Amazing Afternoon with Hans Zimmer
I sat nervously in his studio, waiting for his grand appearance, and I’m not really the type to get nervous. I’m pretty cool-headed about such matters, but I’ve always considered Hans to be a great man. And whenever I have a deep channel of artistic respect for someone, I start to feel the vapors a bit right before a meeting.
Waiting for him was nerve-wracking. I had been in his studio about a year before, but that time I was alone the entire time. I wanted to come in and take photos since I had heard legends of his studio. A mutual fan (and friend now!) was able to get me through the impossible labyrinth of people to gain entrance to this valhalla.
Now, I’ll get to the bit about our meeting in a moment, and I’ll tell you about all the wonderful insights I uncovered. It was so interesting. But I won’t tell you everything we discussed. There was some personal stuff, Hollywood stuff, project stuff, and things of this nature. Maybe one day I can talk about them, but many things I can talk about here are still more than interesting.
I had been ushered into one of his studios by the security staff. It was a Sunday afternoon around 2 PM, and his whole building there in Hollywood was fully staffed. He had a full team running around doing god-knows-what. I just assume it is awesome, whatever they are doing. They were going about it in a nonplussed manner, but when they would disappear off into hidden doors and hallways, I could only imagine they must be working on amazing things. I mean, they were probably not. They were probably doing things like making sure there enough granola bars in the kitchen for the coming week, but part of me thought of fanciful things happening behind the doors.
While I sat there, I could see the entry hallway through the giant soundproofed door that led into his studio. I had to think about where to sit in his cavernous boudoir. There were about 13 different seating options, and every surface was so lavishly cushioned that I could have oriented myself 3 different ways, making a total of 39 different combinations I had to consider. I didn’t want to sit too far away from the door, because then we would have one of those awkward walk-across-the-room handshakes where you have to hold your arm out while you approach the other person, almost as if it is a joust.
So I chose one of the couches near the door and put my bag on the ground. I didn’t want to stare out the door, because then Hans might be uncomfortable while I watch him walk down a long hallway into the room. And as I thought about this, I started to think I had made a bad seating decision indeed.
I then decided it would be best not to look down the hallway, and just look around the studio, which was fine enough. There’s lots to see. But every 45 seconds or so, I would hear another set of footsteps in the hallway. Some sounded like slippers, sliding hurriedly across the floor. I could picture Hans wearing slippers and a robe while he went about his composing business. Maybe he was really eccentric like Hugh Hefner. He is very German, after all, and those Euros can get away with being wonderfully eccentric. I would not have minded, but I was also afraid to look. For every click of the shoes, I tried to picture who might be wearing them. But all this staccato wondering did is just add more butterflies to the mix.
While I was looking around his studio, I started looking at the lights. They are these wonderful Cheesecake-Factory-like lights. That seems like a horrible thing to say about the lights, but I think everyone can agree that the Cheesecake Factory has relatively cool lights. They have warm colors with nice designs that cast a varied warm glow across the room… Anyway, I was looking at them and the chains from which they hung.
There were four brass chains that came down from the ceiling, which itself is a textured deep red paisley pattern. You could not see how many light bulbs were in the lights, but there must have been two because you could see eight shadows of the chains, splaying out in all directions across the ceiling. Towards the middle of the circle, the shadows were tight and looked like well-defined sine waves. As they got further and further, the amplitude and blurring increased, and they looked like sound waves shooting out in all directions.
And then, seemingly from nowhere, Hans blew into the room. He shook my hand graciously, and he said, “You must excuse me, as I absolutely have to visit the loo.” I laughed and said, “Of course, of course,” and with that, he had come in and out of the room like a pleasant jingle you’ve never heard before.
So then I was more relaxed. He’s just a regular guy that has to go to the bathroom, like anyone else. And that made me feel better.
And then he came back in, graciously re-introduced himself, and sat down at his nearby chair. I remember that chair from my last visit, because not only did it sit in the middle of a semicircle of NASA-like equipment, but it also had a had a black sweater draped across the back. It seemed a very personal thing to me, a favorite sweater over a chair, and I remember thinking how nice it was to touch it.
