The World’s greatest film soundtrack composer, Hans Zimmer, measures up to a new challenge: making BMW’s next-generation electric cars sound seriously good.
Sound. An electric car doesn’t really make any. This is unlikely to be a problem for anyone whose relationship with a car involves going from A to B, but if you care about what you drive then you’ll also know that the sound generated by an internal combustion engine is one of the best things about it. Electric energy is more efficient, but it’s hardly Puccini or punk rock.
BMW is working on the solution. The Bavarian powerhouse mastered the art of internal combustion better than most, the uncanny harmonic balance of its six-cylinder engines in particular helping put the company on the map in the early 1970s. Their sound wasn’t just a by-product, it became a USP. So what do you do when an era that served you so well is coming to an end and the future appears devoid of sonic… flavour? You have a word with arguably the world’s greatest film soundtrack composer, Hans Zimmer, who’s just been confirmed as the creator of the soundtrack for the new Bond film, No Time To Die. Like the man doesn’t have enough on his plate…
Electronic sound fascinated Zimmer from the off and he played keyboards in working bands in the UK before briefly joining Trevor Horn’s Buggles outfit (remember “Video Killed The Radio Star”?) Indeed, he still has the synth you can see him playing in the video, as originally bought by Mick Jagger for the film Performance and inherited via a member of Tangerine Dream.
Then came the detour that would define him. Having worked on the scores for Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette and Bertolucci’s multi-Oscar winning The Last Emperor, Zimmer’s work on Barry Levinson’s 1988 film Rain Man – which he wrote mostly using the none-more-1980s Fairlight CMI – cemented his status as Hollywood’s go-to guy. True Romance, Gladiator, Batman Begins, Inception, 12 Years A Slave, Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, Blue Planet... the list is long, the quality high, the sound unforgettably Zimmer – atmospheric, dramatic and bombastic when necessary.
GQ sat down with Hans Zimmer for an exclusive
But he’s also a car guy, as most Germans are, and the BMW connection is personal. “My history is steeped in BMW. My family always drove BMWs,” he told GQ. “We always remember certain moments as children. I remember standing on the balcony at home, listening for the sound of the engine of my mother’s car. When I heard it, everything was fine. So there was an emotional connection and that sound had a way of calming my world down.
ZIMMER’S A CAR GUY, AS MOST GERMANS ARE, AND THE BMW CONNECTION IS PERSONAL
“We live by our ears more than anything else. It’s our main sense.” “So what happens if we don’t hear the internal combustion engine? If we have a tabula rasa? Rather than something making a noise out of necessity, we now have the opportunity to create the most beautiful sonic landscapes in the world. What happens if we suddenly see the car as something that can speak to you in a really customised way?”
This isn’t just a glossy marketing tie-up. BMW is sufficiently far-thinking to have another musician, composer and acoustic engineer, an Italian called Renzo Vitale, permanently on its books. He and Zimmer intend to do nothing less than map out a whole new interactive terrain as the electric car passes its tipping point and becomes the new paradigm. “Hans talks about storytelling. We’d like to create a narrative around the car, a 360-degree world we can create and expand through sound. There is no-one as good as Hans at doing this,” Vitale comments.
He also points to the work of “light artist” James Turrell and Icelandic installation artist Olafur Eliasson as inspirations, so we can expect future BMWs to be immersive in a way no car has ever previously been. “We wanted to create something on an auditory level that affected you in the same way. The act of performance is an act of extension as a person. So we thought about the idea of the driver as a performer. Via the gas pedal, the driver is a performer as a modulator of sound. When you compose music, it belongs to the audience – they make the narrative.”
The recent high-performance hybrid-electric Vision M concept showcases some of the thinking. BMW claims it has more performance in pure-electric set-up than the still-wonderful i8 has when it’s running in engine and EV all-guns-blazing mode, which bodes wells for the real thing when it arrives in 2021. The sound that accompanies it is also highly promising, which Zimmer compressed into 18 stirring seconds. “It has an accent on the ‘boost’ moment, on the extra energy delivery,” Vitale explains. “We tried to underline this – it’s propulsive, morphing and elevating.”
Having spent most of his career manipulating the mood and emotion of cinemagoers, for his part Zimmer is alive to the possibilities even if the end is apparently nigh for organic mechanical sound. “We all have a concept and we have to hunt it down. I give characters something that goes beyond language. The only reason you have music in film is because you’ve run out of things to say and run out of showing beautiful images.
«I GIVE CHARACTERS SOMETHING THAT GOES BEYOND LANGUAGE»
“I’m trying to do the same here. This is where the world is going. It’s not just getting into your car to go to work any more. I want you to be conscious that you are getting into the car to have an experience. It’s about meeting each other and connecting in a very human way without ruining the planet. That’s not unimportant right now. I mean, the other guy I work for is Sir David Attenborough…”
As to the sounds he and Vitale are experimenting with, the clues are there in Zimmer’s work. The soundscape he created for 2017’s Dunkirk was integral to that film’s relentless sense of distress, partly achieved by the use of the “Shepard tone”. But its resonance can also be a positive.
“The Shepard tone is a sound that can constantly move upwards even though it’s an illusion,” he explains. “It’s the same as Escher’s ‘Ascending And Descending’ [the never-ending staircase] built on the idea by the great mathematician Roger Penrose. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a car that feels like it’s accelerating into the future all the time… It’s easy for us to do in our sonic world. It gives things an elegance and beauty. However refined and wonderful the idea of the petrol engine is, it’s still this mechanical thing. And it’s wonderful when we have electronics dancing for us.”
Besides, the future is inevitably shot through with strong echoes of the past, as Zimmer the music fan acknowledges when I ask him whether he still listens to Kraftwerk (turns out that the box set of their albums has pride of place in the studio – on vinyl, of course). Their hit “Autobahn” represented the moment when Germany’s homegrown “motorik” sense of groove went overground – the rhythms were dictated by unstoppable forward motion, the motorway as metaphor – and it still sounds utterly modern 46 years later.
“We didn’t want to embrace the blues, because the Rolling Stones had already done that,” he says, reflecting on its significance. “We wanted to find our own language and that meant going back in time and looking at the classical composers. Our accents are inevitably German.
“You talk about the six-cylinder engines and I talk about memories of my childhood. There’s a weird nostalgia that creeps into many of these conversations about what we’re going to do in the future. The nostalgia is about a feeling of belonging. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but that’s why we carry on doing things. I can’t think of anything more nostalgic than Blade Runner.”
Credit to GQ Magazine.