What is the music of genius? That was the challenge Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe faced as they composed the theme and score for National Geographic’s 10-hour drama “Genius,” about the life of Albert Einstein, which debuted last week.
The quest began nearly a year ago, during a conversation between Zimmer and his frequent collaborator, producer-director Ron Howard (with whom he had written the music for “Frost/Nixon,” “Rush” and the three “Da Vinci Code” movies). “Ron started talking to me about what he wanted to do, and as he was talking I heard the fully formed theme, its orchestration, everything,” Zimmer recalls. “This rarely happens.”
Zimmer’s 50-second theme, performed by a 65-piece Vienna orchestra, hints at both past and future via a virtuoso violin solo (suggesting Einstein’s own love of the violin) and a more contemporary synthesizer figure.
“There’s a German feel about the piece,” Zimmer notes. “I wanted to celebrate not only the culture he came from but the culture that was destroyed by the Third Reich.” Zimmer, who has put music to elaborate scenarios involving time and space before (“Inception,” “Interstellar”), says he hoped the theme would celebrate science, too.
The task of scoring the 10 episodes fell to Balfe, who worked on several of Zimmer’s previous collaborations with Howard (he was co-composer on “The Dilemma”). Balfe spent more than six months on the project, even flying to Prague to oversee the on-camera violin work demanded of Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn, the actors who play Einstein at different ages.
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“Einstein loved music,” Balfe says. “It helped him either relax or find solutions.” Flynn plays the violin in real life; Rush had to learn how to appear to play the instrument.
Balfe researched the Mozart and Bach pieces Einstein plays in the series, although the real violin performances are by London musician Oli Langford. “Oli was coaching Geoffrey and Johnny during production,” Balfe says. “He would serenade us with the different violin pieces I had chosen.”
As for the score, Balfe explains: “Going purely classical would have been too much. I never wanted that big Hollywood sound. It was more about intensity than grandeur.” So although Balfe regularly records 50-piece orchestras in both London and Vienna for the series, “there is a lot of manipulation of organic sounds as well as your normal orchestra. I think of it as a very electronic score. It’s not your usual period piece.”
Howard, who directed the opening episode, says music is always important in his productions. “It suggests subtext and context,” he says. “I wanted this to be a very emotional, humanistic look at Albert Einstein. I wanted to remind the audience of the undercurrent of pressure he was facing.
“There is math in music,” Howard adds, “and there are ways these composers can extrapolate from that concept. They take inspiration from ideas, just as a screenwriter does, or an actor or cinematographer. That’s what’s amazing about the language of music that I’ll never fully understand.”