One Score 2014

Lord of the Rings: Frodo and Sam


By Peter Sobczynski

Although his name may not be as well-known to the general population as John Williams, a case could be made for Howard Shore being just as significant in terms of his cultural impact in recent years. Born in Toronto, he began his career in the early 1970s, and one of his first major credits was a short-lived comedy show featuring a young comedian by the name of Lorne Michaels. In 1975 Michaels became the producer of an experimental late-night comedy show named NBC's Saturday Night Live and hired Shore to serve as its musical director during its first five groundbreaking seasons. Shore was frequently seen on the show in a musical capacity (such as the leader of "Howard Shore's All-Nurse Band") and was reportedly the person who recommended that stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd give the blues duo that they had created as a warm-up act the name "The Blues Brothers."

In 1979 Shore shifted to film by composing the score for fellow Canadian David Cronenberg's cult horror film The Brood, beginning an association that would see Shore work on the music for all but one of Cronenberg's subsequent films. After doing the music for Martin Scorsese's dark comedyAfter Hours, Shore began working regularly in Hollywood and became a favorite of such filmmakers as Scorsese (Gangs of New York,The Aviator and his Oscar-nominated score for Hugo), David Fincher (Seven and The Game) and Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia). In 2001 he was hired by Peter Jackson to score his epic three-part screen version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001's The Fellowship of the Ring, 2002's The Two Towers and 2003's The Return of the King), a collaboration that would lead to three Oscars (Best Original Score for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King and Best Original Song for "Into the West" from The Return of the King) and subsequent reteamings on 2005's King Kong (although his score was scrapped by Jackson at the last minute, Shore can be seen in the film conducting the orchestra before Kong's big stage debut), 2008'sThe Lovely Bones and a return to Middle Earth in last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the upcoming sequels The Desolation of Smaug (due this Christmas) and There and Back Again (due next Christmas).

Inspired by a live performance that he staged with Ornette Coleman of the score from Naked Lunch to accompany a screening of the film, Shore began touring the world in 2004 with The Lord of the Rings: A Symphony in Six Movements, an orchestral piece comprising music from the three films with images projected on screens. This eventually led to screenings of The Fellowship of the Ring with live orchestral accompaniment and eventually to The Two Towers getting the same treatment, with the latter being performed August 15 and 16 at Ravinia with Ludwig Wicki conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Reached by e-mail, Shore took a brief break from his Hobbit scoring chores to talk about the live version of The Two Towers, his career as a film composer, and the challenges of returning to all themes Hobbit.

In general, what is it that makes for the ideal film score-is it simply music that works in conjunction with the images on the screen, or is it something that can stand on its own as well?

The ideal score balances the work on the film with all the other areas of filmmaking-screenwriting, acting, direction, cinematography, production design, costumes, editing, visual effects, etc.

Before signing on to score the Lord of the Rings saga, were you familiar with the original books?

I read the books in the '60s when I was on tour.

What was it about the project that convinced you to do it?

I traveled to New Zealand the first time to see what was being created. Once you saw the quality of the filmmaking, you just had to be a part of it.

When you are working on a film based on a book-especially a well-known property like LOTR, Naked Lunch or The Silence of the Lambs- is there any way in which the novel can inspire musical ideas in the same way that it can suggest ideas for things like costumes, visual style or performances?

Absolutely. I always keep the original novel or play close at hand and refer to it often during the composing process.

The Two Towers is unique in that, unlike a conventional sequel that is made based largely on the success of the previous film, it was made at the same time as the other two films and is less a sequel than it is the middle section of one long story. Did that in any way inform or alter either your approach to this particular project? For example, Fellowship is all about introductions and Return of the Kingis about resolution, ideas that can lend themselves easily to musical motifs as opposed to Two Towers , which is more about continuing on with the journey.

The Two Towers forms the middle of the trilogy. The middle part of the story expands after the end of The Fellowship of the Ring and the breaking of the fellowship. The three hunters (Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli), Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin and Gandalf the Grey all go their separate ways. The drama of The Two Towers unfolds as the four journeys intertwine. This expansion makes for some interesting thematic, harmonic and contrapuntal possibilities.

Of the music composed for The Two Towers, are there any portions that particularly stand out for you?

I would have to say the new themes for Rohan and the Ents.

All told, approximately how much music did you compose for the LOTR trilogy in general and The Two Towers in particular?

The complete score to the trilogy is 12 and a half hours, and four hours for The Two Towers.

Throughout your career, there are certain directors for whom you have worked many times over the years, such as David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Peter Jackson. In these cases, are there similarities to the director-composer dynamic, or is each project a new and unique thing?

Each project is a new and unique experience. Each director has his own way of expressing the story.

What was it like returning to the world of Middle Earth with The Hobbit after nearly a decade? Is it difficult to come up with music that stands on its own while still fitting in with what you composed for the previous trilogy?

The Hobbit was written before The Lord of the Rings by Professor Tolkien. It was read to his children and has a different tone than the trilogy. There is at times a lighter quality to the storytelling, but some characters, as we know, share the pages in both books. Stepping back into Middle Earth was like visiting friends from the past and embarking on a new adventure.

This summer, Ravinia will be showing The Two Towers while having the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play the score as a live accompaniment. As a composer, what is it like for you to see your work presented in this way?

It is indeed a great pleasure to have the great Chicago Symphony play this score conducted by Ludwig Wicki.

On a related tangent, I discovered in my research that you and Ornette Coleman did a similar presentation of your score for Naked Lunch, and I have to ask-how did that go?

I conducted the Ulster Symphony in Belfast and the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Barbican in London with the Ornette Coleman Trio (Denardo Coleman, Barre Phillips). These concerts were the early inspiration for the Lord of the Rings projection concerts.

Finally-the unfair question: Of all of the film scores that you have done over the years, what are your favorites ?

Favorites of course are the Rings scores but also Hugo, The Aviator, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, The Cell, The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Ed Wood, Mrs. Doubtfire and Big.

Peter Sobczynski is a film critic based in Chicago. His work has appeared at, and in the Daily Herald. He can be heard talking about movies on Fridays on the nationally syndicated Mancow's Morning Madhouse radio show.