It’s Sunday night, June 26, 2016, and a bundle of people are cushioned together in a room in my house. This has become standard for close friends in the last few years. Soon enough, the screen darkens, and we buckle in for the season finale of Game of Thrones. The episode, “Winds of Winter” starts earnestly enough. A quiet, sullen piano enters nearly at the start of the episode, and you get this feeling of uncertainty sweeping over. Now this might be because of the obvious history of GoT and the violence commonly seen throughout its run, but something else is helping the anxiety, perhaps without the viewer even realizing it.
“Light of the Seven” creeps through the scenes, slowly tangling the dread and setting us up for something. We see all the usual characters of Kings Landing. Cersei, silently, patiently waiting for the event she planned to be carried out, Margaery and the High Sparrow, at odds with each other as they unknowingly face their demise, surrounded by everyone else who’s going to be devastated by this. Five minutes in, and the piano’s gradually being pushed out and overshadowed by the beautiful voices of a choir, you know shits about to go down. It does, and while Cersei is smiling at her “victory” the audience is left reeling at the outcome. This is where it all comes together. Yes entertainment is amazing and worth your time, but often the scores are what makes the moment even more real, with the anxiety of hearing a soaring orchestral piece during a pivotal moment in a movie or television show.
Throughout the years on Game of Thrones, Ramin Djawadi not only created a gorgeously laid musical backdrop, but with skill and attention to detail, he and his collaborators were able to make a musical section just as interesting and intricate as the show the music was being created for. This is the gift of a great composer, which is our topic for this month.
Scoring goes back over 100 years, since Camille de Saint-Saëns created the first purely original work for “The Assasination of the Duke de Guise,” but oh how far it has come. What once was an entirely separate thing, now films and music could be combined in a new unique way to enhance the plot of whatever it is you're watching. Ramin, throughout his career has been lucky to find outlets that perfectly hit his epic, grandiose style. Even after the release of Game of Thrones, Djawadi struck gold again when he became the musical lead on Westworld. This ended up not being exactly the same as the works in Game, but the difficulty in bringing a show like this to life also enabled the creators to do something truly different in how we recognize and embrace music.
Much of the works in Westworld are based on well known songs from the past. Bar room ballad versions of classics like “Paint it Black” by the Stones, or even “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead are routinely thrown into the mix of traditional original orchestration, but it's this balance and wherewithal that makes Djawadi’s work so valuable and worthwhile. On GoT this type of work would have felt out of place, but in Westworld, with their androids and illusions, the idea of reworked modern classics fits in all too well to ignore. Beyond Radiohead and the Stones, Westworld features further haunting takes on music from Amy Winehouse, Nine inch Nails, Soundgarden and more. The choices of the songs aren’t happenstance though. They all feed into the idea coveted by the Westworld creators, and further distort the world they created in an effort to bring in the audience in a real, vulnerable way.
As a child growing up, obviously music was important, but once you start to develop your own thoughts and ideas, you find yourself being moved by a multitude of different things. I bring this up because when I was in my late teens, I went to see Gladiator with my father, and while the action is amazing, the music adds so much more weight to whatever scene is taking place. For me, seeing “Gladiator” was a big moment. The scenes were delivered with precision and authenticity, but each major scene is made all the more compelling by the score, which brings us to one of the living legends of film scores, Hans Zimmer. Over his career, Zimmer has composed hundreds of film scores, often at the expense of other lesser composers. His skill is unmatched (to me) in the world of modern composing, and frankly there's little Zimmer can do wrong when entrusted with the responsibility of scoring. Like, maybe you hadn’t thought about it, and this goes for all the composers we’re discussing today, but think about how pivotal a certain film, or scene would be without the magic of the composer working quietly in the background. Take a scene like the van drop from “Inception.”
The drama is full blown by that point in the film, but as the crew performing Inception struggle to find their way, and as the van is dropping into the lake, you hear it. The roaring of “La Vie En Rose” grows stronger as the film and the drop both swell with pressure. It's a captivating scene, but think for a second what that would have been like if not for the musical direction of Zimmer. The scene, as well as the climatic ending, is all propelled and made better by the orchestra's work. Zimmer has done this countless times, but this type of attention to detail and emotion are invaluable to a film production, and it makes the end result all the better.
