Inspirations 4: Hans Zimmer

Is there a commercial composer anywhere that isn't inspired by Hans Zimmer? Whether you like his music or not, the man's work ethic is inspirational in itself. I'm a firm believer that success comes to those who work hard, and I think there are very few exceptions to this rule, particularly in the film and music industries.

I don't really remember when I first became aware of Hans Zimmer's music - he gradually came into my consciousness somewhere during my teenage years with Batman Begins and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise - and from then on I was something of a fan. Zimmer's music is hard to miss if you watch films with any sort of regularity, thanks to his prolific output and passion for collaboration.

I think his high turnover sometimes means that he has become vulnerable to accusations that his work lacks originality; there are scores like Man of Steel where I'd agree that this may be the case, but more often than not he produces scores that are very special indeed.

My favourite Zimmer score - and indeed, probably my favourite film score ever - is the one for Inception, Christopher Nolan's fantastical, dreamland thriller. HZ manages to create a distinctive ethereality in the sound-world for the whole film, which for me is the key to this score's success. 

'Old Souls' (above as bonus track 'Dark Mal') encapsulates everything I love about Hans Zimmer. You hear the track and you're instantly transported into Cobb and Mal's limbo world, as Zimmer skilfully and tastefully combines synth elements with orchestral sounds, as is his hallmark. Whenever I've spoken to or read things by people who've worked with Zimmer, one thing that they often mention is that he is a highly skilled 'spotter' - in other words, knowing exactly where music should go in a film, and what sort of music it should be. 'Old Souls' is a perfect example of this - everything in this cue tells us that we're in a world different from our own. With the sparse, spacious pads, the delicate piano melody, or the slow pesante string chords in the background, this combination of sounds and textures is wonderfully judged.

As I mentioned at the start, Zimmer is a passionate collaborator, consistently seeking other composers and musicians to work with, in order to elevate his work to new levels (and possibly also to lessen the workload on himself). The man himself repeatedly mentions how highly he values collaboration in interviews and so on, and I couldn't agree more. It has frequently been my experience that working with one or more other people on a creative project lifts my work to a different plane - taking on characteristics that would never have developed if I were to work alone. As such, I'm always interested in opportunities to do so - if you have a cool idea and want to work on it with another creative mind, get in touch

In the meantime, let's keep writing, keep practising, and keep inspired. Thanks for reading (if you've made it this far), please share this with friends if you've enjoyed what you've read, and hopefully I'll see you next Friday. 


Inspirations 3: Coldplay

I remember staying up late one evening in the spring of 2005 to hear the live performance reveal of Coldplay's third studio album, X&Y, on BBC Radio 1. I'd been a fan of their music for a number of years after someone gave me A Rush of Blood to the Head for Christmas, and then Parachutes became my first ever album purchase shortly afterward. I can still recall the excitement I felt when hearing X&Y for the first time; they played Fix You as an encore and I was blown away.

The thing that I love so much about Coldplay's musical offering is the affecting, anthemic sound that has become their hallmark. Whether it's the rousing chorus of Yellow or the distinctive bassline in Paradise, Coldplay are able to make music that retains an anthemic quality whilst developing and evolving over their many years at the top of international popular music.

I don't ever set out to write an anthem per sé (and I'm sure Coldplay don't either) but I do try to develop a sense of size and scale that engulfs the listener. I love it when you're listening to music and it gradually transcends reality, taking you on a journey to a new emotional space.

I think this idea of a musical journey through a single track is one that Coldplay have really honed over recent years; it's a skill we hear clearly in Fix You, starting from that lovely mellow organ, and growing into the famous, epic guitar line; then again more recently in Atlas, following the soft piano opening arpeggios with the huge, reverberant sound of the chorus. They've mastered combining smaller sounds with larger ones to give each track a sense of space and scale.

Part of what makes Atlas so appealing to me - as well as the size of the sound - is the distinctive harmonic progression of the verse and chorus. Atlas has unusually long spaces between cadential resolutions which mean that certain progressions come as a pleasant surprise. While I don't hold harmonic invention as a focus in my work, I still value those small tweaks and reveals that can add freshness and interest to a track.

It's something Coldplay have been doing for years, though, and now have down to a fine art. Compare Atlas to Daylight from the band's second album, and it's easy to hear a sense of harmonic freedom that is less refined than what we're used to in their more recent work. As time goes by, I hope to find a secure stylistic voice that allows for space for invention and innovation. I've said that I don't currently hold it as a focus in what I do, but it's still important to evolve and grow with trends and tastes.

This steady and gradual morphing of my musical and artistic output is one that should continue for as long as I'm working; I don't ever want to become stagnant or stationary, and I want to continue to write music that sounds as anthemic and infectious as I can.

Next in this Inspirations series, I'll be looking at a film composer whose prolific career has seen him win over 100 awards and score more than 150 films since he first achieved fame with The Buggles in 1981.

In the meantime, let's keep writing, keep practising, and keep inspired. Thanks for reading (if you've made it this far), please share this with friends if you've enjoyed what you've read, and hopefully I'll see you in two weeks' time (no post next week as I'm on holiday). 



