Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Shore Thing: The Music of The Lord of the Rings

Part of the greatness of great films is their score: who can imagine Gone With the Wind without that sweeping “Dah DAH, da dah,” or Lawrence of Arabia without “DAH, Dah, da da da da DAH da” or James Bond without that wild minor-key electric “Duh da da da da, duh duh duh, (modulate half-step) Duh da da da da. Everyone can hear these, right?

Music is a key element to the sensibility of the film. How we hear and internalize music is an incredibly personal experience, and so our reaction to a film score deeply personalizes the film itself.

I never thought much about (not “of,” an important distinction) the score to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy before this week, but Middle-earth came to Radio City Music Hall for two symphonic concerts of The Fellowship of the Ring, and I am glad to have enjoyed a new focus on this great literature of my youth.

The Lord of the Rings: The Source

It’s easy to be dismissive of Tolkien. He built a fantasy world peopled with medieval-sounding names like Aragorn, Boromir, Gandalf, and creatures like Orcs, Urakai, Goblin men. A cult grew up around him in the US in the sixties, as the hippies found the American edition that was first printed in 1954 by Houghton Mifflin (on October 21, my birthday!). There was something about the imagination of Middle-earth that appealed to yearnings of Utopia that was underlying the Summer of Love. By the seventies, Doonsebury had made a joke of Hobbit posters being de rigueur for a college dorm room.

Tolkien himself was not happy with his cult status (he died in 1973), nor with the layers of meaning slathered on to his work. He is very clear about why he wrote LOTR in the foreword to the second edition:

“The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. . . . As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. . . . The crucial [Hobbit] chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past,’ is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster.”

Today I went to Barnes and Noble to buy a new copy of the work. I was honestly surprised that he is not in the Literature section; he is in Fantasy/Science Fiction. Of course it’s fantasy, but it has the breadth and depth of great world literature. (And, in case you’re curious, J. K. Rowling is in the Teen Readers section. That’s just fine with me. I’m never happy with the people who favorably compare Rowling to Tolkien. He is waaay out of her league.) The earnest B&N worker wasn’t amused when I said I was sad that he hadn’t even made it into Mythology. “No, no, he is only Fantasy,” she proclaimed.

Reading The Lord of the Ring was one of the few great pleasures of junior high school. It is a beautiful depiction of the themes of friendship, honor, adventure, good vs. evil, wrapped in a grand, English-inflected adventure tale. I didn’t understand it at the time, but Tolkien’s towering intellect and erudition had a lot to do with quality of the writing, the intricacies of the languages he created for Middle-earth—Quenya, Sindarin, Rohirric, Black Speech, among others—-and his ability to draw upon Beowulf and the Norse saga for inspiration. He was a world-class scholar, a devout Catholic, and a consummate Englishmen (born in South Africa), all of which informed his imagination.

Scoring the Film

Everything about Peter Jackson’s 10-hour film-in-three-parts is epic. It is truly one of the great achievements in cinematic history. Howard Shore was hired to score the film. A Canadian composer, conductor, orchestrator, he had found pop-culture fame as the music director of SNL and indie fame as the composer for most of David Cronenberg’s films. His film work includes The Silence of the Lambs, The Departed, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator. (Clearly Scorsese is a fan.) But nothing he had done to date presaged his accomplishment with this score.

Since 2004, Shore has toured conducting local orchestras in performance of his own symphonic arrangement of the scores into a six movement piece, sometimes to projections of stills from the film. That experience left him wanting more. “After three years of working with all the original recordings [which were released as the Complete Recordings in 2005] I had a real interest in hearing the complete score performed live.”

He first did this in Lucerne, Switzerland, with Ludwig Wicki and the 21st Symphony Orchestra. And then he brought them all to Radio City, where I saw them Friday night.

I was very close to the stage, I was afraid too close. But it turned out to be the most extraordinary experience. I was looking up at the screen, seeing the film through the symphony orchestra. I was so close that I could see Wicki’s laptop computer, sitting on the music stand with the score. It ran the film, with visual markers so that he could be certain of entrances and tempo. A conductor usually stretches some passages and quickens through others from one performance to the next, but in this context he has to be dead on in sync with the film.

The performance was excellent. It was thrilling, from the opening exposition, to hear the music and the choruses so clearly. While the dialogue was left in, the music was the dominant element. The Celtic motifs of the Shire, the sweeping brass figures for the world of Men, the clanging, disturbing cacophony of Saruman’s orcs all came across beautifully. The choruses featured some boy sopranos and an Enya-knock-off in a stunning red dress, Kaitlyn Lusk.

The music did not seem very difficult to play; there was one point in the mines of Moira that I saw some desperate arm waving from Wicki, but for the most part he was relaxed and the orchestra was engaged.

It was exciting to watch this film with 6,000 fans who applauded when Aragon first appeared, and the entrance of Legolas and Gimli. All the high points received waves of applause.

At the end, Shore came on stage with Frodo, Pippin, and Merry, and the place really when wild.

Shore in Person

Howard Shore came to the Paley Center for an event before the concert, along with Billy Boyd and Douglas Adams, the musicologist who wrote the linear notes for the complete recordings. The questions turned to the influence of Wagner (whom he “thanked” but did not see as an influence). He spoke about his multiple Celtic motifs, which he arrived at because those chords, that sound is one mankind's oldest. He was engaging and interesting. He said that the entire production was unique in that he was told to spend whatever he needed to make it “right,” Boyd revealed that on set, everyone carried the books with them so that they could argue a point of minutiae if they needed to; “But that’s not what Tolkien said . . . . “

Shore’s score isn’t yet in my head like GWTW and Lawrence of Arabia, but after some more viewings, it will be. That would be Da-da DAH, da da dah, da Dah da, with a brass rising then descending tone.


dorki said...

This brings back many memories of the early 70's. For about three years running I read Hobbit and LotR. I finally felt things were complete when The Silmarillion was available here in about 1978.

A great, and self-consistent story that might be true in some other dimension of space-time.

A lot of fun that was.

M.A.Peel said...

dorki, I never got through the Silmarillion myself. That was kind of the advance class. But I did love LOTR.