With all those intertwining, head-scratching narratives, we wouldn’t blame you for not keeping too close of an ear to Westworld’s use of music throughout its second season. But for those indeed blessed with a sonic gift, a fascinating musical trend has been prevalent ever since the series premiered in 2016: In addition to traditional Americana tunes, modern songs are featured in the techno-western park, featuring covers of the Rolling Stones with as much frequency as, say, the likes of Scott Joplin. Although it might seem odd to hear an orchestral Radiohead arrangement accompanying an old-timey fight scene, that’s exactly what showrunner Jonathan Nolan intended for Westworld from day one.
“Initially, this idea started out with the fact that visually we saw a player-piano in the Mariposa Saloon, and the obvious choice was to play songs from that Western era,” Ramin Djawadi, the show’s music supervisor, recently told Vulture. “But then, the fact that this is a theme park we realized, Wait, we can almost treat this as a jukebox. Like, the people controlling the park are playing their favorite tracks. It was always a subconscious reminder of the fact that this world is not real. It gives it that contemporary spin.”
As Djawadi puts it, Nolan chooses the contemporary songs and slots them into their appropriate place in the show’s narrative. “Whichever song he brings out, I get excited, because I’ve loved every one he picks,” Djawadi said. And it’s easy to see why, as that’s when Djawadi gets to work his magic — he deconstructs a modern song in a process he calls a “piano reduction,” a process that can sometimes take multiple weeks from start to finish.
“I just listen to the song and do a takedown by ear. I figure out the melody and the harmony and all the parts that go with it,” he said. “If it stays on the piano, I’ll just do a solo piano arrangement. But if there’s more instrumentation, I’ll do an orchestration of it and arrange it like I would do with the rest of the score, and then flesh it out with additional instruments. I think, What can be played by the strings? What could be played by the the French horns or percussions? You can get really creative with it, and that’s something that makes it so fun for the show.”
Branching out to the other parks of the Raj and Shogunworld, Djawadi added, increased the “creative fun” of working on Westworld, as he got to experiment with Indian- and Japanese-influenced versions of songs. With the second season now at its end, Vulture asked Djawadi — in the midst of preparations for his Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience — to reflect on a few of his most memorable arrangements leading up to the season-two finale. Somebody pass this along to Ghostface Killah and Jack White!
“Runaway” — Kanye West
The scene: In episode two, various flashbacks show Dolores experiencing what life is like in the “real world” outside of the park.
The story: “It’s really representing all of the things that have gone wrong in the park. With the piano, it has this Americana feel. And as the piece develops, other distorted and other out-of-tune sounds come in, and represents how quickly things can fall apart now that the park has gone wrong.”
“Seven Nation Army” — The White Stripes
The scene: In episode three, we’re introduced to the Raj for the first time and see how it differs, both culturally and aesthetically, from Westworld.
The story: “This one proved to be quite difficult. We used a sitar, and to play the melody on the sitar and to master the intonation, culturally, in the music is difficult. It’s a Western contemporary song played in the Indian style. That puts a spin on it, too, to be arranged and performed with whatever region they are in. Still, it shows just how Americanized the Raj is.”
“C.R.E.A.M” — Wu-Tang Clan
The scene: In episode five, Madam Akane is forced to dance for a sadistic shogun, who kills her daughter before she performs.
The story: “Hip-hop is tricky. As a genre, you have an underlying beat and it’s the lyrics that can carry a song. Obviously, this wasn’t a choice for me, so I had to figure out how to develop the piece just with the instrumentation and the rhythm on its own. What was interesting was that the song was chosen early on, so we were able to do the arrangement before the scene was shot. So they were choreographing and dancing to the piece in real time, flowing with the music.”
“Paint It Black” — The Rolling Stones
The scene: Also in episode five, Maeve and her ragtag group of fighters walk around and discover Shogunworld for the first time — and notice some striking similarities to Westworld.
The story: “This is the song that’s used in one of the first Westworld park scenes. The idea of bringing the Stones back for Shogunworld, we’re showing the parallels of the different worlds, but saying, Oh wait, these story lines are very similar. Therefore, we decided to use the same song but with a different arrangement, with taiko drums and shakuhachi flutes. There are very powerful elements in music you can use to enhance the drama, and this is a great example.”
“Heart-Shaped Box” — Nirvana
The scene: In episode eight, Ghost Nation leader Akecheta — who hasn’t died in the park for over a decade — roams throughout the laboratories in the hopes of finding Kohana, his eternal love.
The story: “I did a full, big orchestral arrangement, even though I started with my piano reduction. With this scene, I was able to bring it back to the piano and create an emotional and slow version to it. It was a moving, tender scene, so we didn’t want to overthink it too much. It gives the show such a character.”