A total of 300 musicians, including Switzerland’s 21st Century
Symphony Orchestra, performing The Two Towers live to film.
By Clive Young.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a powerful piece of filmmaking, in no small part due to Howard Shore’s epic score of more than 11 hours of continuous music. That soundtrack has taken on a life of its own in recent years, often performed live to film by Switzerland’s 21st Century Symphony Orchestra in a semi-touring production that has played around the world. Helping add to the enthusiasm people have for the score, this fall has seen the release of The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films, a fittingly huge book that details the creation and recording of the music, complete with a unique ‘rarities’ CD of demos, unused cues and more. Pro Sound News spoke with author Doug Adams about the book and the recording of the enormous score.
How did you first become involved in covering the scoring of the trilogy?
It was actually an invitation from Howard Shore. I had been writing for a magazine about film and television music called Film Score Monthly; I was assigned a Howard Shore interview years back before any of this happened, and he and I had gotten on very well. I ended up becoming the go-to guy for all the Howard Shore interviews. It was one of those things where you do the interview, finish up and then talk for another hour about whatever interests came up, arts and music. We have similar temperaments.
When The Lord of the Rings came around, he asked if I’d be interested in doing something with the project, something that we could create as time went along, so, of course, I agreed. It was fantastic. I knew the movies had been a big deal for the New Zealand community and it was cool to be on the edge of it all. As time went by, we collected more and more material and I spent a lot of time visiting his offices constantly, attending recording sessions in London and so forth. We looked at what we’d collected and decided it was starting to look like a book on its own, so we should just make it one and head down that path; that’s how it all came about.
Did you see your role as a fly on the wall observer or an interactive chronicler?
A little of both. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t a participant per se; I didn’t want to get out there, make a big noise and interrupt the process. I just wanted to observe it as it happened naturally and figure it out. Our work went beyond that anyway, because observing the process was really all an end to understanding the music itself a bit better. A lot of the work—the heart of it—was sitting with the conductor scores, looking at the themes and seeing how they worked together, studying Howard’s original pencil sketches to see how things were developing from his early ideas. We’d watch the films together and talk about his approach to the emotional pitch to this scene or that culture or a character. The stuff that dealt with the production was all in service of understanding the music better itself, I think.
While your book focuses mostly on the composition, it also gets into the actual recording of the score.
Oh yeah, absolutely. We open and close with that—the first chapter of the book details Howard coming on to the project, his first trips to New Zealand, his initial conversations with the filmmakers, and at the end of the book, we come back and join the recording sessions in progress and see exactly how the music was recorded, meet some of the musicians, see how Howard and Peter Jackson interacted during the sessions, and all that stuff.
Where was it recorded?
There were some sessions in Abbey Road, but the real heart of the score was done in Watford Town Hall, which is technically just outside of London. They did some of the orchestral sessions at Abbey Road, most of the choral sessions were there, and a little bit at AIR Lyndhurst, Henry Wood Hall and some other areas for specific smaller sessions.
So they recorded in a variety of locations, actually.
Yes, exactly. They worked with a really clever guy, John Kurlander, who was the recording engineer. And it was interesting, because the very first sessions were done in Wellington Town Hall in New Zealand because they wanted to present a clip from the film at the Cannes Film Festival that year. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was available and the production was still down there filming and doing special effects, so they recorded about 20-25 minutes of the score down in New Zealand. Kurlander set up the room in this very specific way and then was really careful in how he made the miking work in a room that really wasn’t designed for this sort of thing.
But when they picked up everything and moved to England for the real heart of the sessions when they had the London Philharmonic and the London Voices and all that, Kurlander had to recreate the sound of that Wellington Town Hall in London. That was the miking set up—the acoustics he was trying to recreate so that everything matched perfectly—and we go into some of that. We talk a bit about his miking techniques and how he arranged the rooms. He’s a brilliant recording engineer [Kurlander’s first gig was as a 16-year-old assistant engineer on the Beatles’ Abbey Road]; going in to record, he did a lot of homework. He visited the Metropolitan Opera in New York to see how they handled their pit orchestra; that was the sound they were trying to emulate, so he went down to see how they would record Puccini in the pit.
Did the New Zealand material end up in the film?
It’s all in there. The entire Mines of Moria section, which is the part of the first film with the Balrog. It was the sequence they played at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, it was all done in New Zealand and it’s still in the film.
Did the recording process itself affect the music at all?
That’s something that Howard is really interested in, actually. He will often change orchestrations based on what he’s hearing in the room. With film music, it’s a recorded medium. It doesn’t have multiple interpretations and it doesn’t get played in different venues; it is what you create in that room. So Howard is very reactive to that and will often make a lot of changes on the stand, based on how the room is reacting. If he feels that the French horns really aren’t cutting through in the room they way he wants them to, he’ll maybe put them in a slightly different range or he’ll bulk up the orchestration. So it’s funny—what you’ll hear in Radio City really was affected by what happened long before in New Zealand.
With the films running between 10-12 hours in total, how many hours of music were ultimately used?
