Photo courtesy of HBO
Music Is Coming: Composer Ramin Djawadi Looks Back On Eight Epic Seasons Of 'Game Of Thrones'
When score-composer Ramin Djawadi first met with "Game Of Thrones" showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, they were quite clear about what they did not want in their fantasy drama theme music. The HBO juggernaut, which premeired in 2011 and premieres its eighth and final season on Sunday, April 14, could not have lutes or flutes in its score, as those light woodwind instruments are all too frequently used in most fantasy films. The score to "Game Of Thrones" had to sound current, Djawadi tells the Recording Academy just days before Season 8 is set to premiere. And that's how the low-octave cello, took center stage in "Game Of Thrones'" epic, and poignant, title sequence.
Now, eight years later, to call "Game Of Thrones" a pop culture phenomenon would be to put the show's impact mildly. To date, the series has received 47 Primetime Emmy Awards, and the Iranian-German composer earned a GRAMMY nod for his work on Season 7 at the 60th GRAMMY Awards. He's even taken the show on the road, literally, with "Game Of Thrones: The Live Concert Experience," an all-arena tour that ran in 2017 and 2018 and featured Djawadi conducting an 80-piece orchestra and choir, which performed highlights from the series' score, on a 360-degree stage.
Djawadi, who began his career at Berklee College of Music and apprenticed for renowned score-composer and GRAMMY winner Hans Zimmer, certainly was a known entity prior to "Thrones," having nabbed an earlier GRAMMY nod for his work on Iron Man. Since "GoT," he's worked on another high-profile HBO epic: "Westworld."
As Djawadi prepares to formally close this chapter of his career, the Recording Academy caught up with the celebrated composer to talk about the final season of "Thrones"—or, well, given the notoriously tight-lipped, spoiler-phobic nature surrounding the show's promotion, talk around the final season would be more accurate phrasing. We also touch on his early days in the film-and-television-scoring industry, how he met Weiss and Benioff, adapting characters' musical themes to their story arcs, and what's next for "Game Of Thrones: The Live Concert Experience."
So, as you prepare to say goodbye to "Game Of Thrones," would you say that the last few months have been pretty intense?
Ramin Djawadi: Yeah, you could say that. I mean, intense and bittersweet. It's very emotional for me to write this final season, I have to say.
I can't even imagine! I want to talk Thrones, but before we do, I’d love to learn more about how you got started composing for TV and film. I noticed that you were an apprentice to Hans Zimmer. How did you originally connect with him?
Djawadi: It was a complete coincidence, actually. The connection was made through a good friend of mine in Germany that's an owner of a guitar store, and whenever I'd visit my family in Germany I'd see him also, but we were just chatting and he said, "Oh, so you want to [compose]. I know somebody that knows somebody that knows Hans." That's how the connection was made.
Then, next I knew I was on a plane. I lived in Boston at the time, because that's where I went to school. Next I knew I was on a plane to Los Angeles, and started working as an assistant in a studio. In the beginning I didn't get to do any music. I was literally working in the machine room taking care of the computers and the samplers and all that. Then, little by little I was allowed to work on some projects. My big breakthrough was the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, and so that's when I started arrangements.
[Zimmer] has been an incredible mentor for me, not only musically, but I think more so how the meanings are done and how to be organized with all the amount of music to write, and there's so many other aspects to the business other than just writing music.
Well, as someone who now is in a position to be a mentor to a younger generation of arrangers, what lessons, if any, have you passed down to the people who work for you?
Djawadi: I feel his way of working and then having apprentices and doing these mentor things, I think that's incredible. And that's something I do with my team as well, where people start for me as assistant and tech assistants. Then, they also work their way up and they get to do music. I think that system that works incredibly well, because I feel when you come out of college or whatever your music education is, again, there’s only so much you can learn about writing and music. But there are all these other things in the industry that you can't really learn unless you're actually in it. I think the best way to learn is to be in the presence of an established composer. I think that's something that hasn't always done over the years, and I think it works incredibly well.
I know that you did a lot of commercial work prior to "Game of Thrones." When you were considering arranging for the series, was there an audition process? You almost didn’t work on the show, is that right?
Djawadi: The process was actually very organic. I mean, David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] had pretty much narrowed it down to me, somehow. My name was suggested and I think they liked some of my previous work and then were interested in meeting me. They sent over the first two episodes and I watched them, I loved them. Then, a meeting was set up and we got together and just talked about the show. That's really, I think, where it just clicked.
Yeah, I almost didn't do it because I was at the time when this all happened I was already very busy with existing work, and I thought, "Okay, this is such a massive amount of [work]." We all obviously were aware of the scope of work that needed to be done on this, and I thought I don't know if I have enough time to do this.
Yeah. And you didn't know what it was going to become.
