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Composer Hans Zimmer’s monumental soundscapes have won him an Oscar for The Lion King and powered Christopher Nolan’s films, but their rapturous reception at rock music festival Coachella took even him by surprise.

By Darryn King.

Composer and Oscar winner Hans Zimmer finds new audiences

Hans Zimmer performing in Europe.
Credit: ED ROBINSON

In April, nearly 100,000 people gathered in the desert in Indio, California, for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the biggest music festival in the United States. One of the more astonishing artist entrances began with apocalyptic blasts from some terrible unseen foghorn – a sound that grew progressively louder and more intense: BBBBRRRRAMMMMMMMMMM!

“It takes a crazy kind of person to bring an orchestra into the desert,” said film composer Hans Zimmer, addressing the crowd for the first time. “But it had to be done.” 

Zimmer didn’t merely hold his own at Coachella – in music festival parlance, he killed. In May, he brings his 55-person orchestra to Australia, one of his first stops on an extensive world tour. The show spans three decades of his film-composing career, with sternum-rattling sounds from Inception, The Dark Knight and Interstellar, the triumphant strains of “Circle of Life” (memorably arranged by Zimmer) and others from The Lion King, and deeper cuts from scores for Sherlock Holmes, Crimson Tide, The Thin Red Line, True Romance and Driving Miss Daisy.

With about 150 film-score credits to his name, he has an extraordinarily diverse body of work from which to draw. In his work for director Ridley Scott alone, Zimmer has devised a fusion of soaring ’80s slide guitar and gospel (Thelma and Louise), a melange of world music flavours (Gladiator), angelic choirs and Bach-like baroque elegance (Hannibal), accordion-driven lounge music (Matchstick Men), and African and Middle Eastern vocals paired with aggressive techno (Black Hawk Down). He has received four Grammy Awards and two Golden Globes, as well as 10 Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score, winning for 1994’s The Lion King.

“Hans has been a big brother to me and a mentor to me all at once,” Pharrell Williams, who made a surprise guest appearance with Zimmer at Coachella, tells me. The pair collaborated on the scores for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Hidden Figures; it was partly due to Williams’ encouragement that Zimmer concocted a live show in the first place. “I never tire of his way of looking at filmmaking and storytelling,” Williams says. “His way is that he always looks at the thing of a script, the poetry of a script, and he has this uncanny ability to pair it with what the score does.”

 

Years ago, Zimmer had to choose between getting a car and getting a synthesiser. Long story short, he doesn’t drive. 

Most mornings, he is escorted to Remote Control Productions, his film-score studio complex in Santa Monica, travelling in creativity-conducive silence.

Zimmer’s working space doesn’t resemble a modern Californian recording studio so much as a 19th-century Viennese brothel. It’s steeped in crimson, moodily lit and sumptuously furnished, a comfortable environment for meeting with collaborators and protégés: Zimmer has helped launch the careers of some of the busiest television and film composers working today, among them John Powell (the Bourne films), Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Westworld) and Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road).

More often than not, Zimmer says, it’s a pleasant place to daydream.

“It wasn’t until fairly recently that I thought of myself as a composer,” he says. “Because very often I’m not a composer. I’m tinkering, experimenting with sounds. I drive my directors crazy because I haven’t found the right sound yet. I know what I hear in my head.” 

Typically, there’s some cunning inspiration driving Zimmer’s sonic explorations. Composing for The Da Vinci Code, he initially tried to musicalise the mathematical Fibonacci sequence, but settled for finding musical inspiration in the geometric architecture of the Louvre pyramid instead. For “The Battle” theme in Gladiator, he wanted to evoke the elegant classicism of ancient Rome, so he drew on the formal unity of a Viennese waltz and gave it teeth.

Much of Zimmer’s process is a quest for precisely the right sound and sonic texture. For the second Pirates of the Caribbean film, filtering the sound of the whole orchestra through a guitar amp did the trick. For the second of two Sherlock Holmes movies, Zimmer embarked on a road trip through Central Europe, leading him to employ a combination of scratchy violin, Hungarian cimbalom and old piano strings thwacked with drumsticks and hammers to evoke the grime of Victorian England and Sherlock’s manic mind. 

“I think I work like a chef,” Zimmer says. “I have an idea of what the meal should be, and the first thing I do is, I go around the markets and see what’s fresh and what’s available. Oh, there are some beautiful carrots here, the potatoes look good. I’m chopping up the carrots, and I know the guests are arriving at eight. At 10 to eight, I throw it all in a pot and I hope that it’s a fresh and delicious meal.”

For Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, composer Danny Elfman represented The Joker with the creepy-kooky plink-plonk of a music box. For his own take on the character, nearly two decades later in The Dark Knight, Zimmer wanted to come up with a theme that would be painful to listen to. The resulting cue incorporated the sound of rusty piano strings attacked with razor blades. “Everybody could have gotten tetanus,” he recalls. During production, director Christopher Nolan dutifully listened to an iPod’s worth of Zimmer’s evolving experiments. “God, poor Chris,” says Zimmer. “He listened to this punk anarchy all the way on a flight to Hong Kong and all the way back. I promise you, it changed him forever.”

