If you have music, you are never alone. Whether a musician or a listener, music can be a companion and a refuge.
Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer's studio in Santa Monica, California, is a haven. Laden in red velvet, his creative space is sacred. A renaissance man, books on architecture and modern art fill his shelves; Tiffany-style chandeliers set mood lighting along with skull lamps and candles; a fireplace sets the tone for late-night collaborations. His many awards are nestled between books and CDs. Under his coffee table are neatly stacked posters of his latest film, Sherlock Holmes, for which he was nominated for an Oscar®.
"I feel like the work I have done in the past three years has been the best work of my career," he says. "I don't know why; it just feels that way."
Zimmer has scored more than 100 films, which collectively have grossed more than $13 billion. He is the CEO of his own company, employing countless composers and technicians. But he is most happy when writing, putting a score to visuals, creating the emotional life of film characters through sound and passion.
Never one to rest on past achievements, he continues to push himself. That means going to the point of fear—fear he may not be good enough, fear his ideas may be crazy. "I work closely with directors. We trust each other." He laughs and adds, "I can call them and tell them I don't know what I'm doing. The ideas come."
For Sherlock Holmes, he didn't do a traditional big Hollywood score, and director Guy Richie encouraged him. Instead, Zimmer went back to his German roots, channeling Kurt Weill's music to dramatist Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. He wrote the music he imagined to be in Sherlock Holmes' head and worked closely with actor Robert Downey Jr. to understand the character's anatomy. "Holmes has adventures in his head," Zimmer says. "He's a manic-depressive genius. I wanted the music to reflect that."
He also used a number of soloists, which he says he cast as if they were actors—finding the right sensibility and musical interpretation to enhance the atmosphere of Richie's vision of London.
Zimmer, whose credits include The Lion King, Gladiator and Dark Knight, has won an Oscar®, two Golden Globes® and three Grammys® for his extraordinary work. He started his career producing and playing with pop and rock bands including the Buggles, whose "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first video to air on MTV.
Yet, he does not take his success for granted. He is quick to point out that he never went to music school. He believes if he, who came to the United States from Germany via the United Kingdom, can find his voice, anyone with a passion can.
Music saved him, both as a child as an adult. Growing up, his mother believed more in piano than in television. He found his voice on those black-and-white keys. And on the days when he feels unsure, as all humans do, he can pick up the phone and call a fellow musician. "I am part of a larger community; we support each other. I am never alone. Music has the ability to change people and inspire. It knows no racism."
Zimmer's passions also lie in activism—from big endeavors such as his score to the South African anti-apartheid film The Power of One, where he was able to expose local musicians to a larger audience, to making a daily difference with his company, where he works tirelessly to keep his staff employed in a down market.
"Film and music have the power to open people's eyes," he says. "Especially with what is going on in the United States currently, people need to be activated and see what is happening with the economy and our healthcare system."
Next up for Zimmer is the score to Christopher Nolan's Inception. He won't say much about it, as it's under wraps, but knowing Zimmer, it is sure to inspire.