:::Extremely Seinfeld Voice::: What's the Deal with Composers at Music Festivals?

From Hans Zimmer at Coachella to John Carpenter at Primavera Sound, mainstream music festivals are turning composers into rock stars. We spoke with Carpenter and others about the strange new booking trend, and why it's more than just a novelty grab.

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Jan 30 2017, 8:12pm

The "holy crap" factor of any given festival lineup typically falls into one of three categories: There are the white whale reunion sets, with artists like Outkast, LCD Soundsystem, and Guns N' Roses all reconvening for cash and glory in recent years; the classic album set, offering rare live rundowns of fan favorite records (see: Television doing Marquee Moon at Primavera Sound, Saves the Day performing Stay What You Are at FYF, Rogers Waters doing The Wall wherever he could for four straight years); and then there's the legacy acts who've never stopped—artists like Elton John, Lionel Richie, Billie Joel, and the entire Desert Trip lineup. 

But, contrary to what Motley Crue would have you believe, the past can only be mined so many times. As fest organizers are increasingly challenged to innovate amidst a saturated market, booking soundtrack composers is emerging as a new way to offer fans a distinct festival experience. The internet politely lost its shit when Hans Zimmer's name appeared on the Coachella 2017 lineup, tucked improbably alongside the likes of DJ Khaled and Future Islands.

In addition to the 59-year-old German composer, who has scored more than 120 films including Gladiator, The Dark Knight, Inception, Pirates of the Caribbean, True Romance, Cool Runnings, and The Lion King, iconic composers like John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, and Philip Glass have also recently made the rounds at large-scale US and European pop festivals, including Pitchfork, Primavera Sound, Wireless, and Day for Night.

But these bookings aren't just novelty grabs. Instead, festivals are using these artists to evolve the range of their musical offerings, adapting to fans's increasingly discerning tastes and broader cultural trends. 

"As festivals become more formulaic and you see so many of the same brands creating different iterations of the same lineup, I think [bookings like Zimmer] aren't so much an innovation on our part or Coachella's part, but a correction," says Omar Afra, the producer of Houston's Day For Night Festival, which has hosted performances by Glass and Carpenter. "Zimmer, Glass and envelope-pushing artists deserve to be at these music festivals as much as anybody else. It's part of the DNA of the music we listen to every day."

Many of these scores have embedded themselves into festival-goers's collective consciousness, seeping into the emotional DNA of anyone who was ever terrified by Halloween or wept uncontrollably when Mufasa was trampled to death by that horde of wildebeests. Compositional works have also trickled down via the non-classical artists they inspired. M83 might never have existed without Vangelis, or Muse without Morricone. M83 and artists like Junkie XL have even crossed over into film scoring themselves, working on the soundtracks for films including Oblivion, Deadpool, Mad Max: Fury Road, and more. Films also help give compositional works a long shelf life and thus a multigenerational appeal—another selling point for festival organizers looking to sate the sonic palettes of as many attendees as possible.

"I've got a 19-year-old son," says Afra, "And he of course knows John Carpenter, because John Carpenter's films are fixtures in American culture, maybe more so than musical artists this generation has seen come and go."

When Carpenter performed at Day For Night last month in Houston, he brought a five piece band featuring his son, godson, and the rhythm section from Tenacious D, along with a visual show featuring clips of Halloween, Escape From LA, and other films he's scored during his 40-plus year career. According to Afra, Carpenter's light show was on par with the visuals presented by many of the festival's electronic producers, and thus resonated even more deeply with young audience members who have come to expect a sophisticated visual component. While Carpenter's set time was up against Aphex Twin and Run the Jewels, he pulled a huge crowd. Last June, the 68-year-old composer brought the same show to Spain's Primavera Sound, which brings roughly 100,000 attendees to Barcelona every summer. Carpenter himself wasn't totally clear on the scope of the event until he was onstage.

"Primavera was unbelievable," says Carpenter, who has recently busied himself taking down Nazis. "I looked out at the thousands of people [in front of the stage] and thought, 'Oh my god, what have I done?' It was the first time I played a festival like that, and it was stunning. I'm an old man now, and I got to go out there and do this. I loved every second of it."

Audience appetites for live score performances have only been growing in recent years. In LA, John Williams has held an annual longstanding slate of performances at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring his works from Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and more. Even Skrillex forecasted the trend by dropping "The Circle of Life" into many of his festival sets. And it's not only movies that are getting the attention. As TV has enjoyed its Netflix-era renaissance, soundtracks and accompanying music have risen with that tide. It's increasingly common to find the two mediums paired up for live experiences. David Lynch's recent Festival of Disruption in LA featured a Music of Twin Peaks showcase, while Sundance NextFest pairs under-the-radar films with sets by rising artists. Stranger Things composers and S U R V I V E members Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein have landed a slate of bookings on the upcoming festival circuit, including Coachella, and performed the show's score at a festival in Krakow last year. 

"If the audiences dig it, and the promoters and agents keep setting it up, what's the harm? These guys are making some bucks!" Carpenter says, though he concedes that not every composer is a good fit for the festival setting. 

"It depends on who it is, what they've done, and whether or not the audience can get with it," he says. "I think Hans Zimmer is an incredible choice for Coachella. He'll do great because he has a lot of themes the audience will recognize."

Performers like Zimmer may require a greater investment from festival producers—rehearsals, set up, and equipment for orchestras and ensembles take more time, money, and manpower than plugging in guitars or sliding a DJ rig onto the stage. But presenting classical music in a nontraditional setting has a strong ROI for promoters responsible for creating singular experiences. (Betting starts now on who the guest vocalists will be during Zimmer's set.) Booking these masters also exposes fans to the kind of musical craft not always witnessed in the depths of the Sahara Tent.

"A lot of your standard festival music [is by artists] that paint with three or four colors," Afra says. "Hans Zimmer paints with thousands. He's spent his life developing an absolute finesse in composition. Art forms need simplicity and art forms also need craft, and the pendulum swings from one side to the other. I think where the pendulum is now is that we're in need of these master artists who are like aliens when you see them perform, like, 'How does he do that?'"

For the composers themselves, the appeal isn't just huge crowds or fat checks, but the chance to feel like an honest-to-God rockstar.  

"Most of the time composers are not really thought of as being cool and worth booking," Carpenter says, "So this is all fabulous."

Photo by Jim Dyson

Katie Bain is a journalist based in LA. Follow her on Twitter