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Music to your ears – or is it?

This post by Phil Bowers originally appeared on the fantastic site World of Superheroes here

Sometimes you’re browsing the internet, minding your own business, when you come across something that infuriates you and makes you compelled to put pen to paper. In my case, it was this:

Now, of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but what frustrates me is that Hans Zimmer’s scores, particularly for the Dark Knight Trilogy have been personal themes for me, and I’ve listened to them when I’ve felt happy, sad, or angry. I’m a little upset that something so close to me can get whittled down to a collection of clichés by someone.

Every composer has his or her trademarks. You know when you’re listening to a John Barry track, just by how it sounds, similarly, you know when you are listening to a score by John Williams. To say a composer is limited, because you can identify his music, is like saying an actor is rubbish because you know it‘s he same person when they play a different character in a different film.

Hans Zimmer’s music has accompanied many a famous film, and also computer games, and rather than clichéd, it’s more iconic. His work on The Dark Knight Trilogy is but a small part of a larger discography that contains his musical fingerprints, but are not carbon copies.

Image via Warner Bros Entertainment

Image via Warner Brothers Entertainment

My favourite piece of the trilogy soundtrack is from 2008’s The Dark Knight. “A Watchful Guardian” is the track that plays over Commissioner Gordon’s final speech to his son, and over the beginning of the end credits. In incorporates the themes that Zimmer created for the characters of Batman, The Joker and Gordon, and melds them together, meaning that even the bleak ending of the movie features a stirring part of the score.

This particular piece of music suits many moods. You can listen to it when relaxed, as after the first few chords it settles into a softer piece tinged with regret and purpose. You can listen to it to uplift yourself, as the segue way into the piece at the beginning of the credits is an ideal confidence booster. The piece also has darker tones that are reminiscent of The Joker, and can easily make you feel the more brooding side of your own personality.

That Zimmer managed to incorporate all these themes into one piece of music at just over six minutes long is a testament to his success as a modern great, but it’s not just his work on the Batman movies that have brought him critical acclaim, despite it being nominated for an Oscar.

Image via Warner Brothers Entertainment

Image via Warner Brothers Entertainment

If you want to hear a different side of Zimmer, listen to the soundtrack from 2003’s The Last Samurai. Another tale of redemption set in the 19th Century, Tom Cruise’s US Army officer, tiring of conflict after the Civil War, agrees to travel to Japan to train their new army in modern tactics and firearms. He is asked to supervise the troops in their extermination of the last remaining Samurai warriors, who refuse to bow to the new ways. Finding his troops hopelessly outmatched and he himself captured by the Samurai’s leader, he learns the importance of honour and sacrifice, and the value placed on a society’s heritage.

Zimmer’s standout track here is “Safe Passage” a piece that carries heavy Japanese influence, and curious in as much that it peaks relatively early on, and becomes a far mellower piece as it progresses. Listening to it without the benefit of the movie being on screen, it’s easy to forget it’s part of a score, and as such it’s here that it truly becomes successful. The film is not an action thriller, but the violence in it is very graphic, and harrowing. As such, characters deaths mean more because they are not cannon fodder. The feudalism of 18th Century Japan left little time for tenderness, and the music when the remaining Samurai and their families travel to a safe haven is one of the few moments of relaxation in the film, when the characters are concerned with their own safety, and that of their families. The softer side of the music shines through, giving the scene some emotional context and showing that Zimmer is not all thunderous drum solos and electronica.

Hans Zimmer has done what few composers even come close to these days. He has transcended from the musical world to that of popular culture, like John Williams and John Barry did before him, but Zimmer has gone further, incorporating his music into other cultural influences like social media and video gaming.

His theme for Christopher Nolan’s epic Inception has become the stuff of urban legend, debated endlessly on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube comments. For those of you who haven’t heard the myth, watch this video to find out why Zimmer’s score ended up being more than just a soundtrack:

If you want more evidence that Zimmer is a better composer than some give him credit for, listen to the track “Time” from the Inception soundtrack, it’s quintessentially Zimmer, yet is far removed from the bombastic Pirates of the Caribbean or Dark Knight Trilogy.

Music will inevitably divide audiences, but scores for movies are their to compliment the pictures and words on screen. They are there to add to the experience. In my opinion, Zimmer’s distinctive tones compliment the movies he has scored brilliantly. They give mood, emotion and longevity to both the film itself and its soundtrack. Hans Zimmer’s work may not be to everyone’s taste, but you would be hard pressed not to recognise his music – and it’s different echoes. If you don’t, then maybe you should give it another listen. You might be surprised at what you find.

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