Composer Ramin Djawadi may not be a household name, but you know his body of work — and he’s definitely having a moment now, with two of his compositions, “The Dragon and the Wolf” for HBO’s Game of Thrones and “Akane No Mai” for Westworld, both vying for an Original Dramatic Score Emmy at the 70th annual Emmy Awards next month.
Laying the musical groundwork for two of television’s biggest prestige hits would be more than enough to keep most people busy. Over the last 15 years, however, Djawadi has proven to be one of Hollywood’s most prolific composers, rising through the ranks by contributing additional music to an eclectic array of film and television soundtracks — and establishing a dizzying work ethic that continues to serve him well now that he’s an in-demand artist in his own right. On top of a year that’s already seen him deliver music for A Wrinkle in Time and the second season of Westworld, Djawadi is going on the road this fall, leading the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience tour through a series of North American dates in September and October.
While prepping for the Thrones tour — and getting ready to watch two of his compositions duke it out for Emmy supremacy in September — Djawadi took a few moments out of his schedule to talk with Rotten Tomatoes about the life of a screen composer, what fans can expect from those upcoming concert dates, and, of course, fielded a little good-natured prying about the final season of Game of Thrones.
Congratulations on the Emmy love. That puts you in some pretty incredible company, to be competing with yourself.
I still can’t believe it. It’s really exciting for me. Both shows are incredible, and I’m just fortunate enough to be working on them and working with the teams involved with both shows. It’s a great honor to get that kind of recognition — it’s wonderful.
Does it create any emotional weirdness in terms of knowing what to hope for? If one wins over another one, does that come with any kind of disappointment?
Well, I’m not sure, I mean, again, I’m just excited for both of them. You could argue that Game of Thrones has been around longer than Westworld, but honestly, either one — I don’t have a side or anything — I love them both equally.
It’s like picking between children.
Let’s talk about the logistics behind this tour. It seems like it would be a pretty massive undertaking — just going on tour in the first place is logistically intense, but to do it at this scale, it must require a lot.
Yes, for sure. It was a massive, massive learning curve for me. The first time around, it took us over three years to even just put it together and then to get out there. My day job, as I like to say, is still composing music in the studio. For me to actually be able to cover my schedule, do this, and also just get it all put together, it was such a massive undertaking. At the time, there were six seasons. We had to go through all the footage of being able to create this montage and just kind of putting the footage together to reduce it to a two-hour show — I had to go through all the music and decide what to play, and then being on stage and performing it in an arena, those were things I had never done before on such a scale. So that was all a big learning experience for me, but it’s been absolutely incredible to do.
You’ve talked about your process as being very solitary; you lay each of the instrumental tracks down yourself. It made me curious about how often you get the opportunity to even perform in a live setting, let alone one at this level.
Yeah, exactly, it’s not that often. I mean, film music festivals have been around for a while. They happen and they perform different composers’ music, and so there’s a couple I’ve been to, or at least we’d prepare the pieces that we performed live. There have been a couple that I would conduct myself. But they’ve been always small segments — sometimes three minutes, sometimes 10 minutes, and so I really hadn’t done a lot of them. I mean, I really primarily work in the studio setting where I compose my music and then when it gets recorded, I do that in the studio. Either I’m in the control room or I conduct in the studio myself. That’s all different from doing an actual live performance, so I really had not had that much experience with that at all.
What was the first night like for you?
Super exciting. I mean, the one thing I did have going for me was that I used to perform live as a teenager and in college a lot. You know, not on the scale of being in an arena and with a 75-piece orchestra, but just the sense of that live performance experience, I did have that, and I think that’s what helped me to not just be nervous and actually enjoy myself, which I really did. We had fantastic musicians performing the music, so it was a thrill.
There are so many things that can go wrong on the technical level, but it was so smooth, so I could really enjoy myself.
In dealing with so many moving parts, I would imagine that to a fairly large degree, you have to just get comfortable with the idea that a lot of what’s happening is beyond your control.
Absolutely. For example, we were just on tour in Europe with this for the second time. From one show to the other, things have to happen so quickly. The crew puts up the stage in record time and breaks it down and the next day, we’re in a new city and there’s just very little room for error. On one show, one of the trucks actually had a flat tire and all of a sudden, things got delayed — the stage got set up late and it cut into our rehearsal time, and those are just things you’ve got to react to quickly. You deal with it and again, because you have a great team, you make it work — maybe soundcheck is a bit shorter, maybe you play one song less during soundcheck, but the shows still have to happen.
What would you point to as some of the key differences that fans can expect between the versions of these songs that they’re used to and what they’re going to experience at the shows?
Well a lot of it is — and this was also part of the initial design in choosing pieces — some pieces are the same or similar to how they know it from the soundtrack or the show, but there are a lot of pieces that I arranged specifically for the live concert experience. Music is mainly the focus here, so I started with, “OK, which theme do I want to play?” There are a lot of pieces that are actually nowhere in the show or on the soundtracks, so there are familiar themes, but arranged very differently — and also arranged specifically for some of the musicians that are traveling with me. A great group of soloists are traveling with me, so I made sure that each of them gets featured nicely in those pieces.