So Hans was in his chair and asked me what had brought me to LA. I told him about meeting with my agent and inchoate plans/projects, but I didn’t really want to drone on about my stuff. He doesn’t really care, I figure. Or maybe he does… I didn’t know at that point, but generally I prefer to keep my synopsis of “What’s new in Trey’s Life” to a minimum, because I’d rather take the conversation into uncharted territory.
What did I want to talk about? I’m most interested in talking about things that no one has ever talked about before. Asking the sorts of questions that are unexpected — not because I’m trying to be random, but because I genuinely wonder things about Hans. His music fills my right brain while I’m out on location, taking photos, or when I’m in my home studio, candles lit, and Photoshop firing away on all 8 cores.
When I look at a photographer’s work, I mean really look at it, I feel like I get a little insight into their soul. With music, I’m on uneven ground, and occasionally see the shape of certain truths. I try my best to reverse engineer his thoughts and feelings when it comes to a particular part of a song, but all of this is laced with a lot of uncertainty from my standpoint, you see.
And it is a delicate thing to ask these questions in a reasonable manner. As we get going here with our conversation, I’m secretly hoping that Hans is also only interested in discussing the kind of things that have never been discussed before.
I don’t want to ask questions like an annoying NPR reporter that is trying so hard to let the author know, “Hey I’m also smart because I’m spouting off all this BS that I kinda know about, and I can ask really long questions because I’m so freaking clever.” People do this to me all the time, and I know the red flags. I had a certain advantage here, in that I have vast experience with the full spectrum of empathy. Since I am slightly famous in my own field, I am approached all the time by all sorts of people. Most all are good-intentioned, and I’m sure a good many of them are nervous as hell, but I do notice when something is a bit awry. It’s hard to explain, but you can feel it.
In a way, none of this was part of my conscious thought … Because very quickly we were talking about art. And when it comes to this topic, I do not worry about the conventions, nor do I second-guess anything I am saying. And neither is he. I ask him admittedly clueless but interesting questions about music, and he asks me admittedly clueless but interesting questions about photography. We generally agree that there is a “ring” when something feels right and you know you are done with a piece.
30 minutes into 3 hours
We had planned on a thirty-minute meeting, but we ended up together for about three hours. Here’s more or less everything that happened.
I’ll start with one of my favorite discoveries. You go through your whole life thinking something is for sure, and you take it for granted, and then something pops out of the unknown to rock your foundation. This was one of those times, and this is a pattern that I’ve been seeing again and again in the past few years. And the only way I’ve figured out to challenge these cornerstones is to ask interesting questions to see what happens.
Before I get to the bit about Hans, I’ll tell you the bit about Matt Ridley. And I’m not name-dropping here — but his is part of the theme of great men that I had false assumptions about. Not that they are not great men — but there is something that I had always believed that was suddenly no longer the case. It didn’t make me think any less of them, but it does clarify things in a poetic sense.
Matt Ridley is a famous author that has written countless best-selling books like Genome, The Origin of Virtue, and The Rational Optimist. And, before meeting him, I had read them all. Voraciously. Now when I met this guy, I was thinking, this guy is going to be one smart son-of-a-gun. It’s going to be like having a conversation with Wikipedia. He’s going to find me completely mundane, like a graduate student who keeps using the centrifuge in the wrong way. Anyway, I’m thinking all this and worse before I meet him. So I build up this whole impossible relationship situation based on his Deep Blue knowledge set, and none of it pans out once we actually get to know one another.
So while I’m talking to Matt, we’re talking about circulatory systems and I mention this passage in one of his books where he talks about bees. They don’t really have circulatory systems and the blood just kind of sloshes around their body while they fly around. He doesn’t recall this, and I find amazing since he probably knew this fact and a great many others. Now, it doesn’t mean that I remember all the stuff in his books, but I remember the part about the bees. And then I mention another part of his books, and he doesn’t quite remember that either. While I say this stuff, he squints his eyes as if he has a shadow of a memory of something like that, but it’s not within his immediate grasp.
And then I remember this one moment that I will never forget. I was getting ready to give a talk at this science-libertarian event, and I was making sure Matt was comfortable in his chair before the talk. I’m always nervous before the presentation for people like him.
