Interview: Howard Shore
By Karol Krok
Few film series in film history received such a lavish and detailed musical treatment as Peter Jackson's big screen adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books. Size of this undertaking was immense - the amount of music heard in both trilogies must exceed 17 hours at this point. More than 100 themes were created created for characters, objects, places. And all those elements are developed and interconnected in most devilishly clever ways. The effort has paid off. The scores were awarded with multiple Academy Awards and tons of soundtrack albums were sold.
But that's not all. The music from The Lord of the Rings trilogy is regularly performed live all around the world - both as a 2-hour symphony as well as live to film. There is also an excellent book dedicated to Howard Shore's work for Peter Jackson films (written by Doug Adams) that comes highly recommended.
In December 2014 Howard Shore completed the second (first?) trilogy of Tolkien-inspired film music with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The composer was kind enough to devote some time from his busy schedule to a chat about his latest work.
Karol Krok: What are the challenges of completing a trilogy that also happens to be a mid-point in a much larger story? What kind of climax can it offer?
Howard Shore: Well, you have the book. The Hobbit was written by Tolkien in the 30’s, years before The Lord of the Rings (which was written in the 40’s). So this third film of The Hobbit trilogy takes place between the second film and The Fellowship of the Ring and is somewhat of an ending to that story but, of course, sixty years later you’re into the beginning of prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. So the pieces need to connect. There’s a sense of conclusion and a beginning.
KK: By the end of this film and score, Middle-earth seems to be a significantly less innocent of a place than it was back in An Unexpected Journey. There doesn’t seem to be a happy end as such – with all those ominous suggestions of Ring theme at the end.
HS: Yes. Well, you’re seeing forces that emerge, the force of evil and destruction. The forces to change the world of Middle-earth and you’re seeing them finally out of the shadows and onto the battlefield and, of course, there’s… I shouldn’t give that away. Could be a bit of a spoiler. I don’t want to give you too much information until you see the film.
KK: Could you introduce us to your new principal themes from The Battle of the Five Armies?
HS: Doug Adams wrote a book Music of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It’s a wonderful book, he spent eight or nine years working on it, visiting my archives at the studio. And he collected all of the themes and motifs of the series. And then, going into The Hobbit, I was able to create a new palette of themes and motifs to tell this story. Some characters do relate to The Lord of the Rings – like Elrond, Bilbo and Gandalf. But you’re meeting a lot of new characters and going to new cultures in The Hobbit.
In the third of these films, you’ve pretty much established the territory. The geography is well laid out and you’re not journeying. This isn’t a film about a journey. This is really a war movie, a battle movie. And you’ve pretty much been introduced to all of the sides and characters. Except for Dain, which is a significantly new Dwarven character. I use a Highland pipe and this very bold piece for him. And Gundabad receives a new thematic development. And, of course, characters, objects and places that we’ve been to are now interwoven in The Battle of the Five Armies, in a very intricate complex detailed way to portray how the battle wanes and achieves victory, finally.
KK: You introduced a lot of themes in the prologue of film one (An Unexpected Journey) – Mirkwood Elves, Smaug, Dwarves. And now they reach their splendid climaxes in this film. Did you always have a plan for their development throughout this trilogy? Or was that process a result of improvisation?
HS: This is a kind of a step-by-step journey. So when we start working on these films, Peter and I, we both kind of go step by step through the world that Tolkien had created. It’s so vast a world. You didn’t always have the complete plan as you were travelling through.
In doing some research and studying Tolkien, I realised that he also went in a step-by-step fashion in writing the piece. And didn’t always have the complete story and picture ahead. He created it as he went. As he says, and I quote, “the story grew in the telling”. So we kind of have the same process in making the films. Starting out with An Unexpected Journey, you’re not quite creating the overall plan of the whole trilogy. But, of course, you have the book and you know the whole story. But you never really know what Peter’s going to have in store and how he’s going bring in pieces from Appendices or things about the Necromancer. I mean, there are elements to it that he brought in that are always interesting and that you’re not always prepared for. So you had that part of the story and then come back and continue on the main road.
KK: I’d like to ask you a few questions about specific themes that appear in The Battle of the Five Armies. Smaug’s theme is interesting in the respect that is remains a recurring element, even after character’s death. What does it represent in this film?
HS: Dragon sickness. Which is an element that Thorin is afflicted with. And he’s inherited that from Smaug. When I’m writing the scenes of Thorin and his illness, and the greed for gold, I’m referencing the music from The Desolation of Smaug. Because it was Smaug who controlled the hoard and Erebor for so many years. And now Thorin is trying to do that and, of course, he’s kind of inherited this illness that prevails inside this mountain.
KK: I was wondering about your Dwarf music in this trilogy. How does it connect to what you already established during Moria sequence (in The Fellowship of the Ring). Did you make any specific connections?
HS: Yes, I did. I started out in Moria! It was one of the first pieces I wrote for The Lord of the Rings: Mines of Moria and Dwarrowdelf. I went back and reviewed that – there are certain gestures, there’s the type of harmony that I used, and the way I orchestrated it. In An Unexpected Journey I did make references to that. If you look at the arrival of dwarves, you’ll hear little fragments of that. And I just connected that in a very subtle ways. Hopefully, when you watch all these movies and you’re into the fourth one (and you’re into Dwarrowdelf), the Dwarven music will relate and have a connection to the culture you’ve seen in The Hobbit.
