In 2011, award-winning composer Ramin Djawadi became a household name. That’s when his theme song for HBO’s Game of Thrones was first whistled on the lips of every avid fan of the series. Seven seasons later, his score for the show continues to add to the intrigue and heart of the story, sometimes acting as a subtle line or melody in poignant moments, or growing to a full-on wash of orchestral awesomeness in the heat of battle. Fans of Djawadi’s music for the show have eagerly lined up for the Game of Thrones® Live Concert Experience, which will have a second running starting this fall.
Djawadi is also the musical mastermind behind HBO’s Westworld series. The score for that show incorporates popular music, but the songs have been adapted in terms of instrumentation and arrangement to fit the style of Westworld and now in Season 2, Shogun World.
Last year, Djawadi earned an Emmy nom for ‘Outstanding Original Main Title Theme’ for Westworld, and he earned a 2014 Emmy nom for his original score for Game of Thrones. This year, Djawadi has Emmy nominations for both shows — one for his original score on Westworld’s Season 2, Ep. 5 “Akane No Mai,” and one for Game of Thrones’ Season 7, Ep. 7 “The Dragon and the Wolf.” Two Emmy nominations in one category (Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score)), now that’s a remarkable feat.
Here, Djawadi talks about his approach to the score on Game of Thrones and Westworld, and talks about the challenges and rewards of adapting his work for television into a live concert experience.
Ramin Djawadi (RD): It’s the last episode of the season and it’s the big finale episode. The main reason was that the two new themes from last season — the Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen love theme and then the new White Walker/Night King theme, really play out in this episode and that’s why I chose this one for Emmy consideration.
S&P: Did you have a favorite scene to score in this episode? What in particular did you like about the score in that scene?
RD: The love theme that I mentioned in the final episode is heard while Jon and Daenerys are on the boat. The two are together and that’s really where the theme plays out in its entirety. So, I thought that was a good representation of the new theme. In the earlier episodes leading up to this one, you just get hints to that theme. It never gets fully played out and it never gets played out as emotionally as it does in the finale. So it was my favorite scene and, in fact, I wrote that scene first with that theme and then went back and put it into the other scenes where those two characters are together.
S&P: The beginning of this episode is predominantly real instruments — cello, violin, and some low percussion. But after Lord Baelish’s throat is slit, there’s this little descending melody that plays. What instrument was that played on?
RD: That’s a synthesizer actually. It’s a sound that I’ve always used for Little Finger. It started out as the conspiracy theme that I used whenever someone is doing something behind someone else’s back. Then it became Little Finger’s theme because he was the guy who was always pulling the strings. He was always up to something. So that’s a sound that I created specifically for the show. It has a little bit of a piano-type sound, more like a plucky kind of sound, but it’s a synth sound made specifically for that character.
One of the tricky things about scoring Game of Thrones is that I can’t go as synthetic as I go in Westworld. I do use synthesizers in Game of Thrones because it is a fantasy world, but even with synthesizers, I like to keep the sound as organic as possible. This sound for Little Finger is a good example of where it kind of sounds like a modified piano but it actually isn’t.
RD: One of the big things was, how do we combine this very expansive story into a 2 ½ hour concert? I had way too much material, too much music that I wanted to perform and play. I really had to hone in on what I wanted to focus on and perform.
The other challenge was, while we perform all of these music pieces, how do we summarize the storyline? We didn’t want to jump around and pick random pieces. We wanted to tell the story, which starts with Season 1 and goes in chronological order through the concert to summarize the show nicely. So that was tricky too. We had to go through all of the footage to find ways to combined footage into montages and tell the characters’ stories.
On this second North American tour, it’s going to be even trickier. In our show last year, we had Seasons 1 through 6 but now we have Season 7 to incorporate as well. So we updated the show and I included the material from Season 7. So the concert has become a little longer and we had to rework things a little bit.
RD: I always like to joke that when you remodel a house you might start with the kitchen but then you feel like, well, I might as well remodel the living room too. That’s what happened with this too. We knew we had to update the show with Season 7 and then all of a sudden, we started to rework the stage and now it’s turned into a whole new stage. It’s been completely redesigned. We really stepped back and looked at some of the moments from last year’s concert that the audience really liked. For example, they responded well to the pyrotechnics, so this year we have more fun with that and we’ve thrown in more.
There are other places we changed. For example, at one point we play the “Stark” theme and our solo violinist would stand under the Weirwood tree and play. But this year, we’ve changed it so that she actually becomes the Weirwood tree. She goes up 35 feet into the air while she’s playing the theme. It’s one of my favorite moments during the show.
It’s fun to play and be creative. Last year was really my first time doing this, and I learned from that experience and got new ideas. So it was fun having a second chance to come back and change things and play around with it more.
S&P: Let’s look at your score for Westworld. This series takes an interesting approach to music, with popular songs being adapted to orchestra. In your Emmy-nominated score for Ep. 5, “Akane No Mai,” there’s “C.R.E.A.M” by Wu-Tang Clan. Can you tell me about your interpretation/adaptation of this song?
RD: This one was interesting because we really stripped it down to a minimal amount of instruments because in this particular scene, the song was a performance on stage. The actors actually created the choreography to the song, so I had to do the arrangement while they were shooting so they could play it on set. That’s why the choreography looks so great, because the song was already in existence and they could really shape the dance around the song. Also, because of that, I had to stay within a minimal amount of instrumentation. So really it’s just a flute, a shamisen, and a taiko drum. Then, at the end, there are a little bit of strings that come in. So it’s very minimal instrumentation and that was not easy to do.
RD: This scene was great, and I also like the version of “Paint it Black” that I created. That was another favorite of mine because I thought it was such a great idea to show the parallels of these different parks. Here we are in Shogun World, but then all of a sudden, we discover that the attack and the robbery happened in all of the parks in its own way. We had to use the “Paint it Black” version that we used in Westworld, but we had to use it in Shogun World. I kept the big orchestra, but I swapped out some of the instrumentation to make it more Shogun World-ish. Again, I went for Shakuhachi (bamboo flute), shamisen, taikos, and koto, to give the sound an ethnic spin.
RD: I felt that it had the most of the Shogun World elements to it and I really responded to that. I thought it was so different, and musically I could really push and explore with the score. I really liked that episode.
There were also some really nice emotional moments where Maeve sees her parallel with her search for her child (that mother-daughter moment), and there again I took her existing theme, but at the end, it became a new theme in Shogun World. Again, it had a very ethnic influence and I really enjoyed writing for this particular style.
Learn more: https://www.ramindjawadi.com
Images courtesy of HBO