Ramin Djawadi: Composing for 'Game of Thrones'

Game of Thrones composer talks about the musical challenges of bringing the Seven Kingdoms to life, on the screen and onstage
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Game of Thrones composer talks about the musical challenges of bringing the Seven Kingdoms to life, on the screen and onstage
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German-born, Los Angeles-based composer Ramin Djawadi has been mapping a wide-ranging musical topography almost since birth—learning to play piano by ear at four, studying classical arrangements, bending guitar strings and tones in a band, immersing himself in Middle Eastern instrumentals, completing foundational studies at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, before taking a transatlantic leap and apprenticing under Hans Zimmer.

This led to many collaborations and eventually breakthrough works for Blade: Trinity and the first Iron Man film. So, when HBO and Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss approached him about scoring the show, which debuted in 2011 and has completed six seasons, Djawadi drew on boundary-free creativity to journey across fantastical lands and commanding personalities through musical blends.

Taking advantage of the tracking rooms and custom sound library at Remote Control Productions, Hans Zimmer’s Santa Monica-based post-production facility where he maintains his studio, Djawadi adds new language to the show’s musical vocabulary of conspiring melodies, haunted keys, and unpredictable sonic impact. Whether recording stringed instruments or keys, comping prepared piano, musical antiquities and sound effects, or writing for small ensembles and full orchestra, Djawadi doesn’t worry about drawing on any singular period or place so much as enhancing sweeping tension throughout the Seven Kingdoms and beyond.

In 2016 new Djawadi works could be heard not just in Game of Thrones, but also in the Warcraft movie, as well as HBO’s Westworld series. In February 2017, however, Djawadi is set to return to the lands of ice and fire as he explores a new kingdom—arenas—while leading the Live Nation and HBO Global Licensing-produced Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience.

He took a few minutes to talk about his personal story arc, technological shifts and influential alliances, and the interaction and adaptation of instrumentation and visuals.

Tell me about the musical experiences that built the foundations for your work as a composer.

I always wanted to be someone who could write music for film, and I think that having a background in different music and styles helped. Growing up in Germany I had a lot of classical [Romantic] music around me, then I heard Metallica as a teenager. And I studied jazz at Berklee, so those influences all set me up as a film composer needing to write for different dynamics. And I’m half German and half Middle Eastern, so there is the influence of the [Iranian] music my dad listened to, as well.

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Orchestrating a show like Game of Thrones, how do you balance sound that is big in personality but microdetailed, and that introduces characters and themes without clashing with what’s happening on screen?

With Game of Thrones we have a lot of characters, so I had a lot of choices for instrumentation, and you want to distinguish characters and locations. And it’s a dialog-heavy show, so sometimes I have to be very careful frequency-wise to not make the pieces too full. Sometimes you realize the small cues work really well, meaning it could just be a solo instrument like the cello, which has an important role because the show is dark and the cello, having a wide range but still sounding beautiful in the low register, was a good fit. And it fits under dialog, as well. Obviously, we go a lot bigger in the big action scenes in later episodes—that’s when we really can open up with orchestra and percussion, when we’re up against swords clanging and horses so we need music that lets loose and stands against that.

Did your love of westerns—and space westerns in the case of Star Wars—influence how you approach cues?

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Absolutely. Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven. John Williams. And the Morricone stuff influences me big time, because he would have a single melodic guitar or chord or whistle clearly stating thematic elements, and Game of Thrones has a little of that in violins or cello. A minimalistic approach can work so well, and then when you open it up with bigger cues you get this great contrast without having walls of sound competing with dialog.

When did you first incorporate technology as an instrument?

Growing up, I started on an organ, which had an element of this with rhythm accompaniment built into it. As a teenager, I had an Korg O1/W [workstation synthesizer] with an internal 16-step sequencer, and that was my first real exposure to technology where I could do arrangements for the band or myself and then play on top of them with the guitar. And I had an analog 4-track, so that’s how I started recording and layering tracks. But that sequencer was a big thing for me in learning to arrange and layer tracks. I would take classical scores, like Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and pull the different parts into that, and that’s how I learned a lot about dissecting arrangements.

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Then I was exposed to a little bit of sequencing at Berklee in the ’90s. They had a learning center with sequencers and I would go quite a bit to learn about it, but at the time there weren’t enough great sounds just these basic MIDI sounds, so it wasn’t that fun. The big exposure I had to technology was when I moved to L.A. and started working with Hans [Zimmer], which was a completely overwhelming experience. When I walked into those studies I couldn’t believe the amount of samplers. They just had walls and walls of E-MU and Akai and Kurzweil samplers—some just for strings, or percussion, or piano—and that’s when I learned the craft of sequencing.

Technology has changed and helped a lot over the years, and I have been so lucky to get to work with the same great engineers as Hans, with like Alan Meyerson—seeing how he mixes the orchestra, how engineers do their microphone placement. Because it’s one thing to work with the computer to set up a composition and it’s another when you have musicians play, because there’s so much more to it in terms of dynamics … it comes to life and changes so much.

How do you demo, then how do you translate compositions for the orchestra?