Zimmer’s collaboration with Nolan has been his most fruitful in recent years. The pair has worked together on Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Interstellar and the upcoming Dunkirk, slated for release in July. The director has strong ideas of his own with regards to the music in his films. For the time- and mind-bending thriller Inception, it was his idea that the score would revolve around Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”, spectacularly decelerated, so that its tooting trumpets turned into gigantic brassy blasts – the sounds that announce the start of Zimmer’s live show. The seismic church organ in Interstellar was also Nolan’s idea, intentionally placed so forward in the mix that it sometimes drowned out character dialogue, to the consternation of some moviegoers and critics.

While working with Nolan, Zimmer has refined a style that has been described as minimalist composition paired with maximalist production. The major musical takeaways from both Interstellar and Inception are of chords as immense and slow-moving as glaciers. For The Dark Knight, Zimmer’s propulsive theme for The Joker hinges fixatedly on a single jackhammering note. Zimmer describes the desired effect as a “sonic seamless landscape”, more about visceral feel than melody. It’s an improvement, he says, to scores such as Gladiator’s, which he easily dismisses as a meandering hodge-podge. In fact, he calls it “Around the World in 80 Bars”.

But the minimalist trend has led some purists to decry the dumbing down of film music: all brawn and no brains, pummelling audiences into submission with little more than glorified sound design. Zimmer compares such criticisms to the outraged responses to, for example, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Different kinds of films require different kinds of scores, he says. “Pirates is full of jolly tunes and over-the-top orchestration. But not all movies are that. Under the Skin is not a movie that cries out for a Korngold score. Arrival is not a movie that cries out for a John Williams score.”

 

Zimmer, 59, grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, in a household without a television set. He received a solid education in classical music, opera and ballet – his parents took him to concerts and shows regularly, but regarded television and film as “the enemy of culture”. 

About the age of 12, Zimmer snuck into a cinema through the back door and found himself in a screening of Once Upon a Time in the West. He was immediately struck by the combination of Sergio Leone’s images and Ennio Morricone’s score, with its confidently anachronistic use of fuzz electric guitar.

A period of rebellion followed. Much to his parents’ mortification, he stopped listening to classical music in favour of film soundtracks, blues, rock’n’roll. “I rebelled against the idea of ‘serious music’,” he says. “That you had to sit still at a concert. This whole notion that music had to have this elitist patina attached to it and only with that was it any good.”

Moving to London in the ’70s, Zimmer got swept up in the advent of keyboard synthesisers. He would systematically feed coins into his apartment electricity meter to facilitate his musical tinkerings. “There’s nothing more disheartening for a young man who sets out to be an electronic musician, and right when you’re about to get a really cool sound, everything goes black. And you don’t have any more 5p’s in your pocket.”

Zimmer soon became the go-to synth player in London, most notably performing with The Buggles on their hit “Video Killed the Radio Star”, a track mainly recorded at night on other artists’ studio time. In truth, Zimmer was far more interested in the making of the video for the track, directed by Russell Mulcahy, which sat on a shelf for two years before becoming the first video to be played on MTV. 

Baulking at the pressure to churn out another hit single, Zimmer realised the pop world wasn’t for him. For a time, he made ends meet writing jingles. “I would just turn up at 10 o’clock in the morning and would ask, ‘Okay, what are we selling today?’ I got very good at coming up with ideas very, very fast. I’m not saying they were great ideas. But every day I could try out a different style, something new.”

Eventually, he landed the job of assistant to Deer Hunter composer Stanley Myers, at first charged with little more than fetching coffee. Before long he was chiming in with his own ideas, and then collaborating with Myers on projects. It was only a few years into an independent career as a film composer that he received his first Academy Award nomination, for Rain Man, having conjured an ethereal synth soundscape that might have been channelled through the mind of Dustin Hoffman’s autistic-savant character Raymond. 

When Disney came knocking, based on the strength of Zimmer’s work on The Power of One, he was reluctant, to say the least. 

“I didn’t really want to work on the movie. I kept saying to Disney, ‘All you guys want are Disney princesses and Broadway musicals. I can’t stand Broadway musicals. And I don’t know what to do with fuzzy animals.’ ”

He took on the job “for all the wrong reasons”, figuring he’d finally be able to take his six-year-old daughter to a movie premiere. “And I’m sitting in front of the fuzzy animals and I don’t know what to write. And I suddenly realise – the story is about a son losing his father.”

Zimmer infused his Lion King score with sincere familial emotion, combining panpipe parts performed by English film composer Richard Harvey and elements of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, a personal reminder of his childhood and culture. “There’s a lot of me in it,” he says.

The tracks from The Lion King were some of the most rapturously received at Coachella, and if the music was lacking in nuance or sophistication, the crowd was too awestruck to mind. Introducing a Pirates of the Caribbean medley to a delirious roar, Zimmer said, “Fuck me – I don’t think anyone’s gotten that kind of applause for a cello concerto before.”

For his finale, bleeding into the following act’s time slot, Zimmer led his band and orchestra through “Time” from Inception. At the end of the number, the only sound was Zimmer alone at the keyboard, playing a melancholy four-chord loop of G-minor, D-minor, F and C, an Escher staircase of chord progression that never resolves. As in the film, the melody was abruptly cut off as if in sudden awakening from a trance, and the response from the audience, who had been hanging on every note, reverberated through the desert.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "Zimmer frames". Subscribe here.

Darryn King
is a New York-based arts writer.