INT: Howard Shore
Great film scores work on a subtle, almost subliminal level, enhancing the impact of the images without ever overpowering them. Unfortunately, this ensures that the finest film composers rarely ever get the credit they deserve. If a film crew is a rock & roll band, theyre the bass players: the underappreciated, unsung heroes working quietly in the background, the backbone of any successful enterprise. LOTRs bass player is the acclaimed composer Howard Shore. Though his music in LORD OF THE RINGS ranks among the most memorable ever written for film, youre not likely to see him on the cover of Entertainment Weekly anytime soon.
Reserved and contemplative, Shore chatted with me last week in Beverly Hills about his experience crafting the music for the last chapter of the epic LOTR trilogy, THE RETURN OF THE KING.
Did Peter Jackson provide you with anything to listen to as a guide when you started scoring the films?
We didnt really listen to anything really specifically. But you have to remember that Middle Earth is five thousand years ago, so we wanted to create a culture based on this world that was the beginning of European culture, if you will. So we used Celtic music, which is some of the oldest music in the world. A lot of the score is steeped in 19th century symphonic tradition. The singing was important because of its human quality the idea of using voices and using the Tolkien languages. So you want to create an historical piece that felt as if it was 5000 years ago. And that was the idea, and that if you feel influences now from it, the idea was to create something that was old and that things would have grown out of, so European music may have grown out of this tradition of this sound from Middle Earth.
That was kind of the idea for the score. That, and Peters great sense of classic movie making, of epic movie making. He really understood that. LOTR has forty, fifty motifs. He understood that kind of architecture to it. There are motifs created for cultures and for characters and for objects, and he understood that really well. And that things had to have particular sounds to them. We wanted to create a sense of reality to the movies in the music, so when you were in Lothlorien, or in Rivendell, it had very specific feeling and composition to it, use of the indigenous instruments that might have been used in those places, like the hardanger fiddle used in Rohan, because Tolkien described it as a Viking, Nordic culture, and things like that.
But we also this was very important to Peter we also tell a story, because the story of LOTR is dense, if people havent read the book. We wanted to create a movie that people could just watch and they could have references and they would understand that Galadriel was in Lothlorien, because this music had a part of that character. In ROTK, when they are forging the sword its a really significant event in the movie, because only through the reforging is Aragorn able to become king. Elrond gives him the sword, and you have to understand that the sword came from Rivendell. You have to understand in ROTK that Elrond and Arden are in Rivendell. So there are certain orchestral things that I would do, certain compositions, to put you back in Rivendell. The music was used, in a way, for clarity of story telling, so you understood it. So there had to be linkages for clarity, but then, there had to be a lot of new creation, too, because you are going to new worlds.
What kind of research did you do when writing the piece?
A lot for LOTR. I had done literary adaptations before I did NAKED LUNCH based on William Burroughs, and J. G. Ballards CRASH and LOOKING FOR RICHARD, based on Richard the Third, from Shakespeare. So doing the LOTR - Tolkien - its a pretty big undertaking. I did, easily, four months of research before I even felt comfortable writing a note. I have to do that. And the research is a way for me to get away from the piece intellectually. Because music is not intellectual to me, its an emotional thing. So you cant write unless youre well for me, research means intellectually you have absorbed enough of this thing. So to look at Tolkien, you have to look at what Tolkien was influenced by. Industrial Revolution, change of the country in England, First World War, you have to understand all that.
You have to understand Tolkiens influences right up to the time youre writing, from 1954, so you have to understand whats happened in 50 years. He influences all these other things in literature and film and music. So, you look at all that, then you put it all away, and you never look at it again. Ring mythology put it all away. And then you say, O.K., what is this little hobbit going to do? and what are you going to do, because you have to be comfortable with your own means of expression. But you wont be comfortable with it unless youve done the intellectual research. O.K. so now I understand this. So whats your expression about this? Thats all it really is. Its the same with Burroughs and Ballard, You have to understand it, but now what are you going to say about it.
How do you and Peter communicate? Does he talk in music terms with you?
