The Sound Of Music: Celebrating Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer

At the 94th Academy Awards, Hans Zimmer won the Oscar for Best Original Score for his work on Dune. This is only Zimmer’s second Oscar win in his 40 year career, and his first for scoring a live-action motion picture.

Although it is baffling that Zimmer did not win an Oscar for The Prince of Egypt, Gladiator, or Interstellar, Zimmer’s win for Dune shows that the Academy still has the ability to stop, listen, and acknowledge genius. And in Zimmer’s case, it is a genius with enviable pedigree.

Zimmer began his career as the assistant to film composer Stanley Myers. Having worked as a synthesist for various bands, he began to apply his knowledge of electronic music to the indie film scores he worked on with Myers. The pair’s fascination with the hybridisation of traditional orchestra and synthetic sounds would go on to shape Zimmer’s signature sound.

The bridge between Zimmer’s career as a composer for British independent films and as a mainstay of modern Hollywood was forged by the success of two specific film scores; those for Rain Man and The Lion King. Zimmer’s score for Rain Man is synth heavy, lead by panpipes, underpinned by steel drums, and occasionally punctuated with a didgeridoo. The mismatch of organic instrumentation and synth works eclectically well and it earned him his first Academy Award nomination. 

Five years later, Zimmer was asked to work on The Lion King. Zimmer admits that he was initially hesitant about scoring an animated film, but he took the job so that he would finally be able to take his young daughter to the premiere of one of his films. This score would go on to win Zimmer his first Academy Award. 

It was also the first of many animated films to be scored by the German composer. His scepticism about animation seems ironic in retrospect, considering that he is now the head of the film music division at DreamWorks studios. His scores for Madagascar, Megamind (co-composed with Lorne Balfe), and Kung Fu Panda (co-composed with John Powell), whilst often overlooked, are filled with warmth and zany energy. Granted, they may not have transformed animated film scores in the same way that The Dark Knight did for superhero cinema, but they have Zimmer’s distinctive flair nonetheless.

Zimmer’s work in the 2000s and 2010s saw him align himself with mainstream Hollywood, starting the Millennium with a Golden Globe-winning score for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. This was followed by a string of hits across multiple franchises, from The Da Vinci Code to Sherlock Holmes. Zimmer’s work on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise remains some of his most recognisable. He oversaw the production of the swaggering ‘He’s a Pirate’ theme in The Curse of the Black Pearl, before creating the music-box melodies and Bach-infused tracks of Dead Man’s Chest, and the majestic suites of At World’s End. These scores showcase Zimmer’s capacity to excite the masses without pandering or suppressing his own creative instincts. This was the period in which Zimmer became a household name, revered in the industry and beloved by audiences alike—a position he has upheld ever since. 

This is also when Zimmer first established ties with Christopher Nolan. This partnership would lead to some of his most influential, unconventional scores; the discordant one-note cello motif for the Joker in The Dark Knight, the booming bass of Inception, the ticking clock motif in Interstellar, and the shepherds tone of Dunkirk. In all of these films, Zimmer demonstrates his penchant for the experimental, creating the new where the existing did not satisfy. It is not an exaggeration to state that Zimmer revolutionised the sound of cinema, especially in regards to the superhero and science-fiction genres. 

In celebrating Zimmer, you cannot fail to celebrate many of his collaborators; conductor Gavin Greenaway, cellist Tina Guo, vocalists Lisa Gerrard and Loire Cotler, guitarist Guthrie Govan, flutist Pedro Eustache, and instrument engineer Chas Smith. Many of these artists have worked with Zimmer for decades. It is obvious that his unconventional style is a compelling draw for musicians who favour exploration over convention. Whether it be weighing down piano pedals with bricks to produce the ultimate reverb, or using PVC piping to modify instruments, Zimmer and his team are committed to the evolution of music in an almost Frankenstinian way.

The pinnacle product of this experimentation is Zimmer’s otherworldly score for Dune. Zimmer was a fan of the Dune books as a teenager, and he didn’t watch previous film adaptations because he knew that they would not sound like he felt they should. This score is so distinct and so fresh that it seems to have come directly from teenage Zimmer—channeling the uncorrupted creative vision of his youth through his capable hands.

Complex, rich and textured, the experience of listening to the score is so far from the familiar and the expected that it veers on the sublime. The soaring electric guitar motif exhibited in ‘Leaving Caladan’ provides a moment so visceral that you will struggle to stop thinking of it, while the bagpipe fanfare of ‘House Atreides’ is breathlessly thrilling. Zimmer knew that he wanted to create something that sounded like nothing else on Earth, and that’s exactly what he did.

Zimmer composes like a child playing with a set of Lego, ignoring whatever instructions came with the box in favour of pure creation. He hardly seems to acknowledge the boundaries that he steps past. Who else could compile electronic drums, throat singing, zurnas, electric guitars, cellos (mimicking “Tibetan war horns”), and bagpipes into a thematically cohesive, utterly transcendent score? Perhaps only Hans Zimmer could, or perhaps only Hans Zimmer is brave enough to try. 

So, where to go from here? Zimmer’s last Academy Award nomination was for Dunkirk. Since then, the Oscar for Best Original Score has been awarded to Black Panther, Joker, and Soul, all of which are the type of mainstream Hollywood movie that Zimmer often works on. It may well be that Zimmer will not have to wait long for his next Oscar. After all, the sequel to Dune is already in production, and Zimmer is busy composing. 

It’s going to be difficult to top the score for Dune, for what could possibly go beyond The Beyond? But if anyone can rise to the challenge, it’s Hans Zimmer.

Words by Briony Havergill

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