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My whole studio is based around Logic as my sequencer, with Pro Tools as my virtual mixer. I program all the different parts in Logic, or if I can play something I do it myself in my studio. I always have a microphone set up to record my own instruments. So off of Logic is how I present my demos to producers or directors, then once it’s approved, it goes to an orchestrator. I don’t do my own notation. From my sequencer I just export a MIDI file and that goes to my orchestrator who then deals with extracting the different parts to the violins, cellos, etc., and then it goes to a copyist who will print out the parts and then it’s in front of the orchestra, played and performed in Prague for Game of Thrones specifically and then sent back for Pro Tools.

Do you have a microphone preference in your studio?

I have a Neumann M49 I use a lot, and being a guitar player, a Shure SM57. Some of my other favorites are a Neumann TLM 103, Royer 122V, and AKG C414. For preamps I have a Neve 1073, Manley FORCE, API 512c, and API 7600 (212L) channel strip. But a lot of times because my studio is at Remote Control [Productions] I’ll just borrow microphones for specific instruments from their huge array. I’ll say I want to record this, what would be good, and they’ll suggest something.

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I understand that you have synesthesia [a condition where the stimulation of one sense triggers a sense impression relating to another part of the body]. How does that impact the way you develop a character’s theme? Does the tonality of dialog inspire an instrument with similar “coloration” to it?

The whole color thing was something I was never aware of till someone pointed it out to me, so describing it is a struggle. But it’s a combination of things, not really the voice of the character but really the setting of what I have on the screen. So, with Game of Thrones it’s something like when we’re north of the Wall with these blue tones, or Danerys is in the desert with its yellows … those are the things that subconsciously influence me somehow. But it’s never as simple as I see blue and therefore it’s this note. There are still so many different colors on screen, a red outfit or other things playing a role. It happens more subconsciously and it’s hard to describe. But it’s not so much the voice as the visual, the plot, and the action, where say yellow enters the blue scene, that might trigger me to go to certain notes or keys. It’s several elements.

When you compare a demo to the final product, how do they compare? How much does it change in post-production?

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Usually not that much. Listening to my demos, you usually get a pretty clear idea of the final product. There should rarely be any surprises. Sometimes it’s not possible; for example, the choir in Game of Thrones is singing lyrical phrases, but it’s their own language Valyrian, so I can’t emulate it. There are no samples like that except for some classical, religious choirs, so I just use a regular choir sample and I tell the producers they will eventually sound like this and that. Otherwise, each instrument is somehow represented in one way or another.

In terms of the upcoming concert tour, what are the challenges of re-creating the show’s world for the stage?

From a storytelling standpoint we have six seasons of material and I have to condense it to around two hours, so picking the most important scenes and themes is going to be the hardest challenge. And then from a reproduction point of view, I just have to see that I can cover those parts with the orchestra, soloists, and then incorporate elements I did as sound design that must be played on the keyboard or triggered as samples.

The show’s set design includes multiple stages and modular screens. How does the visual presentation change the pacing of the musical performance?

I’m definitely adapting the music to the show. While the orchestra is stationary and all the violins won’t suddenly get up and walk about, the choir is mobile and the percussionists are somewhat as well, as is the solo violinist. So, as we’re doing the setlist I’m definitely aware that musicians need time to get from A to B and make things happen. Letting the choir reset in position, etc., will all be worked out.

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With your Logic sessions and sources potentially coming into play on the back end, will you oversee that directly as you conduct or will someone else trigger those elements alongside the live instrumentation?

I’m still trying to figure that out, as I do want to conduct the orchestra but there are pieces I want to perform myself. So, if I play synthesizers or some other instrument, obviously someone else will conduct. I just have to figure out the best way to use either a controller or instrument.

The dulcimer, for example, is something I would love to play live, as it’s such a cool-looking instrument and I want people to see it. But then there are sounds that have always been synthetic or sampler-based, and I might have manipulated them, so they have to be triggered.

What challenges will performing in arenas present in terms of keeping music and visuals in sync and balanced?

We’ll be playing with click tracks and streamers, as hearing each other has challenges, and I want to make sure everything, live and on screen, matches. And everything has to be amplified; this is so unlike a concert hall, so you can’t rely on natural sound of anything. We want to make sure it sounds as good as possible anywhere you are sitting, and you can’t achieve that without microphones on all instruments and making a mix of some sort. It’s more a rock ’n’ roll approach than a classical, because the setting doesn’t make that possible.

There are so many interpretations of Game of Thrones tracks online. Will you let any of those influence how you translate or reimagine a track?

I’m definitely planning on having some arrangements that are different, just to make it interesting, but it won’t be like a rock version of something I don’t think because it would be too surprising and out of place for the audience. But Game of Thrones, even though it’s orchestral, is a fairly modern score, not traditionally written, so once we’re in rehearsals maybe we’ll say it’s fun to do something. We’ve also talked about the idea of having guest artists appear, and depending on who those people are, that might trigger an idea. I’m leaving it open, we’ll have to see how it fits.

A concept video for the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience can be viewed at gameofthronesconcert.com.