Cited by showrunner David Benioff as one of the show’s greatest unsung hero, composer Ramin Djawadi is the man assigned with the mammoth task of creating Game Of Thrones’ distinctive soundscape. Amongst other things, he’s also the person you have to thank for that effortlessly hummable theme tune we’ve come to know and love over the course of the past three years. I sat down with him in August 2013 to discuss his work on the show, the flattering nature of fan tributes and the daunting experience of shaping the tone of a pop culture phenomenon.
How gratifying has it been to play such an integral part in a phenomenon like Game of Thrones, especially now that the theme music itself has gone on to attain an iconic status of its own?
Yeah, it’s been absolutely amazing. I feel very lucky to be part of the show. Like you said, it’s become a phenomenon. It’s a great story, a great adaptation of the book, it’s a great cast and the people I’m working with are amazing. For me personally, musically, it’s flattering that when the main title first came out, within a couple of days people were sending me YouTube links of these amazingly creative adaptations of the different versions of the theme. I was just blown away that people all over the world were being so creative with it. It’s absolutely amazing.
Could you explain a little bit about how the creative process works? You work with a combination of live instrumentation, orchestras, choirs and computer equipment, so how does everything come together?
Actually, the great thing about the show is the way that it’s set up. It’s different to other TV shows that I’ve done where you’re sort of in this weekly rotation. Usually, you’d get an episode, you’d score the episode and you’d move on to the next one while they’re shooting three episodes or so ahead of you. Game of Thrones is very different in terms of the way that they shoot all of the episodes ahead of time, like a movie where they just shoot it all in the fall. So right now they’re in the process of shooting season four and by the time I come in they’ll have a rough cut of all ten episodes ready. Then I’m able to actually see them all and see the arc of the story.
Musically we can also plan ahead, meaning that, if we have a certain theme for a character and we know, for example, in episode four there’s going to be this big scene and we’re going to need to arrange a particular piece of score for it, sometimes I’m actually able to jump ahead a little bit. And because of that we schedule our orchestra sessions around that, so I don’t have to do weekly orchestra sessions. I can just kind of bundle them up and that has actually been very effective for me, because I’m using samples and I’m using the computer. Then there’s also the layer of where you use solo instruments, like the solo cello, which is obviously one of the main featured instruments in there. Then, for the big scenes, we have been using an orchestra and a choir. That works out really well.
How closely do you work with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on the scoring process? I know David Benioff recently mentioned at Comic Con that he considered you one of the unsung heroes of the show.
[Laughs] That’s sweet. He’s great. No, we work very closely together. We’re constantly in contact. Even now, when they’re over there shooting, we’re already talking conceptually about what we want to do next season. And once we get in to post-production, we meet pretty much, I want to say every week or every two weeks and every piece of music gets discussed with them. We spot the show together, we go through each episode, we decide where music should start and stop and what we should do creatively. Then I go and write it and come back and I play them every single piece. Then we discuss again next week. It’s an amazing process, working with them.
There are lots of preconceptions about what fantasy should sound like. For example, you’ve mentioned previously that flutes were something you tried to steer clear of.
That was definitely something we mentioned. In the very first meeting I had with David & Dan. “We love Gladiator. We love Lord of The Rings. We love all that stuff, but let’s try to do something different here.” And one of the first instruments they said they didn’t want was flutes. They said they loved the sound of them but for their show they wanted to find something different. I always like it when you have a creative meeting like that – when the director or producer already has a certain idea.
Obviously, one of the pivotal scenes this season was the Red Wedding. Compared to what unfolds on screen, the track used in that scene, ‘The Lannisters Send Their Regards,’ is very understated in terms of its execution. Even before the kills take place, the score itself appears to give up hope. Is it possible to assess it in those terms?
I get exactly what you’re saying. It’s like the piece starts out with a big shock, but once you’re there, rather than fighting, its emphasis decreases because you just lose hope and you know it’s over. Musically, rather than pushing, I tried to pull back and go quieter and quieter. You literally end with just a few instruments and at the very end just go to silence.
