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The War Zone

Hans Zimmer goes to battle for Black Hawk Down

By Daniel Schweiger

Excerpted from FSM Vol. 7, No. 1, on sale soon...

If you didn't know that Hans Zimmer detested man's habit of blasting his neighbor to bits, then you might think his music positively adored it. Listen to such such turbo-charged scores as Gladiator, Mission Impossible 2, The Peacemaker and Crimson Tide, and you can hear the blood and thunder. Symphonic instruments roar in battle with their synthesized counterparts, sometimes with ethnic instruments in the mix.

Few composers pump musical adrenaline for this subject matter like Hans Zimmer. And dread it or love it, he's the first one that uber-explosive producer Jerry Bruckheimer calls when it's time to kick musical ass -- even if it does get a bit lovey-dovey like it did for Pearl Harbor this year. But if that epic was a bit waterlogged for some tastes (not to mention Zimmer's) Black Hawk Down is a radical slap in the face for the destruction that this composer has reluctantly wrought. Much closer in tone to Zimmer's meditative score for The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down is war as the ultimate downer, a hallucinogenic, utterly hypnotic descent into the urban warfare that American soldiers faced when they went into Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1989. Their mission was to seize the lieutenants of a local warlord who was starving his people. But the soldiers soon found themselves overwhelmed by the militia, and 18 of America's best were killed. Yet none were left behind.

Black Hawk Down marks Zimmer's fifth collaboration with director Ridley Scott after Black Rain, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Hannibal. And it probably won't get any more difficult. Faced with a near continuous onslaught of sound effects, Zimmer's music nevertheless manages to cut through the destruction by playing beneath its surface. Zimmer's music isn't about the joy of killing your fellow man, but rather the sheer horror of impending death, and the determination to face it head-on with your comrade in arms. Zimmer's surreal score is an evolution of the spaced-out rock opera that Carmine Coppola wrote for Apocalypse Now, but with just a bit more orchestral humanity. And you could also say that Zimmer's haunting use of African instruments and the voice of Senegalese singer Baaba Mal do a lot to more to humanize the Somalians than Ridley Scott's matter-of-fact imagery does. If Somalia offers some of the worst that humanity could do to each other, Zimmer hears that tragedy in no uncertain terms.

And for Zimmer, war is hell when it comes to Black Hawk Down. Faced with a truncated post-production schedule, Zimmer organized the Black Hawk Down band to assist in the nearly-impossible task. Its main members consisted of Michael Brook (infinite guitar, water phone and quarterstaff), Craig Eastman (violins, violas, slide guitar, bass, mandolin and Hurdy Gurdy), Heitor Pereira (guitar, Gimbre, Kumbus Guitar, and Saz), Martin Tillman (cello, electric cello and cello loops) and Hans Zimmer himself on pianos and synthesizers. Along with a platoon of musical support, these musical soldiers functioned as a tight-knit unit, each ready to help the other out at the drop of a note.

Caught in the deadline crunch for this interview, Zimmer is a man possessed. Forget about his critics; Zimmer is his own worst one, ripping apart one idea after the other as he tries to lay down a track for a vital concluding scene. Gathered around him in a circle, music supervisor Bob Badami and a host of composers each leap in with advice. This is "team Zimmer" in action, and he'd probably be dead without them. Zimmer then runs from room to room, going over cues with editor Pietro Scalia, then jumping into another studio to compose and orchestrate. Zimmer is "in the shit" as they say in the movies. And this is the place where his best creative juices come out.

FSM: Black Hawk Down is the antithesis of your typical American "war score." While your music drives the action, there's nothing patriotic about it. Instead, there's a feeling of sadness.

Hans Zimmer: Yes, because what happened was a tragedy. But I also get a sense of how strong human beings can be when they have to start looking after each other. Yes, the tragedy is that soldiers died. But look at that guy who stopped the convoy to rescue his friends. Black Hawk Down isn't a made-up story. This is real people doing real things. Yes, they're actors. But they aren't doing anything that didn't happen.

FSM: Gladiator introduced a traditional Arabic sound to the historical epic. Do you think you've taken that same approach with Black Hawk Down?

HZ: It's not so much that I've been appropriating the musical cultures of the African and Arab worlds. I've just been exploring them. We're not trying to make a bad parody of them either. We had a couple of rude awakenings during the preview process for Gladiator. One audience asked "If they call Maximus 'The Spaniard,' then how come he's a Roman general?' We had to explain to people what the Roman Empire was, that it stretched across most of the known world. So I wanted to bring those Spanish and Moroccan influences back to the music of the Roman Empire. It was our own practical joke to play this Wagnerian music over the Roman Senate. I think you have that same feeling of "Arab" music playing in Black Hawk Down because of the band we've gathered for this score. All of us here have the ambition to play music that nobody's heard before, and to use ethnic instruments in a way that they've never been used before, certainly in film scores.

FSM: Could you tell me about some of the instruments you've used for Black Hawk Down?

HZ: I don't even know what some of them are called! I'd say "can you play that thing that looks like a frying pan?" There's a Zaaz, which we have a percussionist from Persia playing. We have Taiko drums from Japan. I also did very avant-garde orchestral things in this score. Our orchestrator Bruce Fowler had worked with Frank Zappa, and he was teaching the orchestra to make those kinds of gestures. The orchestra was terrified! But one of the things I wanted from this score at all times was unpredictability. If you have people playing to a regular score, then they know where the next turn is. I was trying to take out those subconscious turns that we all make as musicians. So everything in this score happens in a really unpredictable way. I wanted us to feel like the soldiers who didn't know where the next bullet was going to come from. So we'd watch the video, and play up against whatever happened. And then we would take things and radically cut them apart and re-compose them on ProTools.

FSM: The score has a rock-and-roll aspect to it, which plays the soldiers who listen to rock music before they go into battle.

HZ: Absolutely. But you never want to play a song in this movie for "entertainment." We'd pump ourselves up all of the time to get through this brutal schedule. We were a rock-and-roll band on Black Hawk Down. We'd go in there, crank it up and play loud, fast, and cocky. But even though the adrenaline is pumping, you have to get back to being serious about your compositions. And I think that's they way these guys in Somalia survived. They have an built-in sense of knowledge, precision and capability.

FSM: You could say they're rock-and-roll warriors.

HZ: Yes. But all of that works great until someone gets hurt. And then you say 'Oh my God.' That wasn't supposed to happen. Remember that this was an army that had just won the Iraqi War, which was in the desert. They're going into a market square here. It's a tiny place and they're getting their asses kicked. The soldiers have never confronted anyone like these militia guys, who are quite prepared to walk right into their gunfire and die. That was the thing that fascinated me, because September 11th happens, and now the whole world is going 'Whoops! These guys exist.'

For the full story, don't forget to check out FSM Vol. 7, No. 1...

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