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Interviews

Interview: Ramin Djawadi Talks Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Being Creative with Synesthesia

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Ramin Djawadi. (Photo: Andrés Jiménez)

Ramin Djawadi. (Photo: Andrés Jiménez)

As far as famous composers go, Ramin Djawadi is certainly well on his way to reaching and possibly surpassing the illustrious bar to which industry giants such as the globally-renowned John Williams and Hans Zimmer have set incredibly high for the rest of the field. With blockbuster credits such as Iron ManClash of the TitansPacific RimThe Mountain Between Us, and Pirates of the Caribbean, just to name a few, Djawadi clearly excels when it comes to composing scores for big-time productions. Furthermore, with two of his recent projects, Game of Thrones and Westworld, Djawadi has accepted two dueling Emmy nominations for the same category. As it appears in this case, when some of your main competition is none other than yourself, there’s no doubt that you’re obviously doing something very right.

Indeed, Djawadi and his music have earned such high praise that he will personally set out on an official “Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience” this September. The cumulation of three years of hard work and planning, the tour will not only draw fans into the mythical lands of Westeros and Essos from a musical standpoint, but will also transport them to these fantasy realms by utilizing state-of-the-arttechnology to stimulate attendees’ visual and tactile senses. From dragons soaring through big-screens to a blizzard of simulated snow, viewers will experience a transportive symphony like no other. Beginning in Seattle, Washington and ending in Toronto, Ontario, the “Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience” is an industry feat that Djawadi and his team are incredibly proud to showcase throughout North America.

But, before he embarks on tour and we begin to mentally prepare ourselves for the final season of what can be considered one of the greatest tv series in modern times, we had the pleasure of speaking with Ramin about his work on Game of Thrones, the live concert series and more!

To start, I wanted to speak with you a little bit about Game of Thrones. You’re very well recognized, especially for the theme or the title track. Did you know right away that it would become such a hit piece?

To be honest, no. I had no clue! (laughs) In fact, whenever I work on a project, I never really think about the success of the music, or the project, or anything. I just like to do the work. But, I’ll never forget… that first episode aired, and the next day, all these cover songs started popping up on You Tube. I just couldn’t believe it! I thought, “oh my gosh, there’s a rock version and there’s a techno version and somebody’s playing the banjo!” (laughs) It just kept going and I couldn’t believe it! It was a really great, great, feeling, I have to say.

I’ve seen a South Park version and a couple of cellphone ringtones as well! It’s very popular!  

That’s right! (laughs)

One instrument that’s very prevalent, not only in the theme song, but throughout your music in Game of Thrones, is the cello. What drew you to that instrument in particular?

I felt that the cello seemed to fit the mood of the show very well. The show’s primarily pretty “dark” and the cello has a very low range of sound. It’s able to capture the dark mood really well. It also can get pretty high, into the violin range. It really has a broad range, and I thought it was the perfect instrument to capture the overall candor of the show. So, that’s why it’s primarily used.

Were there any instruments that you knew you really wanted to use, or any that you wanted to avoid when creating the music for Game of Thrones?  

Well, at this point, we’re actually using so many! But yeah, definitely! As you pointed out, the cello is the most dominant and the solo violin is used a lot too. The funny thing is, one of the instruments that we’ve never used to date, and it’s become a running joke now, is the flute! When I first met with [producers] David and Dan, we discussed ideas for the show and concepts. One of the things they pointed out was that because it is a fantasy show with swords and dragons…so you could say there’s a medieval influence to it…even though we always try to avoid that word, they definitely wanted the music to be more contemporary. Nothing that really pushed you into a medieval type setting. So, one of the instruments they said “please don’t use”, is actually flute! I knew to stay away from it. Today, we still laugh about it. Now, here we are, seven seasons in, and I’ve never used any flute on the show! (laughs)

I’ve used almost every other instrument, including the piano! We never even used the piano at all until Season Six! We all had fun with one piano piece with all kinds of instruments popping up. But, yet to date, we’ve never used flute!

