The music man of 'Gladiator,' 'Pearl Harbor'

Composer Hans Zimmer believes that sleep is highly overrated. "I dream all the time, that's part of the job," says the musician whose score for "Gladiator" was nominated for an Academy Award. His latest work can be heard onscreen in "Pearl Harbor."

Mr. Zimmer says he makes an effort not to take the conventional route on any of his projects, which have included films like "Hannibal," "The Thin Red Line," and "As Good As It Gets." Certainly, his path to becoming one of the industry's most prolific film composers has been anything but conventional.

Raised in Europe, he got his start in the pop world. As a member of the British band the Buggles, he helped write the first music video to air on MTV in 1981, "Video Killed the Radio Star."

Quickly deciding that pop stardom was not his destiny, he segued into a behind-the-scenes career with early work on such blockbuster films as "Rain Man" (which earned Zimmer the first of his numerous Academy Award nominations) and "Driving Miss Daisy."

In June, Zimmer released "The Wings of a Film: The Music of Hans Zimmer," a CD of a live performance of selections from his film scores, the first concert that he has performed with a full symphony orchestra. It was recorded in October at the Flanders International Film Festival in Ghent, Belgium, the only festival in the world to focus on film music.

Zimmer says that film soundtracks are coming into their own as a musical form.

"In the 12 years I have been doing this, soundtrack sales have been growing," he says. "It seems that they are this generation's alternative classical music." To underline his point, he relates an anecdote about his 3-year-old son, who had never heard of Mozart. "He looked at me and asked, 'What movie did he write for, daddy?' "

The title for the CD came from an observation made by "Gladiator" director Ridley Scott about the musician's work. Mr. Scott said Zimmer's scores provide "the wings of a film."

The musician, who has specialized in combining electronic sounds with acoustic, says that he sees his work as that of a poet. While he enjoys working behind the scenes, his role is also collaborative: He is no gun-for-hire.

As an example of the power of music, he points to the opening scene of "Gladiator," which won last year's Academy Award for Best Picture. The image is of a hand floating over a wheat field.

"The whole idea of a gladiator is so macho," Zimmer says. "I wanted to know how we could make this poetic. In a way, music is what gives the director the license to hang onto a moment like that."

His job as a composer is to enable directors to be poetic.

"That's the way collaboration works," he says. "We could have this incredible male thing with bloodshed and all the rest, but the next thing you see is a poetic image with quiet music."

When he tackles a new project, Zimmer says, he approaches it as an actor might, looking for the heart of a character. "It's always weird, little things that will give you a hook."

The Malibu, Calif.-based musician traveled to the set of "Gladiator" in the UK.

"I was on that battlefield on the first day of shooting; there I was, far away from the 21st century, and the mud was black," he says. "I'd left civilization behind, sitting in that amazing tent surrounded by black mud."

He began to hear the music for the film in his head during that experience, he says. But he has yet to work out any formula for creating new compositions.

"Sometimes things come fast, sometimes they take weeks," he says. With that, he echoes a sentiment any composer might identify with: "The ideas are easy, but writing the good tune - ah, that's the tricky thing."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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