Ramin Djawadi is the reigning king of HBO soundtracks. After being the guy responsible for the earworm opening title music for Game of Thrones, as well as that show’s elegant and wide-ranging ensemble score on, Djawadi was tapped by filmmaker Jonathan Nolan to do the music for HBO’s latest hit series: Westworld.
The show, based on the 1973 sci-fi film by Michael Crichton, is about a highly advanced Old West-style theme park where visitors can indulge in anything their heart desires, at the expense of the park’s robotic denizens. Gunfights, romances, wild adventures — it’s all possible, that is until the robots start becoming self-aware.
Djawadi’s score works on two levels: He produces big, sweeping Western themes for scenes in the park but keeps it cold and electronic behind the scenes. The show has also gotten a lot of buzz for the delightful player piano easter eggs, where the musician-less instrument in the park’s saloon twinkles anachronistic renditions of contemporary songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” and the Cure’s “A Forest.
Inverse spoke with Djawadi about the difficulty in musically defining a show, and whether or not those player piano songs offer clues about the backstories of particular Westworld characters.
Was it important to have a musical contrast between the score used in the park and behind the scenes?
Absolutely. We have everything from these big action pieces in the park and then it goes all the way to these very minimalistic electronic cues. That was always a big part of the plan, that we distinguish between those two worlds.
It was all definitely carefully constructed to the point where the same piece of music might start on the classical piano and then it’ll transition to the player piano.
How did you approach writing Westworld’s title theme?
It’s always difficult to start with the blank page and to try to come up with an identity for a show. But what was great about this main title theme was we knew we were going to animate robot hands in the opening credits to play the melody. I came up with that, and then we literally filmed hands playing the piano that was then animated. The music wasn’t restricted to the sequence, so it gave me the freedom to come up with the melody and not try to hit specific visual moments.
You worked with Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan before on Person of Interest. Did he give you any particular ground rules on what he wanted from the musical palette of the show?
The score started to come together actually very, very early on. As he started working on the scripts I started writing the music in parallel. Most of the time I don’t start really writing until I actually have the visual in front of me on a screen, but in this case I would read the scripts and we would discuss themes or story arcs. Based on those conversations, I would go into my studio to write pieces to send them to him while he was shooting so he could give me feedback.
Was that creative difference more daunting?
That flow was actually great. I love the original Michael Crichton movie from the ‘70s, so I already had ideas in my head about some of the electronic elements I wanted to use. I just made up images in my head of what I pictured Jonah would do based on the script.
Was it difficult to have an amorphous musical idea suddenly need to match up to specific scenes?
Partly, but writing so far ahead worked out well because I would just write abstract pieces or emotional melodies, and they created a mood for what they would do visually, like the music for the montage the end of Episode 1 we called the “This World” theme. We made that way before and kind of laid it in and just kind of kept building it. It worked so well.
When did the player piano conceit come in?
That’s something that Jonah had mentioned to me very early on, so he had me do multiple versions of this song or that song. I don’t think there was ever any song that we wanted to put in that we didn’t end up using.
Did it bother you relying on known music rather than writing your own original music?
I think it’s great. It’s something that score just can’t do. This was the first season of the show so the themes were not even known to begin with. A song that everybody has known for years, you put it in like this and no theme can really have that effect. It’s such a powerful tool. Planting in contemporary songs reinforces the futuristic theme park setup. There’s definitely some more coming.
Was it easy to pare down and interpolate songs to make them recognizable?
I really enjoy doing it because its something I did as a teenager quite a lot. I would transcribe songs and either just play them on the piano or do orchestral versions of them too. So it’s kind of funny to all of a sudden have to do this for this show.
We don’t know when Westworld takes place just yet, but the contemporary songs so far have been late 1980s and 1990s stuff. Is that a clue?
Not really. I personally think they’re great songs and I think Jonah just loved those songs, so it doesn’t even matter what time period they’re from. The Rolling Stones song from Episode 1, for example, is from the ‘70s. They’re just good songs.
The Radiohead songs in particular kind of seem to be tied to Maeve. Is that something that you guys ever talked about?
I’m being sort of cryptic, but I’m not sure. Her story arc lent itself to these moments when we see her do things, and they just seemed to really fit with that.
Have you even begun to talk about what to bring to Season 2 yet?
Not at all. We’re literally just now finishing this season. I’m sure Jonah probably already has brilliant ideas and is figuring it all out, but I have no idea where it’s heading next. I’m obviously very excited that there is a Season 2, because I think the potential for where it all can take us is incredible. There’s still such great things about to happen at the end of this season, and to already know that this is going to go beyond that is really really exciting.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.