I remember exactly where I was when I realized that Howard Shore had become one of the all-time great film composers. It was a mile or so beneath the Misty Mountains, the Fellowship of the Ring was entering Dwarrowdelf, and as Gandalf decided to risk a little more light I found myself admiring not just the ranks of immense pillars fading into the shadows but the wonderfully non-cliched music on the soundtrack. Instead of another standard-issue eardrum thumping fanfare, the orchestra filled the hall with hints of lost grandeur and hidden strength undercut by sadness and regret. Just the kind of music you’d expect to hear for a fleeting glimpse of an awesome accomplishment that had been taken from its makers and despoiled.
That scene was a double-decker realization for me. Though I’d been intrigued by the half-hour preview reel for The Lord of the Rings that screened at the Cannes film festival, I went to The Fellowship of the Ring with carefully diminished expectations. I had seen Ralph Bakshi’s calamitously bad animated film, as well as the ramshackle Rankin-Bass production that was its unofficial sequel. Hollywood has a bad record when it comes to adapting big, complicated books.
So I went not expecting much, and when I fell hard, Howard Shore’s huge, emotionally expansive score was a big part of the reason why. I bought all three soundtrack discs as they came out, and when the “Complete Recordings” series got rolling two years ago, I snapped up the multi-disc soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring and waited impatiently for The Two Towers to get the same big box treatment. I’ve been playing it fairly obsessively through Christmas and well into the hard winter doldrums. I’ve held off on writing about it all this time because, first of all, it’s an immense amount of music to absorb, and second, I had a reaction to it I didn’t expect.
Shore has been a busy composer for over two decades, but for a long time it seemed to me that David Cronenberg was the only filmmaker who could consistently get great work out of him. When Shore worked with other directors, the results were hit or miss: for every dark beauty like Cop Land, you’d get three pieces of hackwork like The Silence of the Lambs. His stuff for Cronenberg, on the other hand, was often brilliant. The early horror movie scores like The Brood and Scanners were nothing special, but The Fly had a dreamy intensity I liked very much. The Fly was Shore’s first work for a big orchestra, and it seems to have marked a turning point in his artistic development.
The score for Dead Ringers was the first time I noticed what Shore calls his “breathing method” of composition, which follows the natural rhythms of respiration. The title theme, with its sense of tidal sadness, was remarkable, but Shore achieved an early career peak with the scoring for the bondage sequence, which follows the scene’s movement from outrageousness to poignancy and, finally, deep tenderness. I would bet Dead Ringers was the soundtrack that attracted Peter Jackson’s interest; it’s certainly the one that got me buying any Shore soundtrack CD for any Cronenberg film, sight unseen. Just as Alfred Hitchcock came to rely on Bernard Herrmann to give his coldly plotted thrillers an emotional undertow – it’s impossible to imagine North By Northwest, Psycho and especially Vertigo working even half as well without Herrmann’s scores — so has David Cronenberg elevated Howard Shore to the status of co-auteur. Not only can Shore match Cronenberg in his weirdness, he can exceed Cronenberg in his sense of tragedy.
Crash, done for Cronenberg’s adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, is really impressive: scored for an ensemble of electric guitars, with touches of electronically treated harp and woodwinds. Very spiky and menacing music – completely appropriate for the material, needless to say. Equally good is Naked Lunch, in which Shore brought in jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman to improvise against a string orchestra. The sound reminds me of Skies of America, Coleman’s magnificent orchestral piece. Shore used some interesting tricks to get the sound he wanted. For example, in the studio he had Coleman improvise against the drumming of his son, Denardo Coleman, but the studio was miked so that the orchestra could hear only the saxophone, not the drums. Shore also spent a lot of time studying the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and incorporated their wild, blaring sound into the score. How this all came together is something only Shore will ever know, but the result is a gripping suite of music that stands tall in Ornette Coleman’s catalogue as well as Shore’s.
Even so, none of this led me expect much beyond the usual bombastic stylings that have come to dominate fantasy scores in the post-Star Wars era. So imagine my amazement when it turned out that for The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore had written the score for an opera – and a damned thrilling one at that. Its welter of musical motifs and themes helps the viewer stay oriented within the teeming canvas of characters, plotlines and battling races, and aid considerably in helping director Peter Jackson and his collaborators weave a skein of emotion through what could have been a mind-numbing pageant of special effects set pieces.
