'Lord of the Rings' Composer Howard Shore Talks Hobbits, His Start on 'SNL' and Working With Martin Scorsese

Film Score Composer Howard Shore
Jim Spellman/WireImage

Film Score Composer Howard Shore attends the "Maps To The Stars" Premiere during the 52nd New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall on September 27, 2014 in New York City.

Whatever you think of director Peter Jackson’s decision to pump up J.R.R. Tolkien’s table-setting novel The Hobbit into three films to rival the more naturally epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, the indisputably good news is that when the final installment, The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, is released this December, we will have several hours more of composer Howard Shore’s Middle Earth music to enjoy. Jackson, Shore, and the rest of their collaborators have been laboring to bring Middle Earth to life for 14 years now. Shore’s contribution, his sweeping, luscious, sometimes otherworldly scores -- in their way, as much a world unto themselves as the films themselves -- has earned him three Oscars, one for The Fellowship of the Ring (score) and two for The Return of the King (score and song). All told, he’s written and recorded more than 21 hours of music across the six films. By way of comparison, a complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle might breeze by in as little as 15 hours.

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In late October, Shore was putting the final touches on The Battle of Five Armies soundtrack CD. Asked whether, with the light at the end of the Tolkien tunnel, he was feeling relief, regret, joy, pride, or some ineffable mixture of all that. “When you’re working on [a film], you’re working so hard it’s hard just to stop. It takes a little while. And we haven’t really finished -- you never really finish until it’s in the theater,” Shore tells Billboard with a laugh. No, it didn’t sound as if he was ready to let go. Shore did confess that scoring the climactic destruction of Mordor in The Return of the King had been the most daunting task -- “a combination of everything that led up to it” -- and that the scenes between Frodo and Sam across the first three films had been the most enjoyable. Writing melodies to Tolkien’s Elvish verse has been another pleasure.

On Nov. 5, Shore will receive the Maestro Award at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference. He is being honored not just for his collaboration with Jackson but for an entire body of the work that includes 15 films with David Cronenberg (including one of this author’s personal favorites, his 1991 collaboration with Ornette Coleman for Naked Lunch), five films with Martin Scorsese (dating back to 1985’s After Hours and most recently Hugo, for which he received his fourth Oscar nomination two years ago), three with David Fincher, and two with Jonathan Demme.

For all that, Shore’s greatest cultural impact may have come as the first musical director of Saturday Night Live: the house band he put together in 1975, with its Stax-influenced sound, set the template for late-night TV music in the post-Doc Severinsen era. “The interest was always in music,” Shore said when asked to comment on his eclectic filmography. “It just kept opening doors and possibilities and things you could try. I never sit still. I just keep looking for new things to do, new ways to express ideas in music. But the common core to it was always about music. I write every day. And I’ve been writing music since I was ten. That pencil was moving back then and it’s just kept moving all these years later.”  

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There’s obviously a lot of continuity, musically and otherwise, between The Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit. But what about the differences in your approaches to the two trilogies?  

The books are different. The Hobbit was written before The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote it in the ‘30s and he read it to his children as a bedtime story, so it definitely has a lighter tone to it. The Lord of the Rings was of course written later, during the '40s. The war was raging at that point, so it has a more serious tone. The journey in each is different. The Lord of the Rings is about a much bigger, more serious world that is on the verge of destruction by a great evil force -- the world could collapse. The Hobbit is a story that’s not quite as serious. The stakes aren’t quite as high.  

How is that expressed musically? Were there orchestrations or groupings that you had used in The Lord of the Rings where you thought, 'This isn’t going to be appropriate for The Hobbit'?  

The instrumentation for both stories basically remained the same. The symphony orchestra was the primary instrument, with a large mixed adult choir, a children’s choir and soloists. And many solo instruments were used from the four points of the compass to show the range and the differences in Tolkien’s descriptions of Middle Earth.  

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Any instruments you hadn’t used before?  

We used a lot of eastern and African instruments in The Lord of the Rings. But in The Hobbit we used a gamelan, which is a wonderful, very exotic eastern instrument. It was used in the scenes with the dragon Smaug. So the gamelan really took on the character of Smaug. I had previously used things like Tibetan hanging gongs and Chinese cymbals, but the gamelan was a new color. Doug Adams wrote a book [The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films: A Comprehensive Account of Howard Shore’s Scores]. And in that book, which was just based on the first trilogy, he identified over 80 themes and leitmotifs that were used. So with The Hobbit films now, we’re well over a hundred.  

Were you surprised to learn you had written more than 80 themes and leitmotifs?  

No, because we went step by step. A few years ago we did a concert in New York, and Tolkien’s papers were being shown in a public library and I got to see them for the first time. And it was interesting how his journey and ours were similar in a sense. He was constantly trying to take one step in front of the other. He didn’t have the whole story completely mapped out. And I think everybody who worked on the films went on a similar kind of journey, where you just kind of took one step forward at a time. It was too large and massive a project to really conceptualize so perfectly before you started. You kind of just threw yourself into it: you absorbed the book and the ideas and then collaborated with a lot of other people who were great artists from all over the world who brought all of their own ideas about Tolkien. The inspiration was all around and all you had to do was be open and receptive to it, and contribute something as well. And in my case I contributed music.  

Aside from Peter Jackson, you’ve had significant collaborations with David Cronenberg and Martin Scorsese. Tell me a little about how these different relationships work.  

To make good films -- and these directors really do make good films -- they assemble a group of artists who they put great faith and trust in, and the collaboration is open. Different directors do have different ways of expressing their ideas in film, and you just really need to be receptive to it and be able to contribute your own ideas about how you feel about that story. Martin Scorsese, if you’re working on Hugo or The Aviator, they’re set in very specific time periods and there’s a lot of research that goes into working on his films, which is enjoyable.  I’ve worked with David Cronenberg for 35 years. We’ve done 15 features together, so our collaboration is very intuitive. Once David has an idea of a film he wants to do we start talking about casting and the story. It’s a very different kind of process. With Peter Jackson, I’ve done six films in the last 14 years, and we’ve exclusively worked in Tolkien’s world, in Middle Earth, so we have a very good relationship in that world, I feel. We know how to work in it, how to express our ideas in it. We’ve had a long history of working in Middle Earth. Each of these relationships is really different and very treasured.  

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Tell me about working on Saturday Night Live. Were there things you learned there that served you well in your subsequent film work?  

I wrote the themes for the show and organized really the sound of it. By 1975 I had already done television and radio in Canada [Shore grew up in Toronto] and Lorne had done television in the States, so we came together, a small group of us, and we started to add people, writers and performers we knew, and started to create that show. Everybody did a little of everything -- we wrote music, we performed, we played off of each other. It was very improvisational. My background as a Canadian youngster had been in repertory theater, and so it was natural, really, to do a show of comedy that sometimes had a serious edge to it but was steeped in this tradition of improv.  The show band had that great R&B sound, with those sax solos that to me are kind of an iconic 70s sound, like disco strings. It was just something I was interested in -- Stax-Volt, Junior Walker -- so I was just playing around with a certain feeling I liked of R&B and soul music. I kind of injected it into that performance each week.  

You play reeds. Were those your own sax solos? 

No, no. That was Lou Marini, who played most of those solos early on -- a fantastic New York session player. Woodwinds were my instruments, but I slowly put them down for composing. 

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An edited version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of Billboard.