Inspirations 2: Arvo Pärt

'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication', said Leonardo Da Vinci. It's a sentiment that can perfectly be applied to the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, one of the great post-minimalist composers of our time. 

With some of the articles in this Inspirations series, I'll look at artists where there are multiple facets of their work that inspire me, and with others I shall feature them in this series because there is a specific feature our quality in their work that I admire. With Pärt, the main thing that inspires me so about his music is the straightforward, essential sound that he is able to produce, and the gravitas and, indeed, sophistication, that come with that. 

In general, there is something I find very impressive about creatives and makers who are able to produce work that has integrity and elegance whilst having only the most elemental musical components to make it work. Pärt's work falls into this category. He writes music that is refreshingly unfussy, with no superfluities to hide behind. Live performance differs slightly from production in this way; I'm learning that in production, the devil really is in the detail, and so I try to make interesting background textures and non-linear or -looping elements. Equally, it's so important to remember that it's easy to over-write. Much of the detail in my work often needs to remain below the surface, where interest is added subtly. Pärt is a master of writing only what is completely necessary, and that is a confirmation that I must apply to my own work. With every element, every layer, every texture, I have to make myself decide whether I need it. 

Spiegel im Spiegel is one of Pärt's most famous works, and for good reason. The astonishingly simple piano line forms a framework upon which the violin melody can float. Much of Pärt's music fits within a similar aesthetic and somehow managed to occupy the delectable middle ground of being respected by music scholars whilst holding widespread appeal. I love how, in this piece, he creates such atmosphere and emotion from a few crotches and dotted minims, a piano and a violin. No pretence, no fluff. Just sound, and nothing unnecessary.

Next in this Inspirations series, I'm excited to be talking about a British band whose second album was the first album I ever owned, and their third album shaped a huge part of the way I thought and felt about music for a long time.

In the meantime, let's keep writing, keep practising, and keep inspired. Thanks for reading (if you've made it this far), please share this with friends if you've enjoyed what you've read, and hopefully I'll see you next time.


Inspirations 1: Bethel Music

For me, the biggest drive to write music comes from the desire to make something that touches people's hearts, and is profoundly transformative to their lives and work. As a result, I write music that stirs something in me with the hope that it will do the same for others. What I'm going to begin here is a blog series discussing my inspirations, both musical and extramusical, partially to help me formalise my thoughts on this, but also because I think it might be interesting! 

I'd like to begin with Bethel Music. Lyrically, their music speaks to me on many levels, but it's more than their chosen subject matter that resonates with me; musically, their songs have drive, dramatic shape, and a strong emotional impetus, which combine together to produce a style that is deeply affecting.

I think part of what I love about Bethel is the amount of care that they pour into their output. It's clearly not just about creating fantastic music, but also about doing it well - with polish, in a way that people can immediately and easily enjoy and immerse themselves in. The scope and scale of their most recent videos display their desire to impress as well as output quality songs.

The production and engineering in their work is consistently excellent, too - this is an area where Christian music sadly often lags behind the mainstream - but Bethel are thankfully ahead of that curve.

I'm all too aware that my current musical output isn't particularly adventurous - my desire is no longer to be groundbreaking or avant garde - but this in itself presents a greater need for a focus on my own production in order that my music can achieve greatest impact and do itself justice. Bethel do this very well. They don't do anything particularly new musically but their finesse in production and focus on the detail allows their music to really hit home. It's a skill that I'm still learning and improving, but the more I write and practise my production, the more impact my music will have.

The way that they compress and mix their snare drums, frequently using two kits (often combining a snare hit with a tambourine hit) is one such example. The compression gives the snare a slightly punchier attack whilst having the effect of lengthening the duration of the snare hit itself. The addition of a tambourine in the mix also adds to this sensation of a reverberant snare. Although at times, they do add reverb to their snares to increase the epic sensation of a tune, their general tendency to inhabit such a sound-world gives any given album or collection a distinctive feel.

While attention to small detail is important, Bethel are also masters of larger compositional details like structure and pace. They aren't afraid to repeat a section in order to give the music more time to gradually build, and they know how to pace a specific track so that their songs peak at exactly the right time. These points are equally as important in a film music context as a worship music one; music must build gradually to hit the emotional peaks at exactly the right pace. Building sections mustn't rush or drag; finding the middle ground is crucial.

If you listen to my own track, And then, the mountains moved, you may notice a few of these points being applied. Most importantly for me in this track was getting the pacing right. It's rare that I'll start a track at such a dramatic level, but here it felt right to open with that epic string sound, with the deep, reverberating drums. I wanted to plunge the listener straight into a world where they could imagine a mountain shifting. Then, suddenly, this epic sound dissipates and we're left with a delicate piano. After the unrest and energy of the opening it comes as a pleasant tonic, and slowly begins to grow until, finally, everything slows down as the piece concludes.

Next in this Inspirations series, I'll be looking at an Estonian composer whose music has such elegant simplicity whilst retaining an emotional gravitas that demonstrates his skill and class.

In the meantime, let's keep writing, keep practising, and keep inspired. Thanks for reading (if you've made it this far), and hopefully I'll see you next time.