Everything from Gladiator, to Inception and even comic book films like the Dark Knight trilogy and the ill fated Batman V Superman film (that time working with Dutch composer Junkie XL) all show a composer willing to take chances, usually to the benefit of the aforementioned film. XL is an interesting case by himself, with the producer essentially leaving the world of electronic music to devote time to a myriad of film scoring projects. In this new age, more known musicians outside of the world of composing are looking to capitalize on something different, which only helps the
Around 2007- 2010, the entertainment world started to see more alternative, less conventional musicians bracing to give this a try. Junkie XL was among the first, but was soon overshadowed by the likes of Johnny Greenwood and others. Greenwood first showed his chops by helping to compose the score for the brilliant “There Will Be Blood.” The film, as well as the accompanying score is slow, menacing and builds tension even in the most cautious scenes. Much of this nuance had to be helped by his role in Radiohead, but it speaks to the true musician in him that he was able to latch onto something vastly different and find success. Adeptly self-trained, although he skipped a degree in music, Greenwood has since gone on to score more than a few Paul Thomas Anderson films, among them “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” while also working on compelling thrillers like “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever seen. There’s this scene towards the end of the movie where Kevin, played by Ezra Miller to psychotic perfection is interacting with his mother, after the events of the film have unfolded, and the music is low key, but also very subtle in the way it intensifies the scene. That's the sign of a great composer. One that's able to take the gravity of the scene or film, and make it palpable in a way it wouldn’t be without music.
Even composers like Johann Johannsson from Iceland have been elevating the art form. The film “Mandy,” which was composed by Johannsson is on another level, in every way possible. It's a dark, twisted horror revenge saga that sees Cage brutalizing a cult who took everything from him, but the music in itself is balls to the wall. It's ominous and terrifying when it needs to be, but he’s able to change the musical tone when it needs to. Some early, peaceful narratives showcase lush, thick arrangements that are quite etherall in tone and ultimately make the scenes in question more beautiful, especially when confronted with the carnage we see later in the movie. Other works by Johann are equally powerful, such as “Arrival,” with its future warnings abound for the scientists to untangle.
For much of the movie the music only adds weight to the scenes, never fully stealing the show, that is until the closing, final moments. We learn the truth about the aliens, and we see Amy Adams struggling to explain the events she knows will take place. The reveal musically is astounding and beautiful, and I'm not too proud to say that it struck a nerve in me, leaving me satisfied and sad, as the music brings the tone and pain to the surface.
Now while artists like Johann, Greenwood, and even M83’s Anthony Gonzales have all entered the fray, there's one act that has been most surprising to see behind the composer’s table, no matter how different the work is from the others just mentioned. This is where Trent Reznor and Attitus Ross come into play. Right around the time of “There Will Be Blood,” Reznor was also getting to work in his way. Accompanied by right hand man Attitus Ross, the pair have in the last ten years focused more on scoring than the day job of Nine inch Nails. But it paid in dividends and further broadened Reznor and Ross’ range of depth.
While it started with Fincher’s “Social Network,” you can tell early on they’re just figuring it out as they go. By the second project “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” the duo had sorted it out. That project was also more suited to their previous works than the Social Network was. It was meaner, colder, more rampant with violence and dark undertones. It was right up their alley. The pair also won an Oscar for Film Score, which was a huge accomplishment.
The pair's third effort behind a Fincher film, “Gone Girl,” was probably the best handled, most effective work they’ve done as composers. Much of the score bleeds into the background, the one exception being the riveting, cathartic “Technically, Missing.” The moment is pivotal in the film, as we see Rosamund Pike’s charcter unfoil her undauntingly cruel plan to bring her stupid lackluster husband down for her minimal slights (compared to what he’s put through). The song itself starts off slow enough, but the explosion at the two minute mark thrust you into a wall of disbelief and shock, which is what it was meant to do.
For decades, composers and musicians have been building upon each other to make the best backing music for films and television, and while many have tried, few have truly exceeded in changing the nature of the film score, or how it's prepared. In my opinion everyone mentioned today is a game changer and should be valued. Once again, watch something and try to imagine how different a scene or a film would feel without poignant, thought provoking music guiding our emotions in a primal, but profound way. I guarantee it won’t leave the same effect. Thanks for reading, yall be safe out there! I’ll see you next month with another long ass piece.
Landon Murray is a New Orleans native, who thrives on painting the world he interprets through the useful forms of all types of art he feels connected to. He's seen over 1000 bands, and had loved mostly every minute of it. He has an amazing 10 year old dog, and is loving life.
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