We are exchanging small talk before the event, and then it dawns on me! I look at him, and I say, “Matt, I have it figured out! You are a great writer, and you take all of this amazing stuff you find, piece it together into a theme, and write very complex books. It all goes down on paper into these fantastic tomes. But, you are, in a way, like a cheese-cloth, and some of the knowledge sticks on you, but most of it just passes through. You only have command of about 5% of that stuff at any given time, yes?” And then he looks back at me and says, “Yes, exactly.” And he bobbles his head in such a way as to say, “Of course, doesn’t everyone know that?” But that’s the thing — I think we all assume that people that write these amazing books know everything that is inside of them. But this is not true, and it was very exciting for me to learn this.
Now back to Hans, because I made another exciting discovery. And the one with Hans was even more meaningful because it was directly related to my life.
Hans loves technology, and he didn’t get serious about composing until he had computers. All of the software tools have helped him to do amazing things. Even though much of his youth was infused with music, he did not go about composing the way others did. He waited and brought a unique background and started relatively “late” in the game. Straight to digital. He certainly knows how to play instruments, but from what he was saying, he never got into the “composing” elements until computers were sophisticated enough to enable him to take things to a new order of magnitude.
And this is exciting to me, because he’s the only other person that I have met that has leap-frogged his way into an artform. I told him how other photographers constantly cast aspersions that I’ve never done film, and I’ve had no formal training, and all this sort of stuff. I never know how to react to this. Of course, I know that not having formal training enabled me to bring a completely different tool set to the sport. And since I don’t know the limitations of film, I don’t know the limitations of film. While I am in a digital world, I know there are no limitations. I never thought of a “right” or “wrong” way to do anything… but of course this is the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom.
While I talk to Hans, I’m still getting my head around what he is telling me here. I’m trying not to “see what I want to see”. People do this, of course. Sometimes when I talk to people, they’ll hear whatever they want to hear, no matter what I’m saying. So, I’m careful of this when I talk to other people, and I probe further.
He’s off in the bookshelves trying to find a photography book to show me. I’m still trying to see if this new realization is true, and I ask him, “Don’t you have other musicians come up and ask you about other famous musicians that you are supposed to know? You know, the famous composers that everyone learns about when going through formal training?” And Hans says yes – this happens to him all the time, and he rarely knows who the heck they are talking about. Because he’s off in his own world, doing his own thing in his own way. And this is very insightful to me. He kind of feels bad about it, like I do. But then we talk a bit and decide that we have no need to feel bad about it.
And, even writing about it, I should not even use the word “we” anything. It’s not like I am at that level of awesomeness in my own field. But, I did get great insight from this exchange. It is clear to me that you can excel in any field if you do not know the proper rules of how to excel.
I had been a Hans Zimmer fan a long while before I realized he did the music for the Lion King. I mean, come on, the Lion King! It’s spawned countless musicals, stage-plays, and multiple versions of all that music. And the topic of the Lion King comes up.
And keep in mind, this wasn’t an interview or anything. It’s just two dudes being dudes. The only reason I write about all this is, well, I have a blog, and if this stuff is interesting to me, than I know it’s interesting to you too, yes?
I mentioned I was recently in Beijing and I heard sounds from instruments that struck me as completely foreign. And, in fact, they didn’t sound right at all. So that led to a discussion of certain vibrational instruments and if he thinks that some tones and sounds ring back through our ancestry. I wondered if perhaps we like particular sounds and we just don’t know why we like them. He enthusiastically said, “Oh yes!” and then went on to tell me about the Lion King.
“You know, Trey, that song in the beginning? When the African guy is singing all those sounds?” I nod. “Well nobody knows what the hell he is saying!” He laughs and goes on to say that these tones and sounds that have roots in Africa make sense to everyone around the world. There is something that is soothing and happy in a lot of these sounds, and no one can quite put their finger on it. But, obviously, something ancestral is going on.
And these sounds I heard in China, it was after the ancestral split, and the music there evolved in a different way. There are still elements that have their tonal roots in Africa, but newer, unknown sounds came into their “genome” as well.
Hans is very visual. There is some popular thought out there that people are either inclined to better perceive audio signals or visual signals. And, further, there is an old chestnut that people are “visual learners” or “audio learners”. Well I’ve never accepted most conventional wisdoms, and I don’t accept that one either. I don’t like to use Hans as an example, because he’s obviously an exceptional human, but he is indeed a perfect manifestation of audio and visual working in concert.