Though The Lord of the Rings is a unified story, each of its installments has a unique character, and I find I like The Two Towers best. There is a sense that irrevocable choices will have to be made and then lived with, as well as a feeling of deep regret for what will be lost in the coming war, all of it tremendously impressive. And as much as I loved the Celtic-flavored Shire music in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers is where Shore breaks out his full arsenal of unfamiliar and exotic instruments and textures. For the endlessly squirrelly Gollum, jittery notes on the cimbalom, an instrument best known (if at all) from Debussy’s “La Plus Que Lente.” For the fading glories of Rohan, the mournful sound of a hardanger fiddle. I am still dazzled by the music cue for the arrival of the lumbering mumakil: heavy bass strings beneath a keening, bowed sitar called the dilruba. And, last but not least, the boy soprano singing the lead during the last march of the Ents.
“Evenstar,” the song for Arwen, is simply the loveliest piece of music Shore has yet written, and lyric soprano Isabel Bayrakadarian (singing with some electronic treatment) lifts it into the stratosphere. Almost as good is “Gollum’s Song,” which I wrote off as Gothic tosh the first time I heard it but has since won me over through the simple, unshowy authority of Emiliana Torrini’s singing. Though The Two Towers boasts even more digital wonders than its predecessor, two of the film’s most powerful sequences owe little or nothing to computer effects, just the old school techniques of fine acting and inspired direction. Elrond’s last-ditch attempt to argue Arwen out of staying with Aragorn becomes a heartbreaking meditation on mourning and loss, with images of Arwen’s desolate future gaining impact from a reprise of “Evenstar,” this time crushed by the weight of Elrond’s words. And Bernard Hill’s recitation of “Where is the horse, where is the rider,” one of the few instances in which Tolkien’s verse approached the power of his Nordic sources, becomes transcendent when posed against a wordless choir and images of the boys and men of Rohan preparing to face a battle in which they are dreadfully overmatched.
The three-disc edition of the complete Fellowship soundtrack won me over immediately: the original one-disc edition had preserved the crucial set pieces pretty much intact, so the omitted music revealed in the expanded edition simply made a good thing better. But the expanded Two Towers box is a much different listening experience. A great deal of editing went into the single-disc Two Towers soundtrack: “The Forbidden Pool” track, for instance, takes passages scattered across roughly a half hour of screen time and welds them into a unified whole. Most of them are now in “The Forests of Ithilien,” separated (as in the film) by long stretches of pensive underscoring. It took a great deal of getting used to – at first the underscoring came across as filler to my ears. I emphasize that the problem was mine, not Shore’s, but for a while I wondered if I’d made an expensive mistake in getting the “Complete Recordings” edition of The Two Towers. I hadn’t, and if you’re having the same qualms I did, take my advice and wait for Shore’s artistry to do its work. It won’t be that long a wait.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have a few small bones to pick with this production. As I’ve noted, The Two Towers is unique in the series for the number of sequences that rely simply on long spoken passages to put across their power. I was hoping some of these recitations would make it onto this set. After all, the Fellowship box gave us two Ians mumbling “The Road Goes Ever On,” but the Two Towers set won’t even give us one Bernard speaking “Where is the horse.” Mirando Otto singing the funeral song for Eowyn’s slain brother is no compensation. I will, however, acknowledge the wisdom of keeping Treebeard’s poetry recitation out of this box. In the film, set against images of misty forests and crags, John Rhys-Davies’s vocal performance as the head Ent achieves eccentric grandeur, but I doubt an audio-only version would work as well.
The sheer mass of music in the complete Two Towers set sounds ready to burst from its box – God knows how they’ll get the complete Return of the King score into this same format. I will, however, be waiting with my credit card to find out.
It’s a cliché that great works of literature keep revealing new secrets every time you return to them. Howard Shore’s “Complete Recordings” series for The Lord of the Rings brings the same experience to the realm of movie soundtracks. It’s been four years since the last Lord of the Rings movie came out, but it feels like I’m still getting acquainted. Now that is a trip worth taking, many more times.