Film Composer Hans Zimmer Is on a Mission to Make Orchestral Music Cool
This year’s lists of top performances at Coachella, as declared by critics at Rolling Stone, Variety, The Los Angeles Times, Billboard, Hypebeast and us at L.A. Weekly, had the usual suspects: Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, Travis Scott, Lady Gaga, Radiohead. But one name that isn’t usually uttered in the same breath as the others also appeared over and over: Hans Zimmer.
The soon-to-be 60-year-old award-winning composer, who has upward of 150 memorable scores for film and television under his belt, isn’t known for his live performances — until now. The much-talked-about and endlessly streamed Coachella performance comes 10 years after Zimmer first had the idea of venturing out of the studio.
In a very long lead-up to Hans Zimmer Live, the monthlong tour he is on now, Zimmer performed at the 2010 Inception premiere in Hollywood with collaborator Johnny Marr at his side. The following year he performed a one-off show in the U.K. for the release of Kung Fu Panda 2 to a reported 10,000 people, then did two sold-out nights at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, once again with Johnny Marr, in 2014. He appeared alongside Pharrell Williams at the Grammy Awards in 2015 and did his first tour in Europe in 2016.
Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer performing together at Coachella earlier this year
Then came the historic Coachella performance, to a rapt audience of mainly millennials moved to tears, numbering approximately 70,000 — according to Zimmer's manager, quoted in industry trade magazine IQ and verified by Coachella promoter Goldenvoice as a fair guess.
“When you have crippling stage fright, you have one option: film composer,” Zimmer says pre-soundcheck in Philadelphia, one of the many cities on Hans Zimmer Live's itinerary. “That was my argument for staying in the studio. It has served me very well because films are a great storytelling outlet. I love the orchestra behind it, the myriad of different styles and not becoming pigeonholed in any genre. But Pharrell made it very tempting by almost offhandedly saying: ‘Hey, I’m doing the Grammys, want to play guitar?’ Only a fool would say no. And it wasn’t my show, so I could hide behind him, which was such a kindness. And it was exciting, tremendously exciting.”
For his own shows, the German-born Zimmer left his Los Angeles residence of many years and returned to his native Europe. As he says, “It felt safe to go home.” He specifically chose the traditionally rock & roll venue of Hammersmith in 2014, as during his time living in London he had seen many acts there that left a lasting effect on him. Plus it was a good place to break through the preconceived notions about orchestral music.
“I felt orchestras were dying by having elitism stamped all over them,” Zimmer says. “Once you get people to see an orchestra, they are blown away, but it’s really hard to get them to go. One idea I had about changing the orchestral experience was by taking away the wall created by the conductor and allowing an autonomous relationship between the musicians and the audience.”
Zimmer himself, now seemingly cured of his stage fright, moves between a multitude of instruments including piano, keyboards, guitar and banjo. His connection with the orchestra members is a lot deeper than when they're working together in scoring sessions, as is his connection with the music, which when met with real-time response from the audience gives Zimmer a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.
“I’m not doing movies back-to-back, but I return to the movies having learned something every night,” he says. “Things that I thought would fall a little flat are really embraced, and then some things, I realize, were just me being flash and have absolutely no emotional value.”
The set list for Hans Zimmer Live culls from Zimmer’s wealth of back catalog. Some highlights include The Dark Knight suite and medleys from Inception, Interstellar, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, and of course, one of his most beloved works, The Lion King. The selections go as far back as Rain Man and Thelma & Louise, drawing cross-generational crowds to the show.
Contrary to what you might expect, Zimmer does not have any formal music training. What he has is a cultural background cultivated by his mother, who would take him to classical concerts every weekend. Here he experienced conductors both great and not great.
A few years back, Zubin Mehta — “one of a very small handful of truly genius conductors,” according to Zimmer — led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in an evening of his interpretations of Zimmer’s scores. Says Zimmer, “I love what [Mehta] did because it wasn’t me. It could exist in its own right and it was something new — just like everybody around me brings something new to it.”
Hans Zimmer performing at Microsoft Theater in L.A. earlier this year
In addition to his orchestra, which he describes as a “once-in-a-lifetime group of musicians that, had it not been for waiting 40 years to do this, there’s no way I could have assembled them,” Zimmer has enlisted video and lighting designer Marc Brickman to come up with the tour's visuals. Just as he removed the conductor from the orchestra, Zimmer has removed images from the films associated with the scores performed. His reasoning: “If the movie is any good, you would get caught up in the story and forget about the orchestra.” Instead, he let Brickman into his thought process when he was originally composing.
“I’m telling him what I was really writing about,” Zimmer explains. “It wasn’t the words on the page or what you see on the screen but the subtext. A lot of changes [to the tour's design] happened — for example, in Inception, where it looked too modern and I kept saying, any science fiction movie, by nature, is nostalgic, and the colors and design should reflect that. [Brickman] is constantly shifting and coming up with new things and exciting changes.
“One of the great things about having these musicians around me is, if we come up with an idea, we can just try it out, add it in, ditch things, continually adjust. The big difference between a film score that is wrestled out of your hands by an impatient director and this is, it isn’t finished. It’s a constant work-in-progress. I keep re-composing. I’m working on a couple of lines in The Lion King that I wish I had thought about years ago. Imagine being able to go back into everything you’ve written and refinish some of them. That’s a luxury.”
Hans Zimmer Live on Tour comes to the Shrine Auditorium on Friday, Aug. 11.
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