I’ve spoken with a number of musicians in recent years who bemoan the fact that, in the home studio era, it’s become harder for studio musicians to make a living, and they often drop out — particularly people with the knowledge you need to perform or arrange classical music. With a project like this, you need people who really, truly know how to play, and it can be difficult to find people who have the necessary skills. Was that daunting at all, filling out the roster you needed to assemble?
Yes and no. I definitely agree with what you said, but on the other hand, I feel like it’s maybe coming back more and more; for example, with TV shows, there was a time when there was less and less live music to be scored for them, but now with some of these big shows, it’s actually coming back. I’m getting to record with Westworld and Game of Thrones and so these musicians are around — and actually, the minute I had this tour greenlit, I called up these people that I wanted to work with and made sure they could travel with me. I’m very happy to have these fantastic musicians on the road with me.
And the other great thing is, also traveling through these different cities, I actually get to — the orchestra and the choir are not on tour with me. Our eight-piece band gets to play with local musicians and perform with local musicians. I’ve met a lot of fantastic orchestras now in Europe and also across the country, and that’s another thing I’ve really been enjoying on this tour.
You talked about the recent ups and downs that TV music has had. I know that from a relatively young age, you wanted to go into composing, and given the state of television theme songs over the last couple of decades, I wondered, when you take a project like Prison Break or Game of Thrones, if you feel a creative chip on your shoulder or an added urgency to create something that helps to remind people of the power of this thing that recently seemed almost like it was in danger of going extinct.
When I grew up in the ’80s, all of my favorite TV shows always had these great openings, and it always got me excited. When the show came on and then the music, you know, you get prepped for your favorite show. That’s how I always approach my main titles.
I think there was a time when some of those main titles almost kind of went away — there would either be no main title or very short little stingers. A nice thing now is that main titles seems to be coming back — Prison Break had a 30-second main title, which was great, but with Westworld and Game of Thrones, it’s a minute 45. That’s a dream for any composer to have that long in the beginning to set up a show. When I write my main themes, I still treat it like — I remember when I was a kid, and I want the main title to drag you into the room. When the show comes on, when the melody comes on, you go, “OK, my show is on, I have to come in now and watch.” It’s been a great opportunity for me with these shows and with these main titles to do that.
Off the top of your head, can you name some of the favorite TV theme songs that you had growing up?
Do you ever give any thought to solo works, you know, projects of your own?
Absolutely, I mean, I’ve had plans to write a symphony forever now, and I’ve actually even started one, but it’s just been on hold. But yeah, one day I think I’ll pick it back up and finish and release and hopefully perform whatever it is. That’s always been a dream of mine.
So when you write for yourself — not in a setting where you’re doing it for hire — is there more of you in that music, or do you feel like people who’ve heard the works you’ve created for film and television already have a fairly good idea of who you are as a composer?
If I ever finish these pieces, to actually sit down and review how I’ve developed now over time doing movies and television shows, and how my style has developed, it will be interesting to see how much of me or my style is audible in that piece or how much different it would sound from other works I’ve done. That would be extremely interesting to see for myself how that would come out. Very interesting question, actually.
I don’t know how well you’ll be able to answer this last question, but I’ve read that you experience synesthesia when you write. I know you can’t discuss anything specific about Game of Thrones on the horizon, but I wondered if you could share the dominant color for the upcoming season.
Well, to be completely honest, I mean, yes, I wouldn’t be able to discuss much, but I can safely and honestly say that I don’t even know at this point, because I haven’t seen anything yet. I haven’t even started on it, so I’m in the dark at this moment. I’m not sure which color and which direction I’m heading — I have no idea.
I look forward to both of us finding out.
I can’t wait. You know, this being the final season, I’m super excited about it and super curious. Just like anybody and everybody else, I guess, I just want to see how this will end.
Djawadi returns to the road with the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience tour on September 6 in Seattle. Look over the complete list of currently scheduled dates below, and visit the tour’s official site for detailed ticketing information. The soundtracks for Game of Thrones season 7 and Westworld season 2 are published by WaterTower Music.
9/6 – Seattle, WA – KeyArena
9/8 – San Jose, CA – SAP Center
9/9- Los Angeles, CA – The Forum
9/11 – San Diego, CA – Viejas Arena
9/12 – Phoenix, AZ – Gila River Arena
9/14 – Denver, CO – Pepsi Center
9/16 – Dallas, TX – American Airlines Center
9/17 – Houston, TX – Toyota Center
9/18 – Austin, TX – Frank Erwin Center
9/21 – Tampa, FL – Amalie Arena
9/22 – Ft. Lauderdale, FL – BB&T Center
9/25 – Washington, DC – Capital One Arena
9/26 – Newark, NJ – Prudential Center
9/28 – Uncasville, CT – Mohegan Sun Arena
9/29 – Boston, MA – DCU Center
10/2 – Philadelphia, PA – Wells Fargo Center
10/3 – New York, NY – Madison Square Garden
10/5 – St. Louis, MO – Scottrade Center
10/6 – Chicago, IL – AllState Arena
10/9 – Detroit, MI – Little Caesars Arena
10/10 – Columbus, OH – Schottenstein Center
10/12 – Montreal, QC – Bell Centre
10/14 – Toronto, ON – Air Canada Centre