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Soundtrack review: Westworld (season 1) (Ramin Djawadi – 2016)


Soundtrack review: Westworld (season 1) (Ramin Djawadi – 2016)



“Westworld” is an American science fiction western television series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. Produced by HBO, it is based on the 1973 film of the same name (written and directed by Michael Crichton) and to a lesser extent its 1976 sequel, Futureworld. The story takes place in Westworld, a fictional, technologically advanced Wild-West-themed amusement park populated by android “hosts”. The park caters to high-paying “guests” who may indulge their wildest fantasies within the park without fear of retaliation from the hosts, who are prevented by their programming from harming humans. The first season is subtitled “The maze”. Ramin Djawadi wrote the score.

It took me a while to get into this show and fully absorb it and it also took me a while to listen to the score. Ramin is one of my favourite composers but having not seen the show, the abundance of piano covers of well known songs kind of threw me off the score. Now that I have seen Westworld, it all makes sense, the Radiohead and Rolling Stones covers; I saw how they fit in context, especially in the first season, and my personal take is that a show that relies so much on the illusion of familiarity, of remembering things you might or might have not experienced needed these shadows of well known songs, played not quite like the originals, coming every now and then and making me, as a viewer, experience a sort of deja vu, like “I know this song, I remember it but not quite”. Besides this first season has a lot of Radiohead covers, especially from “OK computer” which is one of my favourite music albums ever so I’m happy, plus there’s an insanely good Western like version of “Paint in black” that’s more Ramin than Jagger, playing over one of the most intense scenes, and, as a personal bonus, one of Nine Inch Nails’ crowning achievements, “Something I can never have”. All these piano versions fit naturally in the show. The one exception, naturally since “Something I can never have” is a piano composition in itself, Ramin plays it mostly on strings.

Of course it all starts with the elegant and mysterious main piano theme, one that I never skip when I watch the show. Ramin knows how to write for the piano and this cue is catchy, even if a bit too optimistic and shiny for this show. “Sweetwater” is another piece that recurs quite often in the context of the show as it plays over the repetitive welcome scene to that town. Between these themes and the covers, the first section of the score relies on familiarity. Then Ramin separates two streams in his music, one for the scenes that take place in Westworld and another one for what happens behind the scenes, in the real world, in the cold control rooms. The more electronic driven pieces, the sound for the “real” world, are minimalistic and ominous tones that lack warmth almost completely. Every now and then a beautiful piano motif creeps in to shed some light among those bleak tones, like in “Online”. I like how the music evokes the constant mystery of the show. This is one of the first truly beautiful sci-fi themes Ramin Djawadi has written, with a bit of a retro vibe. I feel as if I am being put to a deep sleep for a long flight into space as I’m listening to this cue.

Still nothing prepares me for “Dr. Ford”; this theme is without a doubt one of the most extraordinary cues Ramin has even written. I knew he could write sensitive, emotional music, from “Game of thrones”, from “The mountain between us” but still the way the piano flows in this one, the sublime beauty, almost too much for a character that’s not necessarily worthy, and the way the violin joins in brings tears to my eyes. This theme is quiet, and has melodic electronic inserts to balance the orchestral instruments and to incapsulate, in a little over 5 minutes, the essence of the show, the beautiful dream of Robert Ford and the faults and obstacles in its execution. A theme like this puts Ramin Djawadi in the pantheon of great composers and I cannot get enough of it. The emotional buildup, the immaculate and flawless creation of this cue, it’s simply something that will live forever.

The “Reveries”, in a way the catalyst for the plot of the show, get a team of their own, once again written in that echo like electronic sound but with the tenderness this concept needed; the reveries are small, off script human like gestures that the characters of the story are allowed to perform naturally and the composer wrote a simple, elegant theme for them. There’s that contrast with cold, uncomfortable pieces like “Freeze all motor functions” that works very well and brings the duality of the show in the score as well.

One of the most intriguing characters of the show, Ed Harris’ “Man in black” gets a theme as dark and determined as himself, with sneaky electronic tones and a dissonant violin motif in the background. No warmth at all for him, just a constant sense of sharp doom. Ramin also gets to write Western music for this show and “The maze” is proof that he has the right touch when it comes to this genre as well. I am still more drawn to dramatic cues like “Tromp L’oeil” and “What does this mean”, deep and almost somber in tone, orchestral minimalistic. As the dream world and its imaginary and seductive ghosts has been close to me as well, the music that describes this portion of the show is my favourite. “Memories” is another Djawadi special, piercingly emotional with a solo violin just wailing along at a peaceful pace and one of the cues that had made an impression on me in the context of the show as well.

With the right balance between aggressive, cold electronic tones and dramatic orchestral ones and a hefty collection of covers, the music for the first season of “Westworld” brings to the listener most of the elements of the show. The standalone listening experience brings the atmosphere of the series to life without the intriguing moral dilemmas. Ramin Djawadi is the right man for the job of writing the score for such a complex show.

Cue rating:

Main Title Theme – Westworld
Paint It Black
No Surprises
Dr. Ford
Motion Picture Soundtrack
Fake Plastic Trees
The Maze
House Of The Rising Sun
Trompe L’Oeil
What Does This Mean
Something I Can Never Have
Back To Black
No Surprises (Stride Piano)
Do They Dream
The Stray
Bicameral Mind
Exit Music (For A Film)

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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