What was interesting too… as you probably noticed, we change the end credits all the time, but in this particular episode we went with silence as we decided that, because of the way the cue was shaping in the scene, once we got to the end credits there was nothing left to say. It felt right that this should be the first end credits where we would just have silence. I thought it was the most powerful use of no music, actually. That worked out very nicely.
It’s not often you get to discuss silence with a composer. What were the discussions like between you, David and Dan about how you wanted to end the episode? Was there ever any question about ending the scene with music, or was it always destined to end in silence?
No, that was part of the discussions. When we discussed the scene and when we got to the end credits, we just kind of said, “What should we do here?” I can’t remember whether it was David or Dan, but they just said, “Well, it should just be silent at that point”. I thought they were absolutely right and, again, I shaped the piece accordingly to go down rather than up. Because, clearly, the visuals and everything was so powerful, you really didn’t have to push much with the music. I think understatement was the right way to go.
A lot of fans posted their reactions to the scene on YouTube. Have you seen many of those clips?
I did actually, yeah!
What did you make of those? People are obviously reacting to the visual element, but there’s a subliminal element at play with the music that a lot of people must have been affected by.
Well, I guess we got what we were hoping for, which was absolute shock. I mean even for people that had read the books I think were shocked even though they knew it was coming. I guess the way it was executed and slightly modified from the book too; it put everybody in shock. Even if you know it’s coming, you can’t believe what you’ve seen. I think that’s what makes the show so great. I always like to say anything can happen in that show. I think that’s why it’s absolutely amazing.
Are there any moments other than the Red Wedding that you would single out as being particularly effective from a musical point of view? Are there any scenes that stand out as favourites, perhaps?
From the last season, the two that I really connected with, one was when Jon and Ygritte get to the top of the wall. They’ve finally reached the wall and their love scene plays out and then the melody plays out over the end credits, I thought that was a very powerful scene – where they reach the top of the wall and look out over the other side. That was great. The other scene was the very end of the last episode, when all the people come out and pledge themselves to Daenerys. We had a full choir, including a kids’ choir. That was a very powerful scene to end with; with a little bit of hope. The show is so dark; it’s rare to end on a positive note. Both those scenes I’ve described were positive, which is very rare on the show.
Had you read the books prior to starting work on the show?
I hadn’t actually. At this point I’m kind of in between. I’m not sure whether I should I read them or whether I should just let it be. I quite like how David and Dan adapt the books for the show, so I’m undecided as to whether I should read the books or not. I don’t know how it would affect me. I’m still holding off at the moment.
Do you think that having preconceptions from the books might colour your work, perhaps?
Yeah, exactly. And also, because there’s so much to cover in the books, David and Dan have to make decisions about who they focus on, or what they use and what they modify. At this point I’m in between, because people that have read the books have told me “this character hasn’t shown up at all,” or “this person is dealt with in much more detail in book three than in season three.” So they’re jumping around a little bit and I think they’re doing an incredible job with it. Maybe I don’t want to be influenced by how the book leads me chronologically compared to what they’re doing with the show. At this point I’m holding out.
I understand you’ve stated before that you don’t listen to film scores for inspiration, is that right?
That’s correct, yeah. Obviously, I do watch movies and I automatically pay attention to the music, but I don’t actively sit down and listen to film scores. I just feel that there’s other music that influences me more. For instance, I like the old great composers like Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mahler. That’s music I really enjoy. Or I’ll go in completely the opposite direction and it’s contemporary music, be it pop music or rock music, or even jazz. I jump around completely. I don’t sit down and listen to a film score all the time.
How difficult is it to avoid repeating yourself creatively? Do you feel pressure to keep pushing forward?
[Laughs] You know, it’s interesting actually, I’ve been asked that before and I guess we’ll see as I do more projects and my career continues. What’s very hard for a composer or band, or any artist is when you write certain music and you work on certain projects and that kind of defines your style. Then, if you do another project, there is this situation where people expect you to repeat your style again. Two different people might say “he’s very different,” or “he’s just ripping himself off”. I think it’s about getting to that place in between, where you develop further and you reinvent yourself. I think it’s something every artist struggles with. It’s that fine line between defining your style and always reinventing yourself, I guess. It remains to be seen as I do more projects. It’s an exciting challenge.
A version of this interview was originally featured on HBO UK in November 2013. It can be read here.