Djawadi: No, and I was so involved in the show, and also especially David and Dan, again, we just hit it off in that first meeting so well, and I just said, "I'm not going to sleep for the next couple of months, and I just want to work on the show. I just want to be part of this." And looking back I'm so glad that it all came together like this. Pretty incredible.
Were you familiar with the novels at the time?
Djawadi: No, I was not. I mean, I knew of the books, but I had not read them, and today I have not read them. When I started the show I just thought, you know, now when season eight is over my plan is to pick up the books and actually read them, but then at the time I thought there is no point now of me trying to catch up, and I'm just going to let the season guide me with the plot, and obviously David and Dan guide me with musically what I have to write.
What do you remember about David and Dan describing the mood and tone of the show, and how that informed your arrangements in 2011?
Djawadi: They really had an amazing vision. Some of the things they said were not even so much what I should do, but it was more things that I shouldn't do that really guided me well. One of those famous things that we laugh about and they said to me right away, "We don't want any medieval flutes, because I know we have dragons and we have swords and all that, so no medieval flute." So I knew, okay, I can't have that.
They were looking for a bit more of a contemporary sound, even though overall the score is definitely traditional instruments, but they were just the writing style they described to be a bit more contemporary. They said, "Look, you can use synthesizers," because there's definitely plenty of synthesizers in the score. It's all pretty much organic, but they wanted contemporary.
Then the cello came up, which is the leading instrument in the show, and we all agreed that that could be a great instrument.
When you were familiarizing yourself with the series, did you ever consult with George R.R. Martin when determining the score?
Djawadi: No, I primarily only worked with David and Dan. I mean, I met George several times at several “Game of Thrones” events, usually the premieres, and of course I told him how incredible I think [he is]; he is the core of it all. To come up with something this complex is just unbelievable.
Funny enough, for example, with “The Rains of Castamere,” the lyrics are from the book, so I feel like I have collaborated with George and written a song together where I've written the melody and he's written the lyrics. So I always smile about that.
Absolutely. And I know that you’ve arranged leitmotifs for all of the different characters and houses. What’s be the first thing you’d consider when determining what that character's recurring theme will be?
Djawadi: I guess the overall story arc. I'm kind of struggling now a little bit how to put it in words, but just looking at the character's journey or what they're going through, my job is to enhance that with music, so I would look at that. Like, for example, the Stark theme, all the Starks were split up, they're all in different places. You know, there's a piece in one of the first pieces in season one where it plays ... we call that piece “Goodbye Brother,” where Jon says goodbye to Bran, and it's these goodbyes that gives a bit of a sad tone always to me. That's why I felt the Stark theme should have a very emotional, almost a sadness to it, and that's how I always try to approach these different themes.
To hone in on Jon for a second, I mean, he actually died, and then he comes back. And it’s said that every time the Lord of Light brings someone back, you never come back quite the same as you were before. Do major changes like that in a character's story arc, does that determine how their leitmotif evolves?
Djawadi: Yeah, that's a good example, because most of the time we use the Stark theme for him. But yeah, when he died and when he came back we thought “Oh, it's maybe time to give him his own theme, so then I wrote a whole new theme for him.” That was in season six.
Then, in season seven when the relationship with Dany happened, then we felt the need [to create] a love theme that we make for them, so now we had yet another theme that we could use for him or for them. That's how it kind of develops.
Same with Arya. She kind of started doing her own thing, and that's when we felt okay, it's time to give her her own theme. Every season we look at where are these character arcs going and how we should approach it.
Have there ever been any clues or hints dropped into the music? Say, a bit of Dany’s Targaryen motif woven into Jon's motif as, well, a secret Targaryen? Because for a long time, we didn’t know for sure that Jon was Rhaegar Targaryen’s son...
Djawadi: Yeah, no. There's definitely clues in the music, and we carefully think about that. Either there are scenes where they can work together. That's always something we look for, because we look at the music as another character, so we feel there's really a great bit of storytelling. I always like to say we can lead the audience in either the right way or the wrong way with the score. It's good to have these motifs and themes that are so attached to characters or houses or plots, too. It works really well.
Well, as we noted before, it must be an emotional experience to bid farewell to a project of this magnitude. That being the case, are there any plans in place to take “Game of Thrones: The Live Concert Experience” back on the road?
Djawadi: I mean, it would certainly make sense. At this point I can't say too much about it, but I would certainly like that. We did our first tour, which, by the way, was incredible, and the fact that we even could do a tour on that scale was an absolute dream come true for me to perform this music in front of an audience.
We did it after season six, and the new updated the show after season seven, so clearly it would make absolute sense now that this is ending to actually update the show and then really have a complete show, because right now the live show was always just not complete, just like the seasons weren't. I'll take it a step at a time. We'll see what happens.