He talks the best way. Ive worked with a lot of really good directors. The best way is to work the way you would work with an actor, because you are composing but you are also conducting, and conducting is a form of expression, its a moment in time where something happens. And Peters at those moments, so hes helping you shape the performance, and hes saying that it could grow here, it could be bigger here, it could be more expressive. He also he just knows the great tape eater. He knows when the orchestras doing the great thing. And hell say to you thats it, you have it. Hes just a great guide for you. If you were an actor he would show you, he would lead you up the moment where you do the really good take, and then thats it. However directors do that, what ever magic they do with an actor to get it, he does the same with his collaborators. He does it with everybody. I always think its a great way to work.
Can you tell us about the process of scoring the extended DVDs?
Each year we do an extended version of the film and I did a complete production of composition, orchestration, conducting - we do a complete recording. It is an actual movie. Ive done many movies before the LOTR. Each LOTR film I think, is comparable to six film productions for me. And the DVD is the seventh. Its as much work and as much involvement in doing these as in any other film I ever did in Hollywood, and its just on the DVD.
And why is that, exactly?
Just the detail and our process, and the way we created the movies and you probably see that on the screen - like how much detail. The DVD is a complicated thing as well because you are taking the existing film thats in masters and youre opening it up, and creating new pieces. And you want it to feel seamlessly. We think the extended versions will be the historical versions of these film a few years from now, so we want the extended version as the thing that we really want to be great. Because we think that will be the one that will really live on.
Do you actually rescore when you have to do the insertions where theres another twenty seconds? Do you rescore the whole thing?
Absolutely. The whole thing. Well, I find a good end point, wherever that is in the phrase. Its like photography, where youre going back, and you have to relight, specifically, the scene, because you have to create it in the same image. So we go back to the same studios, we have very specific mixing that we use, the same instruments, and the same players. Its all very mathematical and scientific to create the same sound for the film, so that when we put it in it has a very seamless quality to it, as if we made that film as well as making the theatrical. Its a cool thing to do. Its really hard, detailed work, but its really, really cool. We love doing it.
The scene where Pippin sings in front of Denethor in ROTK did you choose that piece?
No, theyre Tolkien lyrics and thats Billys melody. And he sang it on set. That was done before I even started. I heard about that song. I thought it was fantastic. Yeah, its beautiful. I did just the background I did the pieces of the horses riding into it but thats completely Billys.
Will you be working with Peter on King Kong?
Oh sure, yeah. I had to work with Peter again on a movie, yeah.
So whats the concept?
Well, King Kong. (Laughter) What are the musical concepts? Well, that comes a little later. Were still into researching, and were not into that yet. He have to shoot the movie first.
Are you avoiding the previous versions?
No, Im not avoiding or looking, Im not really thinking on those. That all comes a little later. You have to do the research - same thing youve got to study what led up to it. You go through the same process, you look at films and the expression of it, and what people did, and then you work with Peter. Were very collaborative, Peter and I. Were good friends, we work really well together. We work like writers, basically, together. Even though you are writing music, youre working with him in a very great way. Hes guiding you in terms of expression, step by step.
Where do you keep your
At home, in the living room.
Are you disappointed that you cant be nominated again because of the ruling that no sequels will now be allowed as a separate sound track?
Well, I dont think there is an actual ruling. I think they were thinking of it. As far as I know, were OK this year; we can carry on.
Who are your major influences as a composer?
When I grew up, I discovered Tôru Takemitsu and its still a pretty big influence and I love his music. I also discovered when I was a teenager and those are pretty big influences Ornette Coleman, and improvisation. A lot of the ideas of expression are based on immediate feelings that you had. So I use those techniques to do composition. Film composition is based on seeing something, feeling something, and through a form of improvisation, or what ever you want to call it, its just an expression of what you feel, musically, and thats how I write. So those are pretty big influences.
Have you always wanted to write for film?
I was interested in music more than I was in movies, actually. And when I started doing movies in the late seventies, it was really a way to express myself musically, because I didnt have orchestras or chamber orchestras or jazz or anybody to work with. I had a lot of ideas. So film became a way to just express music. And this piece has been the most expressive. Its been over 20 years for me, writing, and now you have this work with a symphony orchestra and chorus and soloist, and it used every expression that I have learned about drama and music. So it was a culmination, really, of my work.
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