As if Academy Award-nominated composer Hans Zimmer didn't have enough things to worry about in the weeks before the Oscar ceremony, along comes a reporter wondering what piece of music will be played when -- and, of course, if -- someone associated with "Gladiator" hears his or her named called from the podium.

"Actually, the show's musical director picks the music, but maybe I should talk to them about that," says Zimmer, who's already begun scoring "Pearl Harbor" and really doesn't need the extra work.

Before you know it, though, Zimmer turns to his piano -- strategically placed under a wide-screen video monitor, in his Santa Monica studio -- and plinks out a familiar melody.

"It's the 'Earth' theme ... the one piece that really gets to the heart of the movie," he says. "But there are 19 themes in 'Gladiator.' So it's difficult to decide."

Ridley Scott's sword-and-sandals drama was a huge commercial and critical success when it was released last spring, but no one in Hollywood really expected it to linger in the minds of academy members long enough to garner a dozen Oscar nominations. Even if a best-picture nod then seemed unlikely, though, few people would have bet against the possibility of a nomination in the category of best original score.

Along with a handful of other top-shelf composers working in this town, Zimmer has become a perennial favorite when the votes are tallied every February. In 1995, he won an Oscar for "The Lion King," and last year, he received two nominations, for "The Thin Red Line" and "The Prince of Egypt."

Not bad for a German-born keyboard player, who, 20 years ago, was best known for being a member of the Buggles and co-writing the first song featured on MTV, "Video Killed the Radio Star."

"All I can say is, I'll go to hell for that," Zimmer remarks with a laugh. "Back then, I was desperately trying to get into film, but had to earn a living. We were trying to make little movies and didn't know MTV existed.

"We couldn't give that song away at the time. But the deejays in England heard the name of the song, wondered what it was about and started playing it."

A new generation

Within two years of the launch of MTV, Zimmer realized his dream of working on films. After serving an apprenticeship under the estimable Stanley Myers ("The Deer Hunter"), he joined a growing number of other upstart musicians -- Jack Nitzsche, Alan Price, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream -- who were combining electronic music with rock 'n' roll and soul to add new energy to traditional soundtrack orchestration.

Despite the immense popularity of the hip "The Graduate" soundtrack and Ennio Morricone's innovative collaborations with Sergio Leone, back in the '60s, mainstream Hollywood was slow to warm to the new generation of composers, and it continued to take its musical cues from such established maestros as Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and Elmer Bernstein. Nonetheless, by the time MTV first aired the Buggles' video, soundtrack albums for "Performance," "Superfly," "Shaft," "Midnight Express" and "O Lucky Man!" were finding a place on the Billboard charts, alongside Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.

"A soundtrack recording had to stand on its own as a relatively decent piece of music … you couldn't cheat and use the images to stand behind," Zimmer explains. "If you think about 'Performance,' and what Nick Roeg and those people were doing, they had a very strong sense of [the importance of] black vinyl records, and what rock 'n' roll meant at the time. To them, an orchestral score was old-fashioned."

Through his connection with Myers, Zimmer was brought in to work with Roeg on "Eureka" in 1982.

"There was a scene in which Gene Hackman discovers gold on this mountain, and he literally just gets spat out on this frozen lake," the 43-year-old Frankfurt native recalls. "I was so intimidated by Roeg. When I asked what he wanted there, he said, 'The sound of the Earth being raped, dear boy.' That was when I knew I was in the right business. Anyone who wanted to hear the sound of the Earth being raped was slightly crazier than the guys I was working with before."

Zimmer later worked on such hot properties as "Rain Man," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Days of Thunder," "Thelma & Louise," "Backdraft," "True Romance," "Crimson Tide," "As Good as It Gets" and, last year, "Hannibal." As head of DreamWorks' film-music division, he also has supervised the animated musicals "The Prince of Egypt" and "The Road to El Dorado."

Epic effort

When it was released last May, "Gladiator" drew comparisons to such historical epics as "Spartacus" and "Ben Hur," but Scott and Zimmer wanted to push the genre into a new direction. To this end, the score incorporated both ancient and new instruments.

"People kept saying to me, Make it more like 'Spartacus,' but I think what they meant was that they wanted to recapture the thrill they got when they first saw that movie," says Zimmer, noting that he did refresh his memory by watching the Stanley Kubrick classic. "My job became reinventing everything, to give this generation that same sense of discovery. Ultimately, though, there's a vocabulary that we all use on these films, and which we all sort of have in common.