He told me about seeing a famous pianist in concert. I forgot his name. But Hans mimicked the motion on his keyboard of his finger coming off a key and hanging in the air. He said the sound stayed in the air, ringing for a long time. He loved it so much, and he got the MP3 to listen to at home. But, he said, the experience was more sterile and somewhat dead. Without the visual of the performance, he had trouble getting into the music.
And this, he thinks, is a problem with MP3s. They are just audio, and he thinks that we need many senses to fire at once, all together, to have a moving experience. This makes sense, and helps me better to explain my old thing about “we don’t record the world around us like JPGs on a hard drive” van-down-by-the-river-talk that I always give. Hans has said it in a more elegant way, and that is nice to think about.
So, putting two and two together, this is obviously why Hans likes to make the soundtracks for movies. Because you cannot think of a scene without the music, and you cannot listen to the music without thinking of the scene. They are connected in that important neural network that forms emotive memories.
Overloaded with Responsibility
“There are many out-of-work musicians, you know,” he laments. We’re in the middle of a conversation about working on so many sequels. He told me which ones he’s doing, but I won’t repeat them here. There’s another aspect that I never considered that drives him, all of the people in his orbit.
With is NORAD array of computers, he can “fake up” an orchestra with a slide of his mouse. But, Hans is aware of the “fragile existence of orchestras.” The idea that we can all come together as the public and hear a real orchestra play is still very important, so he still commissions the actual work to be done by a mass of passionate individuals. The new sounds that emerge are still so different, and much more organic, than what comes out of a computer alone. Many humans can come together to make something more special than several computerized sound-samples coming together.
And then Hans has an even higher magnitude level of romanticism around the entire orchestra. He says that we, as humans, “would suffer an irreplaceable loss of grace” if he and other Hollywood entities stopped being a vital part of this circle of life. And if everything were to be computerized, he laments, “the uniting emotional experience we get from hearing and seeing a great orchestra would end.”
So this too is very interesting to me. I am often off on my own, doing my own thing. I have no orbit of people that depend on me, save the small family-like team here at Stuck In Customs (clever sys admins like Dean, jaunty support like Luke, and I could go on and on). The idea that Hans can be an independent creative force whilst maintaining a tether to a huge economic subsystem is remarkable.
And then the topic moves from this and sequels to new things. You can see a massive change of countenance when he talks about these new things, like Inception. He can really be wildly creative and experiment boldly. Have you seen his Inception music-dream app for the iPhone? He put it out there for free for the fans… and it has over a million downloads. These are the kinds of paths that appear with his unencumbered creation.
So Hans has all of these tools at his disposal. All kinds of software, hundreds of thousands of sound-samples, visual textural overlays that can be converted into sound, and more. He gesticulates towards them and says he doesn’t know why he has all this stuff because it takes him an eternity to make something he likes at times.
He jumps up and motions me over to this bizarre Chinese instrument. I don’t know what it is, but it looks like a wooden harp laying on its side. He stands over it, and I’ll never forget his expression. He’s both glowering at it and admiring it at the same time.
Looking up at me he says, “I have a deadline approaching and I need some Asian music.” He shakes his head, motioning over towards all his digital stuff on the other side of the room. And then he says, “Watch this. I will make this up as I go.” And he begins to pluck a few strings on one end of this instrument. It sounds perfectly magical, and he raises his eyebrows in a humorous way. I’m laughing now, because I’m completely enamored that Hans has created something just for me, and because he’s hardly even trying.
Back on the couch now, and he’s showing me a photo book called “Chaos” by Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer. I flip through it slowly while he talking about using his iPhone to snap photos. He’s wishing he could take better photos.
I mention that it’s better than nothing, and I wonder about people that take no photos. I wonder if they even notice the beauty in little things and I feel like it is a waste. Then I say, “But you must think something in parallel about people like me, that do not have a sophisticated ear for sound.” To him, I must move through a world bereft of interesting noises, much like non-photographers move through a world where little things have no beauty to them.
“Oh, yes,” he smiles in a serious and fanciful way. “I find tremendous beauty in the sound of an air conditioner clicking on.”
Finally, it is time for me to go. I had actually tried to leave earlier, even though I didn’t want to. He was very busy, I know, and I felt like I was slowing down the world a little bit by slowing him down.
He was wearing that same black sweater that I noticed when I was first there. I remember it even better now when he hugged me good-bye.