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GAME OF THRONES – Ramin Djawadi

September 9, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Game of Thrones is a sprawling fantasy drama television mini-series made by HBO, based on the popular first novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Set in a fictional ancient kingdom similar to medieval Britain, it follows the fortunes of four noble families – the solid and gritty Starks, the manipulative and cunning Lannisters, the warlike but faded House Baratheon, and the proud and mysterious House Targaryan, the last surviving members of which have been banished overseas, but who have joined forces with the vicious and nomadic Dothraki clan and are looking to return home for revenge. The show has a sprawling, labyrinthine plot of murder, betrayal, sex, violence, magic and superstition, but at its core is about the four houses and their various political machinations to gain control of the fabled Iron Throne, and with it the monarchy of the kingdom. The show stars Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kit Harington, Harry Lloyd, Emilia Clarke and Jason Momoa, and received rave reviews when it premiered on US television in April 2011.

The music for Game of Thrones is by German composer Ramin Djawadi, who was a very late replacement for the show’s original choice, Stephen Warbeck. I have been very critical of Djawadi in the past, accusing him of having a limited dramatic sense and a disappointing over-reliance on the Remote Control sound that has dogged his career to date, through scores like Iron Man and Clash of the Titans. On this occasion I am extremely happy to report that his work here is excellent; for me, it’s the best score of his career to date, by quite a large margin, and indicates that, given the right sort of inspiration, he is more than capable of weaving together a tapestry of fine motifs and instrumental textures, all of it backed by a strong and powerful main theme.

The “Main Title” is excellent, a driving, propulsive piece anchored by a lamenting theme for a solo cello which is easily hummable and instantly memorable, as all good TV themes should be, and is made all the more memorable in context when it accompanies the show’s outstanding main title design. Variations on the main title theme and its underlying ostinato appear in later cues, such as “The Kingsroad”, “Things I Do For Love”, “Jon’s Honor” and “Game of Thrones”, giving the score a semblance of continuity and thematic consistency.

The rest of the score, however, is rather subdued, and this may come as a surprise to those with certain expectations about stories set in medieval fantasy realms, as Game of Thrones is. Although warfare and magic do play a part in the story, at its heart the show is a political drama, and as such does not require the bombastic action and pageantry that often accompanies stories of this type. Instead, Djawadi scores the emotion, the intrigue, and the nuance in the story, making use of location-specific instrumental textures to illustrate the almost incestuous relationships between the houses and the families, as alliances are made, and broken.

The Starks tend to be accompanied by strong, earthy tones which speak to the family’s sense of togetherness, their attachment to solid, strong roots, as well as the physical harshness of the land they call home. The Lannisters, whose home is a land of natural beauty, sunlight, flowers and easy comfort, have a much more florid and lighter musical depiction, with greater use of woodwinds and higher register string writing. The Baratheons, epitomized by the bumbling presence of King Robert, have a sort of quasi-medieval pageantry in “The King’s Arrival”, which seems to reflect the slightly out-of-shape and out-of-touch figure Robert represents. The heraldry is there, but it’s sort of half-hearted and almost tongue-in-cheek, as though the subject of the respect is no longer worthy of it as he once was. Meanwhile, the exiled Targaryans and the warlike Dothraki are more traditionally ethnic, making use of middle Eastern and north African tones, as evidenced in cues such as “To Vaes Dothrak”.

The more supernatural elements of the story are covered in cues such as “North of the Wall”, which rumble threateningly with dark dissonant tones, ethnic percussion, low-end string chords, chilling chanted voices and a very clever wind-effect which captures the bleakness and bitter cold of the wild lands from which the threat emanates. These ideas stretch into cues such as “The Wall”, “Winter is Coming”, the aforementioned “Jon’s Honor”, and the stirring “The Night’s Watch”, all of which deal directly with The Wall (a massive barrier of ice and rock which keeps the evil of the north out) Jon Snow (Stark’s illegitimate son), and the Night’s Watch, a legion of would-be soldiers which man the Wall, often against their will.

The score contains several excellent cues which illustrate this stylistic location-specific writing. The vaguely Celtic-sounding cello theme in “Goodbye Brother” is lovely, if a little morose. “Love in the Eyes” and the haunting “When the Sun Rises in the West” uses mandolins, heavy percussion, and what sounds like a shawm oboe to create a vivid and exotic atmosphere. “Await the King’s Justice” is a slow-burn piece of depth and complexity which uses layers of sound and a lonely harp texture to build up its tension. The harp is used differently again in “You’ll Be Queen One Day”, giving the cue a sense of medieval innocence and fragility that perfectly encapsulates the childlike naïveté of Lord Stark’s eldest daughter, Sansa.

