John Williams. Hans Zimmer. Ramin Djawadi. This last name might seem out of place after the first two, both of whom are veritable giants in the film score industry. But Djawadi, who is best known for composing the scores for Game of Thrones and Westworld, is well on his way to a point where his name could be mentioned in the same breath as Williams and Zimmer without anyone batting an eye. In fact, the 42-year-old Djawadi is already enjoying rock star status that few film score composers could claim to have had in their lifetimes.
The German-Iranian composer is in the midst of a nation-wide tour, packing venues like the Verizon Center, TD Garden, and Madison Square Garden with GOT fans. Djawadi’s popularity is linked to that of the show, but the show itself has become synonymous with the iconic opening theme: an epic number anchored by gravely purposeful cello and propelled forward by pulsating drums. Djawadi often reworks the main title’s melody into other themes throughout the series, the common thread of a score as vast and texturally varied as Westeros itself. Faced with six seasons of ten episodes, each episode lasting over an hour, Djawadi has been charged with the monumental task of scoring the rough equivalent of 30 films, all while continuously deriving new material that echoes the central themes of the show. And yet, throughout the hours of orchestral accompaniment, Djawadi blesses the series with moments of magic.
One such moment comes at the conclusion of Season 2, in one of the most chilling instances of television perfection I can recall. In the final scene, Sam and the other rangers flee from an encroaching army of white walkers. The accompanying piece, entitled “Three Blasts,” artfully captures the terror and gravity of the moment. As the camera zooms out and the shot widens to reveal an endless army of living dead, the brass swells ominously, the strings ascend nervously to dizzying heights, and the orchestra crescendos until the scene abruptly cuts to black. There’s a moment of silence. Then Djawani reprises the main title, but transposes it down to a minor key. The melody, usually played by the cello, is instead played by the double bass, the lowest string instrument in an orchestra. The pattern ascends chromatically from what seems like the icy depths of hell, rendering what is normally triumphant apocalyptic. It’s genius, and it’s terrifying.
More moments of musical ingenuity can be heard in Westworld’s score. While the cello takes center stage in Game of Thrones, Djawadi showcases the piano in Westworld, channeling the player piano as a symbol of the Wild West. The West World main theme lacks the drive and the catchiness of its Game of Thrones counterpart, but Djawadi’s cleverness shines through in his score laden with rock covers eerily reworked into player piano pieces. Dark, dystopian tunes like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” are placed surreptitiously in the background, subtle anachronisms that wink at the breaches between the park and the outside world that increase in regularity as the first season progresses. The songs are played by phantoms on out of tune, saloon-style upright pianos and are thus texturally disguised nearly beyond recognition. But upon that moment of recognition, the viewer is effectively reminded of the dissonance of the situation, this tension between past and present, real and contrived.
Moments like these add so much to our experience of watching a show, yet scores are usually listened to subconsciously, absorbed secondarily as background accompaniment. Sometimes it’s important to go back and acknowledge the composer and his music, which plays just as big of an artistic and emotional role as acting or cinematography. Djawadi has more seasons of each show on the horizon, but until then, he’ll continue to sell out arenas. He played in a rock band in high school, so it’s no surprise he’s embracing the rock star role. If he isn’t a household name yet, he will be soon.