Ramin Djawadi not only creates music but sees it as well. The German-Iranian composer behind the eminently hummable and spoof-able theme to Game of Thrones has synesthesia (or the condition in which sounds also stimulate his visual senses), causing certain notes to be associated with colors. “It’s actually something my wife discovered,” he says. “She’d always asked me about my process and how I write music, so I just describe it to her. I see it in visuals and all the colors come to me and it triggers notes and melodies, and I didn’t know there was a terminology for it.”
Well, there is — and Djawadi’s rainbow of music has been translated into the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience, a nationwide tour in which Djawadi conducts local orchestras and choirs to bring the scores of Game of Thrones to stunning, colorful life. The blue hues of Winterfell surround the stage during the Starks’ themes, while Djawadi’s Targaryen-centric scores bring pyrotechnics to the stage. The performance showcases Djawadi’s body of work for the HBO drama and gives fans an opportunity to immerse themselves in the sound of the show. “I’m still blown away by the reaction from the audience,” he admits. “I wanted to do something different that’s never been done before, and every city has been amazing.”
Before heading on stage during the show in New York’s Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, Djawadi spoke with EW to look back on some of his most memorable arrangements, from Iron Man to Westworld.
Iron Man (2008)
Before Djawadi composed for the Starks of Winterfell, he helped define the sound of another Stark: Tony, a.k.a. Iron Man. Director Jon Favreau brought Djawadi on board to score the first film of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe — though, at the time, Djawadi had no idea the movie would launch a massive franchise. Instead, he simply focused on bringing out Robert Downey, Jr.’s charisma through music.
“The one really great thing I remember about working with Jon Favreau is in the beginning, he always went like this,” Djawadi recalls, miming Favreau’s passionate air-guitar moves. “He always wanted guitar. He always said, ‘Tony Stark is a rock star, a rocker dude,’ and he pushed the score away from what I felt up until then had been done with superhero scores that were more orchestral.”
Besides, the guitar is one of Djawadi’s main instruments, and he had no trouble tapping into his inner rock star. “I was happy about that, about rocking out,” he says, grinning. The result was a theme fit for a superhero unlike any other:
Pacific Rim (2013)
For Djawadi’s first collaboration with director Guillermo del Toro — the pair would go on to work together for the Del Toro-produced vampire drama The Strain — the composer got a chance to see the epic scope of the creature feature in person. “I’ll never forget when Guillermo invited me out to the set in Toronto,” Djawadi says. “I was only supposed to stay for, like, two hours to meet with him and talk about the film and then leave. He called me in and sat me down right next to his directing chair, and I got to see him work and be in the midst of it all. I was so inspired that when he said to me, ‘Hey Ramin, you know your flight is leaving,’ I said, ‘Can I stay a little longer?'”
Djawadi wound up staying the whole day after canceling his flight. Watching Del Toro work helped Djawadi craft a score that, like Iron Man, invited contemporary sounds. “Funnily enough, we also started with an orchestral [arrangement], and Guillermo said, ‘Let’s go more rock ‘n roll,'” he remembers. Out came the guitars again — and for even more rock ‘n roll, Djawadi worked with musician Tom Morello, who helped create the “stuttering effects” in the piece. The unusual beats evoked the mechanics of the machines but also blended into the strings. Though Djawadi says he won’t be working on the sequel — The Maze Runner‘s John Paesano will produce the score — the original theme is probably drift compatible with whatever sounds appear in the upcoming Pacific Rim: Uprising…
Game of Thrones (2011 – Present)
Scoring a song of fire and ice wasn’t easy in the beginning for Djawadi, who had to fine-tune his arrangement to what showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss wanted. “David and Dan had a very specific tone in mind for the score,” he says, adding that it couldn’t sound too similar to themes heard in fantasy video games or veer too medieval. “Whenever something sounded cliche for fantasy [genre], they would say no. The idea was always when you hear that music you’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s Game of Thrones.'”
Now, it’s impossible to mistake Djawadi’s opening theme for any other show — and yes, he’s heard the parodies, including the lyrically light Peter Dinklage version. “I love it, it’s hilarious,” he says with a laugh. “The South Park version is funny, too.”
Westworld (2016 – Present)
Working for Westworld was a no-brainer for Djawadi — not because he’s a host, but because he’d worked with creator Jonathan Nolan several times before. After meeting Nolan on Batman Begins, Djawadi collaborated with him on the long-running A.I. drama Person of Interest, which prepared him to tap again into the blood-and-chrome territory for HBO’s heady futuristic series. In fact, Nolan asked Djawadi to come up with themes even before shooting began.
As Djawadi wrote away, he tried to bring out the Westworld dichotomies — the future meeting the past, dreams meeting reality — while also emphasizing the piano, which he had used to great effect in Game of Thrones‘ sixth season for “Light of the Seven.” “Nolan wanted piano everywhere because of the player piano,” he says. “What’s really interesting about that score is blending the Western sounds and acoustic guitars and all that and then the electronics, so I got my synthesizers out and did some analog ’70s synthesizer sounds to pay homage to the original.”
In the end, it wasn’t the Westworld twists that surprised Djawadi: He confesses that he never thought fans would pick up on his arrangements for the player piano in Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) saloon, which riffed on modern songs that only made it harder for viewers to figure out when Westworld took place. “I just thought, ‘Oh, it’s just something in the background and people won’t notice,'” he says, “and then people were tweeting every week!” Looks like Djawadi brought fans back online.
Tickets to the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience can be purchased here.