KK: Gandalf the Grey received his own unique motif in this trilogy. There was some music that related to this character in The Lord of the Rings as well but not as specific and noticeable. Is there any specific reason for this addition?
HS: Well, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings was always a fleeting character, he was seen more like a messenger. He was driving the action and then would disappear somewhere. Because he seemed so elusive, I didn’t want to tie him down with very strong thematic idea. But in this picture, he kind of serves a different purpose. He’s still a facilitator but also feels like part of the company. Hence, he received a piece. A motif, if you will. I feel it really connected him to Radagast. I was trying to show a relationship between Gandalf and other wizards of Middle-earth.
KK: What part does Bilbo play in The Battle of the Five Armies, musically?
HS: Bilbo always carries few things with him. The love of the Shire and everything green and good, as Tolkien would say. So there’s always that connection to his home and his desire to be back home. And that’s always kind of a part of Bilbo’s story. That music always plays with his memory, with his hobbit-ness. And, of course, Bilbo is carrying something with him, that is of great value. We know what that is.
KK: Yes, of course (laughs).
HS: And so that has to connect to his journey, how he fits into the story and how the object eventually controls him in a certain way. And allows him to do things in the story that no hobbit would be able to do if he didn’t have that… “object” in his pocket.
KK: True. Were you trying to consciously distinguish a sound palette between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films? To present a slightly younger incarnation of Middle-earth?
HS: Yes, I did in the beginning. Definitely in An Unexpected Journey. I was looking for a lighter approach. I mean, The Hobbit was written in the 30’s, before The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote it for his children and he read it to them. It’s a lighter story so I wanted to show that. Especially in the scenes with the trolls. There was a lightness and humour to it but, of course, as story progresses, it does get darker. And in The Desolation of Smaug it gets even darker. There are still elements of humour here and there but in The Battle of the Five Armies it’s very close to a thriller and a war movie. Stakes get higher and higher.
KK: That was my impression as well. And there also seems to be The Lord of the Rings seemed to be about drawing all the cultures of Middle-earth together in one operatic sweep. The Hobbit scores seem to be more character-based and less cataclysmic, even during its intense final sequences. Was it the intention?
HS: Well, you still have the cultures and they're important. In the way this story was told, with The Hobbit coming after The Lord of the Rings, is that you had already been to Shire, you know what Rivendell is. So there was a certain kind of reverse history, if you will. Because you didn’t know those places from the original trilogy. But I thought it was important, in The Battle of the Five Armies, to have a link at the end, to The Fellowship of the Ring, which takes places sixty years after the end of this story.
KK: In both The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies, you used New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to record the score. Previously, most of the music was performed by London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s been often mentioned how well you knew London musicians and their strengths. Is there any particular sound you tried to achieve with New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for the last two Hobbit films? Is there a different way in which you approached writing with their sound in mind?
HS: I don’t think so. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra recorded an extended 20 minute piece from The Fellowship of the Ring. That was actually the first music ever recorded for The Lord of the Rings and it was part of preview that we showed at the Cannes festival (and this is in 2001). And that music really influenced how I shaped the rest of that film. The remaining majority of the score was recorded with London Philharmonic in London, mostly at Watford Town Hall. And I matched, to a large degree, the sound of Wellington Town Hall. So we started in there and we ended there.
KK: In your Middle-earth music you use a lot of ethnic colours from all around the world. How do you choose the specialty instruments for the music? Do these sounds just come to you or is there some form of experimentation - with different versions - before choosing the final elements suitable for the music?
HS: Well, Tolkien, in his story, shows you points of the compass – North, South, East, West. It was important in Middle-earth to reflect that in the score. And I used instruments from those four compass points to tell the story. So there are Eastern instruments used: Japanese cymbals, Tibetan gongs and Sarangi (East Indian Bowed lute). There’s percussion – Taiko drums from Japan. There are African instruments I used to show the South: ney flute and the rhaita. In the North - Hardanger fiddle (a Northern European folk instrument). Celtic instruments were chosen to represent the West: Bodhrán (Irish drum) and fiddle, tin flute.
Some of these instruments were very basic to the beginnings of music. The ney flute has been around for thousands of years. So I was trying to give the film a historical reference, a sense of antiquity.
I also used six of Tolkien’s languages sung by 80 member adult choir and 50 member boy choir. And many soloists as well. So that was a way to show Tolkien’s created languages and put that back into the score. Sometimes we used Tolkien’s text and lyrics, sometimes by Philippa Boyens (who is one of the screenwriters). The poems were translated by David Salo and given to the choir by Roisin Carty to sing correctly in Tolkien’s sound.
KK: To finish off this interview, do you have a single favourite moment or theme from this series?
HS: From The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings?
HS: I guess from The Lord of the Rings I love Shire music. I love Sam and Frodo's relationship, that wonderful bond they had. And, of course, the Fellowship theme. Those were two of the first pieces that I wrote and I’m still very attached to them.
KK: Thank you very much for your time.
HS: Good talking to you.
Special thanks to Beth Krakower, Alan Frey and Doug Adams for making this interview possible. And to Mikko Ojala for all the help and support.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is out now from Decca Records (Europe) and Watertower Music (United States)