Later, the terrible revelation in “Black of Hair” is captured by that cue’s slowly rising tension chords, while “Kill Them All” has a crushingly tragic tone that cleverly re-works the main title ostinato into a palpable string lament. The extended “The Pointy End” is a half-merry half-serious tribal dance for Lord Stark’s youngest daughter Arya, as she learns from the eccentric teacher how to protect herself with a sword. The brief moments of action are vivid, although even here the tones are restrained and do not explode as much as some action lovers may have hoped. “The Assassin’s Dagger” has a sharp, shrill woodwind element, while “Small Pack of Wolves” again showcases the jagged solo cello, offset by surging string writing and throbbing percussion. The score’s potent conclusion begins with the desperately tragic “King of the North”, in which Djawadi allows his cello writing to take center stage and perform a gorgeous plaintive theme for one of the show’s most emotionally shattering scenes, and ends with the powerful pairing of “Fire and Blood” and “Finale”, which gradually grows into a dramatic denouement for all manner of thunderous percussion instruments, the feather-like textures of the evocative shawm oboe, and a stirring choral element underpinned by the main title ostinato, which is quite excellent.

Make no mistake, Game of Thrones is a quiet, understated score, which apart from the excellent main title is light on thematic writing, and contains a great deal of subdued atmospheric scoring which some listeners may find dull, especially if their previous exposure to Djawadi has been through Iron Man and Clash of the Titans. Personally, I found Game of Thrones to be an engrossing, intimate work which beautifully highlights the instrumental textures of Djawadi’s orchestra, as well as creating an overall atmosphere of moody darkness and encroaching danger. It’s also proves to me that there is a side to Ramin Djawadi which is more than capable of subtlety and restraint, intricate writing, and intelligent decisions in terms of orchestration, which provide the listener with interesting sounds and moods which expertly reflect the show’s evocative settings. It’s a side to Djawadi that I want to hear more often.

Rating: ****

Buy the Game of Thrones soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:46)
  • North of the Wall (3:48)
  • Goodbye Brother (3:07)
  • The Kingsroad (2:06)
  • The King’s Arrival (3:34)
  • Love in the Eyes (4:00)
  • A Raven From King’s Landing (1:16)
  • The Wall (1:59)
  • Things I Do For Love (1:52)
  • A Golden Crown (1:38)
  • Winter is Coming (2:42)
  • A Bird Without Feathers (2:02)
  • Await The King’s Justice (2:00)
  • You’ll Be Queen One Day (1:36)
  • The Assassin’s Dagger (1:19)
  • To Vaes Dothrak (1:29)
  • Jon’s Honor (2:35)
  • Black of Hair (1:40)
  • You Win or You Die (1:57)
  • Small Pack of Wolves (1:57)
  • Game of Thrones (1:18)
  • Kill Them All (2:35)
  • The Pointy End (3:16)
  • Victory Does Not Make Us Conquerors (1:35)
  • When The Sun Rises In the West (2:40)
  • King of the North (1:28)
  • The Night’s Watch (1:44)
  • Fire and Blood (4:30)
  • Finale (2:31)

Running Time: 66 minutes 12 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-7097 (2011)

Music composed by Ramin Djawadi. Additional music by Bobby Tahouri. Edited by David Klotz and Robin Quinn. Album produced by Ramin Djawadi.

  1. September 10, 2011 at 1:13 am

    ****??? Only main theme, but rest…. the rest is silence.

  2. September 10, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Excellent review. I’m anxious to Planet Of The Apes…

  3. September 11, 2011 at 7:40 am

    I found this score competent, and agree with your sentiments on the main title and finale, but most of the body of the work is extremely dull. It’s not derivative the way Djawadi’s other works have been, but it’s also a less interesting listen divorced from the show. And I’m saying this as a big, big fan of the series: I think some of the things you’ve drawn from the music weren’t even put in there by Djawadi on purpose (i.e. the varying tones for the varying Houses, none of which I was able to pick up on other than the increase of ethnic percussion for the Dothraki). Have you considered that the reason “The King’s Arrival” sounds half-hearted might simply be that Djawadi couldn’t do any better, and not any attempt to comment on Robert’s ineffectuality? (For the record, I actually think it’s one of the better cues, but…)

    Also, you didn’t comment on how utterly dreadful and painfully low-budget the orchestra sounds. The strings are particularly washed-out-sounding. Some of the Filmtracks Composers’ Challenge entries sounded better than this.

    Overall I’d give this a low three stars. There was potential for a far better score here – and I don’t necessarily mean a more bombastic one, but a more obviously thematic and orchestral one. Djawadi’s music, in context, hardly ever makes a statement other than in the finale and main titles, and there are tons of scenes where no music would have worked just as well.

    Wow, this post ended up being longer than I’d intended. :p

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