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Here’s what Hans Zimmer says about the shameful agony of creativity

Here’s what Hans Zimmer says about the shameful agony of creativity

Hans Zimmer: Know perfectionist

“After all these years, I have come to realise that I must go through a period of agony and torture before I have a breakthrough.”

– Hans Zimmer

The German composer Hans Zimmer (born 1957) spent much of his spare time as a child and teenager composing music and playing with synthesisers.

As a young man, he played in clubs and bars with up and coming pop bands and also composed jingles for music for a BBC mini-series broadcast in the UK.

In the late 1980s, director Barry Levinson hired Zimmer to compose a soundtrack for his film Rain Man.

Although this was Zimmer’s big break, he was still an outsider. He felt afraid that he didn’t know what he was doing and that his creative peers would expose him.

Hollywood this is Hans, Hans this is Hollywood

Instead, Zimmer was surprised to find Hollywood musicians were using technology that was years behind what he had used in Europe. In many cases, the directors only heard a score for the first time when the entire orchestra had assembled.

Zimmer saw this as an incredibly unproductive way to compose music, so he used his experiences as a European composer to play a score for Barry Levinson on a computer.

Zimmer told Gillian Segal in Getting There.

“Instead of making him imagine what the French horns would sound like, I’d bring them in on a computer”

Rain Man won an Oscar for best picture, and Zimmer received a nomination for best soundtrack.

Subsequently, he composed iconic soundtracks for films like Driving Miss Daisy and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. He also won an Oscar for composing the soundtrack for The Lion King.

The painful sound of the Dark Knight

Zimmer found creative success in a way his peers couldn’t because he was an expert and because he possessed the unique perspective of an outsider, but even a master of Zimmer’s talents faced many challenges.

In the late 2000s, Christopher Nolan hired Zimmer to compose the soundtrack for the Dark Knight series.

The second film in this series is a particular dark thriller, and Zimmer (always in search of a novel idea) wanted to compose music “that people would truly hate.”

During his search for this distinctive sound, Zimmer composed 90,000 bars of experimental music. One of his more absurd ideas involved striking razor blades against piano strings to get the haunting melody he was looking for.

In Getting There, Gillian Zoe Segal explains that Zimmer was unhappy with the results:

“On the last day of recording with a one-hundred-person orchestra, I found myself lying on the couch in the back of the room experiencing terrible chest pains. I hadn’t slept in weeks and was thinking, I’m going to die. But I didn’t say anything.

Chris Nolan, the director, who knows me very well, saw that I was in serious trouble. He walked over to the microphone and announced to the musicians, “I think we’ve recorded enough. You can all go home.”

I sat up and said, “No, no, no, no! We haven’t!” Chris repeated, “I think we’ve recorded enough.” And, of course, he was right.”

Don’t worry Hans! This is what great music sounds like

Zimmer found a more relevant sound by settling on a single note played on the cello by his colleague Martin Tillman.

After listening to the final soundtrack, director Chris Nolan said exploring it was “was a pretty unpleasant experience.”

Zimmer was delighted; this was his intention and his iconic soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar.

Today, Zimmer is an accomplished composer who Hollywood directors and producers seek out, but he still believes he must go through “a period of agony and torture” before achieving a breakthrough.

Despite his creative setbacks, Zimmer pushes himself to avoid fixed ways of thinking, and he advises new artists who want to do the same to try something new every day.

How you can use absurd ideas to become more creative (just like Hans Zimmer)

How can you find an idea that’s novel and useful, as Hans Zimmer did with the Dark Knight soundtrack?

Well, I’d like you to think of your creative project as like a mountain.

At the top of this mountain, you can mine bizarre, outlandish and absurd ideas and at the bottom of the mountain you can extract practical, relevant and logical ideas.

Now, you’re not looking to set up camp at the top of this mountain because conditions up there are too inhospitable for your ideas to thrive.

There’s also little point in settling at the bottom of this mountain because basecamp is a crowded place; we’ve all been there before.

Instead, there’s a hidden place between the points of absurdity and relevancy rich in novel and useful ideas. Think of it as like a secret forge where you can combine the novelty of the absurd with the applicability of the practical.

Here, you will finally master your inner genius.

The question is: how can you get to this secret forge while expending a minimal about of your limited creative resources?

Be absurd as possible

The next time you’re struggling with a creative project, try to come up with as many absurd ideas as possible.

Push past your point of comfort and cognitive biases and have fun with your ideas, fantasies and daydreams.

Strike razor blades against your piano string, if you will.

Let’s say I want to come up with a creative way of promoting a new novel.

Here are three absurd promotional ideas:

  • Hire a plane to paint the book title in the sky over crowds at Wembley football stadium.
  • Tattoo the title of the book to my face.
  • Stand naked on O’Connell Street in Dublin City Centre while reading my book out loud and streaming said recording on Facebook Live.

… then seek out what’s relevant

Once you have these absurd ideas, work your way down to what’s relevant — move from composing music with razor blades toward the cello playing a single note.

The climb down is always easier.

In the case of the above example, here’s what I came up with:

  • Give away 500 copies of the book to bloggers, would-be readers and reviewers and offer one of their readers a holiday.
  • Mock up a photograph of me with this tattoo in Photoshop and use this for a Facebook advertising campaign.
  • Record myself reading my book out loud at locations featured in the book (standing the Giant’s Causeway, on a boat to the Aran Islands,) around Ireland and upload these recordings to YouTube.

Remember, it’s okay to explore hunches, probe new avenues of thought and bring back anything unusual or odd that you find.

Later on, sift through these discoveries and figure out what’s usable and what to put aside.

Your creative ideas are never wrong, not even the absurd ones.

If anyone asks, tell them Hans Zimmer sent you.

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(Note: this is an edited extract from the book The Power of Creativity.)