I’ve heard that you’ve even used a folk instrument called the hammered dulcimer during the show?

Correct! Yes! It’s an instrument that you play with little wooden hammers and it has strings on a board. That’s an instrument that I use quite a lot. It’s in the main title, and it’s primarily used actually for Arya’s theme. That’s where I want to say we probably hear it the most.

How did you first come across all these unique instruments to incorporate in the series?

I’m a big fan of unique instruments and ethnic influences! If you saw my studio, every corner is filled with instruments from all over the world! I collect them whenever I travel. I actually go out and try to find instruments. I’m always on the search for something new, so a show like Game of Thrones is perfect for me because I literally could just go around the room and say “oh, let’s try this dulcimer, and let’s try this, and let’s try that!” I really enjoy experimenting with different types of instruments!

That’s amazing! So, between productions such as Game of ThronesWestworldClash of the Titans, and one of my personal favorites, Iron Man, you’ve dabbled a lot in fantasy and sci-fi type productions. What do you think are some of the biggest draws for these genres as a composer? 

I think it’s just fun! (laughs) The creativity is what I like. Because when you’re in a fantasy world, you automatically, I like to say, have no boundaries. You can really do anything! With Iron Man, for example, I have to give Jon Favreau, the director, credit. He brought up the idea of the electric guitar. At first, I thought, “it’s a superhero film, you need to be more orchestral!” and he kept saying, “no, let’s go more rock n roll!” (laughs) I think, in these kinds of fantasy-type films, you can totally get away with that! And, it really worked!

The same with Game of Thrones, we use synthesizers and all kinds of instruments! We use instruments that you might not expect for certain areas or time periods. I think when you’re in a fantasy world, you can really get away with it.

I agree! A lot of fans are super excited, especially with Westworld, for example, to guess the different modern cover songs on the show’s famous “self-playing piano”. Each episode is something they can really look forward to!

Exactly! That’s another perfect example! Again, I have to give Jona Nolan, [the producer and creator of Westworld] credit. He saw right away, from the beginning, that there was an opportunity to do something different with the music. You literally have the piano visible in the saloon! So, he thought, “let’s do something you wouldn’t expect”, which was to play a piano piece that’s not from that [older] time period. Instead we put contemporary songs in there!

It subconsciously reminds the viewer… wait a minute, this is actually not real! This is a theme park! These are all robots, human controlled. It’s all set up! [the theme of Westworld] So [in the show] people use this piano as a jukebox and play contemporary songs. I thought it was an incredible idea!

GAME OF THRONES CONCERT EXPERIENCE

I love that with this type of genre in particular, the setting of the movie or show can range anywhere from a fantasy kingdom to an alternate universe! How do you get into the head spaceto write a song that fits the imaginary of this kind of world?

I really get inspired by visuals. When I write the music, I actually have the film in front of me. I can just let it run in the background and then create my pieces. I put myself into that world and I try to identify with the characters. I really get into it, especially with a show like Game of Thrones. Like when the characters die, it’s upsetting for me too! (laughs). And to write music for that, it’s hard sometimes! It really is!

It’s almost like when readers “get lost in a book”. You “get lost in the show” when you’re writing the music. That’s very cool!

Oh, for sure! Even sometimes, when I step away from my studio, I can’t let go! I’m still in that world. It’s very hard, even if I’m not actively writing. My mind is always thinking and trying to create for when I go back and sit down. In fact, many times, when I write music, it’s actually when I’m not at the keyboard that I come up with things! And then, I sit down and work. I go on walks. There are other things that help me come up with the music scores.

Speaking about production, I’ve heard that you have synesthesia, a trait that’s shared with famous composers like Mozart. Not too shabby company there! Do you think that this trait linking sound and color has had an impact on your songwriting process?

