Game of Thrones (Ramin Djawadi)Posted: November 19, 2011
Final Musings: A weak and even dull score but a rather surprisingly effective effort by Djawadi with some good highlights. It may be an unpleasant experience for fans of fantasy music, but its Djawadi’s best and leaves solid potential for a sequel.
George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones was first published on August 6, 1996. Since then, the series has garnered an enormous fanbase. The reception to this hit series has been enormously positive with some critics even daring to hail him as the “American Tolkien”. I myself have onlyrecently been exposed to this literature and boy was I blown away. It was certainly not up there with Lord of the Rings (then again, nothing really has reached that high for me) but it was definitely one of the most original and enticing fantasy works I’ve been exposed too.
A Game of Thrones isn’t your typical fantasy. It’s an intricate tapestry of multiple sub-plots and storylines all weaving together for a larger purpose. You don’t get your share of optimism and wonder (instead you get a bunch of plot twists). No. George R.R. Martin provides a deep sense of realism and paints the brutal nature of the realistic Middle Ages. It is a dark story about the struggle for power, and the corruption of the mortal world. You don’t get your share of noble and honest characters. But that’s one of the things that makes A Song of Ice and Fire such a great masterpiece. Instead of elaborating more on it however, I suggest you go read it yourselves (for those who haven’t got the opportunity to do so).
An HBO miniseries adaption of the infamous novel was premiered on April 17, 2011. Originally Stephen Warbeck was listed to score the project. But to much of our disappointment, he was given the boot and not-surprisingly RC composer Ramin Djawadi was given the gig. A Game of Thrones is an intricate story and if given the time and effort, it could have spawned a score that would have been almost thematically equivalent to Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, thats not we got.
Initially, I hated the score with a passion. I thought a show with this kind of depth definitely deserved a score of greater intelligence than the one it received. However over time, my opinion has slightly changed.
First of all, let me say that I believe this might Djawadi’s best score to date. Yet some might not think much of that. The main theme is average at best, but it really does start to grow on you eventually. At first, in context, one would think the score was bland and mostly droning. There is still is an extensive amount of droning in the score, but Djawadi did surprisingly address the many concepts of the show thematically. There is a lovely Celtic sounding theme for the Starks that debuts at ‘Goodbye Brother’. The Stark children also receive a pleasant 3 note motif. There is an ominous synthetic motif for the Wall and the Others (definitely could have been better). The Baratheons get a theme that attempts to capture a heraldic nature although it doesn’t quite get there. There is a love theme/motif for the romantic relationship between Daenerys and Khal Drogo on what I believe is the duduk. Moreover, there is a a theme for Daenerys and even an ominous motif for the Targaryens. He ties these themes and a couple of other motifs all together with constant repetitions of the string ostinato from the main title (which might start to get on your nerves at some point). So interestingly, contrary to what one would initially think, Djawadi actually employs quite a bit of themes to address the complexity of the story. Not to mention he does utilize them well on the show.
Now here come the cons, and they’re rather extensive. First of all, just because there are a lot of themes, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re that good. The Starks do receive a rather beautiful theme, and well certain renditions of his themes surprised me (in a good way), considering I expected much less from Djawadi. The main theme also started to rub off on me and Daenrys’ theme was enjoyable in its form in the Finale. But other than that, many of the themes are rather weak and unmemorable, or rather never given enough ‘oomph’ to shine. The music for the Wall was just downright disappointing with its synthetic meanderings. Which brings me to the score’s droning nature. Sure, one can easily dismiss it as an effective atmospheric score….but really I can’t do the same. There have been some excellent atmospheric scores in the past, but this is not one of them. The score largely consists of droning with synthetic tones or just long bass notes (that are not unlike Inception…what is up with RC and droning these days?).
Yes, Game of Thrones is just largely a ‘talking’ show or a political drama. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that this composition is largely just lazy. There actually several moments in the show where there are excellent opportunities for the music to really shine in context. How does Djawadi address these moments? With percussion loops and the easily identifiable string ostinato. This is really sad, because there were tons of moments where I as a viewer expected strong musical statements and Djawadi never really does that until the excellent Finale. Take for instance ‘Small Pack of Wolves’. It addresses the action with the solo cello and it is so darn simplistic. Speaking of which, this score is largely dominated by the featured solo cello. At times it is effective, at other times its quite irritating (to the extent of insanity). To add on, at one point, the redundant main ostinato may annoy the hell out of listeners. Take for instance the cue ‘Game of Thrones’. The cello plays a crude choppy version of the ostinato that is quite cringe-worthy. Basically it seems like Djawadi copied the same ostinato and pasted it for a bunch of different instruments in the exact same nature (sometimes altering it when it plays in the background of another theme) all around the score without considering the effect it has instrumentally. The ostinato on the cello was terrible in its staccato like nature so approach those moments with caution.