In the final, long versions—the extended cut on DVD, there’s at least 11 hours of continuous music. It’s crazy—because Howard had to keep it straight. It’s not all just happy music, sad music, fast music, slow music; it has this specific architecture and structure to it so that it’s one 11-hour shape. It’s just mind-boggling to me that Howard could keep his mind on something that mammoth and give it such a beautiful overall shape. It’s not just the individual moments; the whole piece put together is beautiful. That’s pretty cool.
So let’s discuss the live presentations of the film.
It’s funny because film is such a recorded medium, capturing the moment, but this really makes it a live event, and that’s pretty unique.
Are you involved with the concert production?
I helped in the planning stages, when they were going through the music to figure out how to handle some of the edits and so on. At this point, on occasion, I’ll do a pre-concert lecture and signings of the book afterwards, but I’m not performing or anything like that. We’ll leave that to the pros.
How involved is Shore with the concert series?
Same capacity—He will be sitting there with the rest of us, watching it.
Would the music be better served if it was performed without the films?
Well…it’s hard to say that it would be better served per se; it would be a different experience. The film concerts are really a way to honor the original films. They’re such a beautiful, visual thing. Howard did at first do The Lord of the Rings Symphony, where he culled all three scores into a six-movement symphony and that essentially was music by itself. They did some imagery above it of sketches and things like that, but it wasn’t scenes from the film. That was beautiful in its own right as well, so it’s just different methods of storytelling, and it’s hard to say that one is necessarily better than the other.
How did the rarities CD come together?
The last bit of research that I did in the book project was that we were getting near the end of writing the text of the book, and Howard said, ‘well, you know what you should really do is at some point sit and go through all the recording sessions’—which is over a month of continuous audio.
(laughs) Yeah, well, it’s not like I’m digging ditches here; it’s wonderful music! They gave me a nice listening room and access to the vault and said, ‘Here, go at it.’ And as I started going through all this stuff, I started finding alternate versions or early versions of things and we started looking at them and thinking that this was all lovely in its own right. Maybe there would be some interest here, maybe people would like it.
I created this little system of post-it notes, left like a trail of breadcrumbs all over Howard’s offices. I live in Chicago, so I’d fly out to New York every couple of weeks and listen to another couple of days worth of CDs, put notes all over them, and then once I finally hit the last few recording sessions, you can hear the champagne corks popping at the end of everything, I sent back my notes. They were all things like “OK, find Disc 203—track 9 has five minutes of additional music.”
By doing that, we assembled a rough idea of an album. It was interesting because we wanted to serve two purposes—we wanted to create this archive of unusual materials, but we still wanted to shape it like an album, where you have your beginning, middle and end. It’s the same thing with talking about Howard shaping these long scores; you want to have a beautiful, overall arc to this, not just a collection of individual moments.
We tried to create something that even though it is certainly an archive, a collection of distantly related materials, we wanted it to have its own special personality to it. It works particularly well with the book, because you’re seeing the creative process in the book and then you can refer to the CD and get another sense of how Howard’s mind works. You have the early version of a composition that you follow through to the end and see how he changed ideas and realized others and threw out some. It’s kind of a cool thing.
It sounds like it must have been a massive organizational effort to create this book; how did you keep track of this, especially since a good portion of your research material was in an entirely different city!
There’s currently four or five knee-high stacks of paper next to my desk that at some point I have to figure out what to do with them, and that’s all my research. It’s staff paper where I made little notations, typed-up ideas, things I scrawled on airplanes and coffee shops and rental cars while I was waiting to pull out of the lot. It’s all in there—a massive paper trail!
I knew it would be a long project—I had no idea it would be this long—but I forced myself to exist solely in that world while I was there, and I immersed myself in this music to an extreme degree. It became such an internal thing that you don’t really have to think about ‘Oh, I jotted down an idea,’ because part of your head is forever in Middle Earth.
Howard described the end of his composition process, that they kind of had to come and pull him back and say ‘OK, that’s enough time in Tolkien’s creation; you’ve got to come back to the real world.’ And that is kind of what happens—you just start to live there after a while. Your brain has a certain quadrant that is forever in that world and looking around seeing the Shire, the elves and everything else. It wreaks havoc with your social life, of course, but in terms of your research, it’s wonderful.
Are you sick of the music by now?
(laughs) That’s the funny thing—I can put it on in the car and say ‘Oh, that stuff is great.’ You just don’t get sick of it—it’s like going back to that world all the time. And it’s strange, too, because I’ve lived with it so long that so many of my personal memories are embedded in the music. Like, ‘Oh, I was listening to these compositions when I met my girlfriend,’ or ‘I was listening to this when I did whatever with my parents,’ so all these things are tied into it. So it’s cool—it’s like a family album in a way.
It takes on its own emotional life beyond bringing to mind a movie scene.
Exactly—like the experience of working with Howard. For example, at the end of Return of the King, where the good guys are victorious and the entire kingdom of Gondor kneels to the Hobbits. ‘My friends, no one bows to you…’
I was there, sitting with the orchestra that day, being quiet and watching the goings on—and that’s a pretty cool memory because that’s you’re cheering for at the end of the film, but I can sit back and know it was a real part of my life. This wasn’t just an adventure that these other guys had; this was something I got to be part of—and that’s something that I’ll forever be thankful for. I really lucked out; in the very limited world of film score journalism, no pun intended, this was the Golden Ring.