(laughs) 100 per cent! That’s literally how I write the music! To me, it’s like painting. [Synesthesia] It’s something that I really wasn’t aware of. My wife actually kind of discovered it with me just by asking me what my process was! When I see those visuals, I would point to certain colors on the screen, the sky, the costumes, whatever it is. And I would say to her, “look, that is this note and it creates this color”. That’s it. To me, it’s just painting. It’s very hard to describe, but she looked it up and we discovered that it’s a certain condition. But to me, it’s normal. I never really thought much about it. It especially helps me because as a film composer, I primarily write to visuals. So, when I write music, I just paint what’s already put in front of me.

That’s amazing! I know you have an incredible live concert experience coming up in September. Would you ever think of matching the colors that you see with synesthesia to what the audience would view in a live concert setting?

For sure! As much as I can, I try. Obviously, you’re limited on a live stage because we also have the video screen behind us. But, I’ve definitely been involved in some of the lighting design with certain pieces. When, let’s say, on a certain piece, they would put in green, I would go in and say, “No. No, when I wrote this piece it definitely has more of a blue tone.” Therefore, the lights need to be blue. So, I would change entire overall lighting settings because I couldn’t see a piece in green when to me, it’s red or blue. I was definitely very involved in the lighting overall.

May I ask, what is your favorite color? Do you have one?

Ramin:I don’t really have one. My daughter would probably answer for me green because my eyes are green! (laughs) So, she always tells me that my favorite color’s green. But, I think it’s blue and green, I’d say.

Regarding the live shows, how did the idea for the Game of Thrones concert experience pull together?

Ramin:It started out in the studio with the show. [Game of Thrones producers] David Benioff and Dan Weiss, in one of the music review sessions said to me, “we’d really love to see a live concert. Why don’t you put on a concert? I think people would really enjoy this live.”

I ran with that idea and thought, because the show is so special, how about we do a concert, but let’s push it! Let’s do something that’s never been done before! With what’s going on up on stage, let’s create what we like to call this “immersive experience”. When you see dragons on the screen, let’s have some pyro. And when we’re north of the wall let’s simulate snow and really make this a fun experience for the audience so they feel like they’re in Westeros [a continent in Game of Thrones] when they’re watching some of their favorite scenes.

The whole thing took over three years to pull together because it was so much work! (laughs) Between my regular day-job of composing music, we would watch all the footage of the show and I would gather all my music and see what I wanted to use. Bringing it down to two and a half hours was not easy!

Definitely! One thing you mentioned was incorporating a lot of technology like big-screens to make things fun. I really like that with this live concert, you get to bring a lot of folks together…maybe some who have seen the show and some who haven’t. And, with these new elements, maybe you can bring in those people who may not otherwise go to an orchestra concert! 

Yes!

How do you approach conducting a show for this type of varied audience?

I think that was always the idea behind it! I wanted to create a crossover. From film music being primarily orchestral, instrumental, I thought “ok, we’ll hopefully have the people who like to go to a classical concert. They will come to this.” But, I also wanted to get the people who normally go to a rock concert to be excited and come! And, that’s why I thought, let’s add some pyro, let’s just make this a more of a contemporary experience.

Also, the fact that we’re in an arena. We’re not in a concert hall. So, the amplification of it all, the wholething really has more of the rock show vibe! Conducting that was a learning experience for me! I have in-your-ear-headphones. It’s just different in this type of arena… acoustically what needs to be done to make all of this happen. It was definitely a learning experience for me because I had never done this before. Unbelievably fun! I just love doing it. I carved out my schedule to make sure that I’m at all of these concerts myself because I really love being there!

I’d love to wrap up with three fill-in-the-blank questions for you. Would you like to give it a go?

Yes!

My favorite summer activity is…

Surfing!

Last one, if I wasn’t a composer, I would be a…

A doctor! That’s easy! I almost became a doctor and then, last-minute, I decided to really go towards music.

Discussion

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