Furthermore, the sound of the whole score is rather bad. The terribly cheap synthetic sound of the low-budget orchestra will hinder one’s experience. The strings sound washed out and the overall sounds created in the more layered portions of the score sounds like a really messy wall of sound. Just take for instance ‘The Night’s Watch’. While the cue is pretty good and seemed to have rousing intentions in mind, it sounded terribly cheap and sometimes sends shudders down the spine (and not in a good way). Another instance is ‘King of the North’, which could have been quite epic if it didn’t have that extremely cheap, washed out sound. Perhaps this might explain the simplistic nature of much of the score and why Djawadi often refrains from layering his orchestra. Most of the time, its just bass and melody on top. Or bass, percussion then melody on top. Or even just bass. Often he utilizes solo instruments to add colour, and while this effective at times, it doesn’t always work in lifting up the score from its gloomy mess. It once again gives the feeling that there is a lack of proper substance in this score. For instance, the Dothraki music is just percussion + duduk melody. Stark music is often just bass+solo cello. The music for the Wall is usually just synthetic meandering from the its respective motif.
But this score isn’t all bad. At some moments, Djawadi can actually yank at your emotions. Take for instance ‘Kill Them All’, which is one of my favourite Stark moments and is actually offers an emotional punch in its designated scene in the show (although even in this cue…the droning and the ostinato don’t fail to appear). Another lovely musical moment for the Starks is ‘Victory Does Not Make Us Conquerers’ which is quite touching (especially in context…and guess what? you hear the ostinato here too!!!). It is at these moments that I admire the cello work in this score but when I end up listening to the cello’s applications in ‘Game of Thrones’, I can’t help but begin banging my head against the Wall. OH the simplicity….its as if he had nothing to come up with so he just did an inferior version of the main titles. And the ostinato never really stops to pop in and remind the listener that they’re listening to GoT (and it can drive one to the point of insanity, as mentioned above) like The Kingsroad which is really just a slowed down bass heavy version of the progression. One thing I appreciate about the score (as I mentioned before) is how Djawadi actually applies themes specifically in accordance to the visuals. Take for instance, the Baratheons theme (or this might end up being the Lannisters theme). It has its heraldic form in ‘The King’s Arrival’ (one of the better cues in the album…but really not that great), its romantic application in ‘You’ll Be Queen One Day’ or its dark nature in ‘You Win or You Die’. That cue also introduces what I call one of the two ‘dread motifs’ which were used well in the show. On that note, something else I noticed was that the dissonant crashes (very synthetic unfortunately) that are not unlike what you hear in the beginning ‘You Win or You Die’ were effective in the beheading scene.
That being said, the score’s droning portions are often rather useless in context and the scenes might have had an equal effect without the music at those times. Therefore, there really isn’t a big excuse as to why much of the score is just droning. And as I said before, in many of the more ‘musical’ moments of the show, the music fails to live up to the rousing visuals at such times. Take for instance the scene where the northmen were crossing the Twins or when they arrived at the bridge. The music was definitely trying to be intense but never really reaches the climactic proportions you would expect.
Then of course comes my favourite cue in the score. ‘Finale’! This is actually quite a strong cue and is extremely effective in context. The choir soars with Daenerys’ Theme backed up by the main theme. It is a fantastic piece of music and it was the first cue I turned to when I got the album and I found myself wondering what theme the choir was singing. I didn’t realize it was actually Daenerys’ theme for a while because her individual theme is actually quite subtle in its applications in the show (her material is largely dominated by her ‘love’ theme for the Khal). On that note, here are the big highlights that one could take of the score. Main Title (interestingly enough, this is probably the most layered piece of the whole score and probably the best track along with Finale…which is odd considering I initially thought it was average, but I guess it grew on me…or maybe it just outshines the rest of the score), The King’s Arrival (although its not that great), You’ll be Queen One Day, Kill Them All, The Pointy End, Victory Does Not Make Us Conquerors, King of the North, The Night’s Watch and especially Finale.
In the end, this score is surprising. Its not that great and I definitely didn’t think it was as intelligent as some others made it out to be. Yet I would argue this might just be Djawadi’s best score yet. To simply put it, the score is simplistic, largely dull in most parts, very synthetic, instrumentally weak and its themes aren’t very memorable. But the score really does pick up in the end, and one must admire the extensive themes Djawadi creates for the topic and there are several highlights one might enjoy. The score isn’t ‘epic’ but this score has potential! It just never soars out of its muddiness. But I would be interested to see where Djawadi goes from here in the second season and the development of Daenerys’ theme and the lovely Stark material. If it weren’t for the terribly dull nature of most of the score and the lack of intellectual material, this score may have been more enjoyable because the end portion of the score does offer some compensation for the dull hour you have to sit for. I still don’t think this score deserves the heaps of praise its receiving (it might be so because people initially had really low expectations hearing Djawadi’s name because for his standards, this pretty high). But I do actually look forward to the next score and hope for some improvement because there is potential.
As Heard on Album: **1/2
As Heard in Context: ***
Overall: * * *