How Hans Zimmer composes
Playful even with 165 million dollars at stake.
Listen to this as you read: Interstellar Definitive Cut
Imagine being Hans Zimmer. Nolan approaches you. This will be his magnum opus. Over a hundred million dollars is going to be spent. You need to make a banger score. What do you do? "A-minor," you say. "Tease that out for 5 minutes straight. Flowing and complex arpeggiation, but hold the A-minor. Then, once you can’t take it anymore, BOOM, G chord." The crowd goes wild. Tears flow down the faces of adults and children alike as we watch McConaughey do heroic spaceship stuff to the sound of a single chord on a church organ.
Where do you get the balls to make something so simple for something so grand?
The answer to that question is also the answer to the question, “how do you become a great artist?”
You know it when you hear it
It’s nothing more than the straightforward every-musician-knows-it feeling of "holy shit, this is awesome."
Zimmer and Nolan don't need musical theory to prove that to them. They can feel it in their gut – deeper than propositional knowledge. On the surface, it's a good time.
How did they know?
When we no longer feel the urge to go out and ask the external world, "Is this good?" that’s when we’ve made something truly great.
Greatness is, at its essence, having something to say beyond wanting to please who you’re speaking to.
Repetition, arpeggiation, and tempo -- are all felt in the body and psyche -- someone with no appreciation for harmony and tonal shifts can experience them. There's maybe a rational elite who undercuts the power of these raw musical elements. But Hans shows that even if you strip all chord movement, a single chord can do so much.
When you have something to say and know how to say it – that’s play. This becomes absolutely clear once you’ve felt it.
Greatness is adults playing
Kids play, but they don’t know how to do anything. Adults know how to do stuff, but they don’t remember how to play. But what's the doorway to combining both?
One doorway is music. That's why you listen to music — why you're unconsciously inspired by it. You can smell enlightenment — which is the combination of knowledge and play. You feel it when you listen, but you suddenly forget when you go to make something.
We’re trying to mimic the movements of his fingers without understanding the state of his spirit.
Play requires fluency
Yes, yes. You have to know how to play music, too.
To get to the play as an adult, you have to practice. Practice so much that you become “fluent” in the language of play you wish to speak. Music, fiction, sleight of hand magic. But fluency alone is never enough. You must have something to say.
But, famously, Hans Zimmer had no formal musical education beyond two weeks of piano lessons. “I’ve always heard music in my head, though,” he says.
Why is it so easy for children and Hans Zimmer and so hard for us?
Play walks unencumbered
Zimmer doesn't mind lingering on the same chord for 5 minutes because he can feel that something impactful is building momentum.
You don’t mind repeating the same joke 50 times when you're in a playful mood. You’re in the zone. No formal education will tell you to repeat the same joke 50 times – but sometimes you know to keep hammering. Your friends are in tears. How do you have that trust?
Trust comes from being in touch with the moment, not the theory, which is too often burdened with obligations. The spirit of play walks lightly. Unencumbered. Nothing can travel well with play. It has to go alone. What is the reward for being unencumbered? If you can keep doing it even when money or status is involved – the entire world. The unencumbered man has Hans Zimmer's career.
And it's true.
It's truer than a mere scientific fact could hope to achieve. Great people seem to intuit this as a fact of nature, while rule-followers are always playing catch up. Einstein, for example, saw his work as an artist's expression of God. People who study Einstein now try to explain away his spiritual side as if that was a deviation from his genius.
No, it was the source of his genius.
Theory will only take you so far. To go beyond, you have to step into something you don’t understand.
Homeless people are to us what we are to Hans Zimmer
We have accumulated so much baggage in our years on this planet. Facts, memories, identities. All hurdles to being able to play.
I live in LA, and I see homeless people walking around with shopping carts full of trash. They’re just like me; only it’s literal baggage instead of emotional. I often look at them, yearning to help them. To say, "Just get rid of all that shit, man! You don't need it! In fact, it's holding you back. Throw it all away, I'll take you to get a shower and some clothes, and we'll get you a job and a place to sleep by tomorrow!" But we already know how that would go.
To Zimmer, that must be what we are like. Lost souls babbling about our misfortune, carrying houses and heads full of bullshit, wishing and raging that things could be different.
Only, they could so easily. If only we would be courageous enough to let all the garbage of the past go. Drop it all and move forward into a state of unencumbered play.
Go beyond the theory of what we’re trying to do and into the void of who-the-hell-knows-what.
Egos have no capacity for beauty
They only create things in their image. Ugly, self-reflective, overly indulgent, and complicated.
Anxious rule-followers (the same ones who explain away Einstein’s spirituality) often look back in hindsight, saying, "Well, obviously, Zimmer did that. I could have done that if I wanted to. It's just three chords. It's not even that complicated. It's all just marketing." Willful blindness. Hateful ignorance. You hide beauty from yourself because it's actually terrifying compared to who you are. But there is no getting around beauty. You can't deny it. Even the most cynical person gets tears in their eyes and chills on their skin when they are exposed to a great score.
It's what everyone wants. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
The nearly unlearnable lesson
Creating beauty is an act of blind, idiotic faith.
We look at something like Zimmer’s score and refuse to learn the right lessons. We either try to copy the movements or deny the transcendence with our numbness.
Stepping out and creating something that could only be done in the ecstatic union of a unique individual and the creator of the cosmos -- the rules that bind us all, if you like.
We have a lot to learn from Zimmer.
We are so much closer to being world-changing musicians (or whatever equivalent) than we think. But it's right on the other side of a door that we are holding tightly.
We demand our limitations like a crying toddler, and God bemusedly obliges.
Thanks for reading,