing my art and what I’m working on, as well as parts of my life. It’s funny because I started doing [social media] in 2004, before there was Twitter or Instagram, and in the very early days of Facebook, which was a college site at the time. I would post photos of myself and the things I was doing, snippets of me playing the cello and, of course, got lots of terrible comments asking why I always posted about myself. I thought that I was sharing my music and life! Like an online blog. So I guess I just do this naturally, and it has been an amazing tool to be able to reach so many people directly. Without the internet and social media, I would not have a career that is even a fraction of what it is, since if no one knows who you are or what you’re doing, how can they ‘discover’ you or care about your music?” 

Tina Guo Playing cello on Dune soundtrack
Playing cello on Dune soundtrack. Courtesy of Tina Guo.

Dune—and its follow-up—and Guo’s concert performances with Zimmer have amplified her professional profile even further. After all, the second installment of filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s epic two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s complex sci-fi novel about the power struggle for control of an interplanetary trade in addictive spice is one of the most anticipated films of 2024. Villeneuve and Zimmer previously had worked together on Blade Runner 2049. Guo’s contributions to Dune’s otherworldly soundtrack, released initially in 2021, began during the Covid lockdown with the creation of an extensive sample library of cello sounds. “Dune was recorded remotely during the pandemic,” she says of the first film’s soundtrack, “and I did 51 hours of recording on electric cello for the melodic parts, as well as lots of multitracked acoustic cello.”


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When asked to describe a typical day working with Zimmer, Guo notes that every project is different. “I love that there is no set formula,” she says. “On Dune and Dune: Part Two, he asked for alien-esque sounds and ideas that would be appropriate. So I and the other musicians developed ideas, and I created custom sounds using my digital processors, which were then sampled and turned into a custom virtual instrument. From there, Hans used the robot version of me to write ideas, and later on, I would replace, record on top of, and expand on those ideas. Some of it is written out with exact notation, and some of it is freestyle.” 

Dune is Zimmer’s most experimental score and a risky departure from the orchestral sound he used for the scores of Gladiator or the blockbuster sci-fi films Inception and Interstellar. “Whenever I see a science-fiction movie or anything that’s set in the future or in a galaxy far, far away, it doesn’t matter how beautiful and how brilliant the music is written, it’s still like, ‘Here come the strings. Here comes the French horn,’” Zimmer told Entertainment Weekly

The New York Times has dubbed the Dune soundtrack Zimmer’s most unorthodox and most provocative to date: “Along with synthesizers, you can hear scraping metal, Indian bamboo flutes, Irish whistles, a juddering drum phrase that Zimmer calls an ‘anti-groove,’ seismic rumbles of distorted guitar, a war horn that is actually a cello, and singing that defies Western musical notation—just to name a few of its disparate elements.”

Guo says working on the Dune soundtracks was a master class in film scoring. “I love that score!” she says. “Hans has always said that the hardest thing to do is to be simple—simple and memorable. And this was something that took me a long time to adjust to, since I had a desire to be complicated, to show off technique with lots of notes. But something that people can hear a couple of times and immediately remember, that’s the hardest thing to do. I think that the score of Dune had such an incredible, unique sound, unlike any other score by anyone, including Hans.”


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Tina Guo filming The Water Phoenix video
Tina Guo filming The Water Phoenix video. Viktorija Pashuta Photography.

When she’s not recording film scores, or at her home studio finishing up a cello sample library for a soon-to-be-launched iOS app, Guo can be found onstage delivering high-octane performances with Zimmer, a martini shaker and fluted glass poised on his piano. The newly released album Hans Zimmer Live by Hans Zimmer & the Disruptive Collective captures some of their concert performances. “Being able to tour with Hans Zimmer Live since 2016 has been such an incredible thrill, to be able to play the music onstage with so many incredible musicians, out of the studio and directly connected with people,” Guo says. “I love performing! It’s when I feel most in the flow, when all of the preparation and practice, the daily nonstop admin and business and marketing, etcetera, that I do stops, and the only thing that exists in that moment is sharing the music with whoever is watching and listening. Every human is different—some are aggressive, some shy, some expressive, some stoic—and it’s all beautiful. I love that onstage, and in music, you can hear and see who someone is at their core. There’s no hiding when it’s just you and your instrument, channeling that spirit.”

Guo Goes Solo

“The Water Phoenix” single, featuring Berklee-trained heavy metal scream master Voodoo Kungfu, is the inaugural entry from Tina Guo’s Prehistoric Tribal Music Project. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years, but couldn’t, due to my record contract with Sony Music,” she says. “It was a great relationship, but I need freedom to create more music more often, and in more genres, to be able to explore and to experiment.”

The single is Guo’s vision of what prehistoric music in the East Asian region sounded like 1.7 million years ago, during the time of the Yuanmou Man, the oldest human fossil found in Yunnan Province in Southwestern China and a member of the Homo erectus species. “My personal genetic background is predominantly from the Han tribe of modern-day China,” Guo explains. “I’m 94 percent Chinese, 3 percent Korean, 2 percent Mongolian, and 1 percent Northern Indian/Pakastani. Technically, ‘Chinese’ is not an ethnicity, but a modern-day region—the people of China are comprised of 56 ethnic groups and tribes and 92 percent of modern-day Chinese are descendants of the Han people. I’ve gotten some comments that ‘The Water Phoenix’ sounds Mongolian or Turkish, which is wonderful because I imagine that tribal, ancient music by pre-civilization cave people was likely very similar, as we all came from the same place. This music combines my love for tribal music and, of course, it’s a wonderful opportunity to embody and channel the most primal parts of myself through the music and the visuals.”


What Tina Guo Plays

Acoustic: An 1878 cello by French violin makers Gand and Bernardel; a 2013 Ole Kanestrom bow with a woolly mammoth ivory tip; and Larsen Magnacore strings.

Electric: Triceratone built by Charles Chaz La Brecque, commissioned by Anze Rozman, Kara Talve, Hans Zimmer, Russell Emanuel, and Bleeding Fingers Music for Apple TV’s Prehistoric Planet Series.
Yamaha SVC 210 electric cellos (in concert, she switches between five different cellos, each a different color and with various accessories); “random” carbon-fiber bows, including the lightweight Tina Guo Premium Braided Carbon-Fiber Bow, with synthetic hair (she breaks them a lot, so she owns ten at any given time); a Line 6 Helix effects processor; and Analysis Plus pro-audio cables.