When I found out I was going to be interviewing the film-scoring maestro Hans Zimmer, I had to suppress all the nerdy, music-school questions I had.
I wanted to ask him what his working relationship with directors like Christopher Nolan and Ron Howard was like. I wanted to ask what it was like to supervise the work of artists like Daft Punk on the Tron: Legacy score or Elton John on the Lion King soundtrack. I wanted to ask him about how he discovered the iconic one-note blast from Inception that has influenced every single action movie trailer since its release. If I’m being completely honest, an iOS app was probably the last thing I wanted to ask him about.
But as Zimmer would soon show me, the worlds of epic film scores and a free-to-try iOS apps are one and the same.
Zimmer grew up in a family where technology and music have always co-existed. Even as a child, his hybrid musical worldview has always seemed natural. He calls it a “divided family”—his mother was a musician and his father was a technologist. In other words, he’s always had a foot in each camp. The fact that he learned some of his musical chops in sweaty rock clubs while playing keyboard with New Wave bands like Krakatoa and The Buggles instead of in a classical music conservatory probably helped a bit too.
“When I started, I didn’t know that synthesizers, electronics and computers weren’t supposed to co-exist with symphony orchestras. It’s all technology—it doesn’t matter if it’s made from a piece of wood and bits of a dead cat or if it’s made from silicon. If it makes a good racket, it should co-exist and we should see what happens we mix it all up. If you have two contradictions colliding, something new is going to come out of it.”
These colliding contradictions are plain enough to see if you take a listen to the score of a film like Inception or The Dark Knight. But Zimmer’s role in the industry has become much more than that of a composer—he is an integral part of raising up an entire generation of young music-makers. At his studio in Santa Monica, home to his production company Remote Control Productions, Zimmer has constructed a new vision of collaborative music-making—one where technology sits at its very core.
Having learned music with a computer in front of him, Zimmer has always been a connoisseur of fine digital synth software and smart musical algorithms. But his affinity for technology and love for experimenting has also led him and his company to build their own tools for music creation from the ground up. Zimmer has opened his studio and technology to musicians, composers, directors and learners of the art form from across the spectrum. But Zimmer doesn’t see himself as a teacher.
“It’s not teaching people anything. It’s letting them be a part of something. When you’re in the room with a great director and the composer and they’re talking about the problems that need to be worked out—the ones that every film has—you see questions which seem impossible to answer, begin to be answered. It is very different from school where people present you with a question they already know the answer to. In our case, we are sitting here saying, ‘We have no idea how we’re going to do this.’ Process is everything. Process is what we want people to engage in. Ultimately, all we want is for people to have the courage to experiment.”
Giving people that courage to experiment is what his newest technology-music mashup project sets out to accomplish. VJAM is an app that lets its users take a video clip with their iPhone, edit it and then add a piece of pre-recorded music to it. The song bends, fades out and wraps itself to the video—just like a good film score might. The app even features an epic overture of Gladiator-size proportions by Mr. Zimmer himself.
“Let’s say you have a bunch of photos and you want to go and do a slideshow. In the way it’s been in the past, you would go and get a random piece of music to put behind it and things just fell wherever they fell. But with our technology, we know what the piece of music is that you start out with so we know how to edit it. You don’t know have to know how. The music will automatically fit your vision a little bit better.”
VJAM is just one side of the coin, though. Similarly named company UJAM has created a whole assortment of tools and programs to open up people’s imaginations. They have released a nifty song remixing software, a program that is made for businesses who are looking for ways to incorporate and edit good royalty-free music for their advertising, and even UJAM Studio, which is probably the most legitimate in-browser DAW and sequencer I’ve ever used. All these different apps and pieces of software fit into a unified vision for the company that focuses on bringing music-making tools and resources to mass audiences.
“It really started from a conversation that I and a good friend of mine, Pharrell Williams, were having. We are always talking about technology and music and different ideas—but one day we started thinking and talking about just how lucky we felt. We get up every morning and we get to go to the studio and play music. The operative word in our lives is the word ‘play’—music is something you play. We never have to grow up— we’re always playing. If you want to look at where the world is right and the problems we have, I think one of the big problems is there isn’t enough playfulness and humor in trying to solve these enormous problems we are constantly faced with. With UJAM, we just tried to come up with systems of algorithms and software that would make it so that if you heard something in your head or if you had an idea in your head, you could at least get it out there. It’s not about breaking the rules, keeping the rules, or even knowing the rules. It’s about having a point of view. You might actually end up doing something truly wonderful—but it doesn’t mean you have to learn the piano.”
Film scores have always sat in an uncomfortable place for serious musicians. Although many people claim fervent love for them, they are rarely taken seriously by either the pop music community or the classical music community. They fit somewhere in between. They exist in the tension between a sophisticated symphony orchestra and a droning buzzsaw synthesizer. They sit in the background of a film and yet they are often the most powerful part of a film; They’re colliding contradictions, so to speak. But a musician who has devoted his entire life and career to an art form that many people don’t take seriously, you might think Zimmer might be a little worried about that.
“Don’t listen to people who say you need to find your voice. That’s rubbish. You are born with a voice—it’s your point-of-view. The real question is how many things can you do with your voice? Driving Miss Daisy and Gladiator are very different from Black Hawk Down and Batman. It’s a game, and if you’re playful about it, you’re not going to regret how you’ve lived life.”
He seems to be okay with it. In fact, I don’t think he’d have it any other way.