Radio Interview

Spinning on Air


Howard Shore
Interviewed by David Garland

on the WNYC radio program: Spinning on Air
Friday, February 6, 2004


I found this to be a fascinating interview.  I always try to remain as close to the spoken words when transcribing, but since the interview was conversational, I did some minor editing to make it more readable.  To hear the interview, follow the link above to Spinning on Air's web site.  I think anyone with a strong interest in soundtracks in general will like the portion of the interview I did not transcribe.   ~Magpie


The heroic Fellowship Theme from Bridge of Khazad-dŻm plays.

DG: Welcome to Spinning on Air, Iím David Garland and I have a special guest this week. A composer Iíve been looking forward to talking to for a number of years now, Howard Shore, composer of many film scores. We can even call you now the Oscar nominated Howard Shore. Howard welcome to Spinning on Air.

HS: Hi, David. Really great to be here.

DG: The nomination has come for your work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a gigantic project that I guess youíre not even finished with yet even though all the movies have been released. And, weíre going to be listening to some of that great music from Lord of the Rings in just a moment. But weíre also, after that, going to be looking back at some of your earlier music, (music stops) because to me, up until Lord of the Rings, Iíd thought of you as a composer specializing in fear, alienation and anxiety. And how you get from there to be a composer of music about courage and heart and loyalty is something thatís going to be interesting to find out, I guess. So, thanks for joining me and letís begin with some of the music and familiar themes that you wrote for Lord of the Rings.

The following music plays:

  • The Prophecy - FOTR Track 1

  • Concerning Hobbits - FOTR Track 2

  • The Black Gate Opens and fades out. - ROTK Track 15

DG: Weíve just heard some music by Howard Shore, who Iím glad to say is my guest on Spinning on Air here on WNYC. Iím David Garland. And weíve just heard music from the first episode of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. And to write music, going into this project I mean, there are composers who perhaps participate in a successful film and the studio decides, well, maybe we can follow up with a part two. And then perhaps the same forces are reconvened to work creatively on the follow up. But this was a huge project right from itís initial conception. It wasnít, as far as I know, much like anything you had done up to that point. Were you a little bit afraid?

HS: Ah, I think it was a daunting task and very challenging. And I think we all felt a great responsibility with the Tolkien book. Cause we, when I say we - Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, those were my really great collaborators - we felt a responsibility to put the book on the screen as realistically a way as possible. The book is very important to us... we were great fans of the book. And we wanted to make a movie that we, as fans, would love and that other people who love the book and there were so many people from all over the world - itís been translated into forty languages and it was a classic piece of literature from the 20th Century - we wanted to make sure that we treated it with great respect and put it on the screen as best that we humanly could. And so I think having that on our shoulders was a big task, yes.

DG: And, did you know from the start that you were going to be going for the... I guess you must have known that you were going for epic proportions for this epic story with a huge orchestra and voices and more.

HS: Well, didnít know at first. It was really Peterís vision, I think, and Fran Walsh, most certainly, as well as... Fran was a great collaborator in terms of how to use the music in the story.

DG: What was her input? Sheís one of the producers, is that right... and a writer?

HS: No. Fran Walsh is actually one of the screenwriters. (DG: Okay) And probably through this piece Iíll mention Peter and Fran and Philippa. And to understand their relationship is important because they were the three screenwriters. They were the three artists who said: We will take on this piece and adapt Tolkienís book for the screen. No small task. That alone is an amazing task - to take that book and the complexity of that book and attempt to put that on the screen is an amazing thing. And they worked tirelessly and many years before I worked on the piece. Iíve worked on the films for over three years, three and a half years. And Peter, Fran, Philippa worked on it four years before that. (DG laughs) Richard Taylor and Tanya Rodgers, his partner, who created much of the imagery that youíre seeing on screen, the costumes and the design - the production design. Grant Major worked on it many years. Alan Lee, the great Tolkien illustrator. John Howe, another Tolkien illustrator, living now in Switzerland. I mean, the people came, I think, from all over the world to New Zealand to participate in the creation of these movies - really for the love of the story and of the story telling. And it was our job to do the best we possibly could and we worked, I think, tirelessly at it. We really tried to really do as best work we could.

I did not transcribe the next section that contained the following:

  • Naked Lunch music

  • earliest musical interests and experiences

  • David Cronenberg

  • The Fly discussion and music (with hints of the 'Threat of Mordor' motif in it)

  • earlier scores - motivation for composing soundtracks

  • Naked Lunch and Ornette Coleman, tempos and rhythms (49:15)

  • Naked Lunch music - end of first hour

  • Ed Wood discussion and music

  • Crash - HS begins a discussion about using 3 harps, 6 electric guitars and 3 woodwinds then says...

HS: So that became the imagery and everything was recorded, again, in that imagery. That became the initial recording. Once the initial recording was done, I probably mutated 25% of the piece and regenerated it and looped it again using tape techniques. This time the tape techniques had advanced a bit over the years from the early Seventies, now you can sample the pieces into computers and do that processing in computers.

DG: So youíre saying after the musicians went home you were still fiddling with the music.

HS: Well, I wasnít really even fiddling. It was part of the composition that I would then... (DG: Un-hun.. Okay) I left room in the orchestration for a certain amount of regeneration of the sounds. I think that came from the ideas based in the book. I think so much of what Iím doing is really based on the words of the book. And itís something I think Iíve learned... now that I been working in movies over this period of time, I think itís been twenty five years, I think Iíve realized more and more how important the concepts of the book, in this case, the J.G. Ballard book and then into the screenplay and then into the film because what youíre essentially writing for is this idea, this book, this words that somebody has put on the page. I mean, that is really essentially what youíre writing for. And it also takes us to the Tolkien. Because youíre writing a piece based on Peter Jacksonís great imagery but of course youíre writing music that is based on Tolkienís book. And the case of Naked Lunch - similar. Youíre writing a piece based on Burroughsís book. And David Cronenberg is taking Burroughsís book and trying to put it on the screen in the best way he knows how. And youíre also creating music based on Davidís imagery and Burroughsís book. Crash is very similar. And youíre using the philosophy of the book and Davidís film making and thatís how you arrive at that sound. And the use of those instruments is interesting. I did it very intuitively led me to the 6 electric guitars and the three harps as I just explained. Because a group grew out of a compositional idea. So Iím thinking of it: pure music - this relates to this - and of course, if you have the harps and you want to amplify them you would use the guitars. Itís pure music and sort of orchestrational ideas and recording ideas. And then David came in heard it. I remember the first time he heard it he went, ďOh, of course - guitar - harp.Ē (HS laughs) You know. It all made sense to him. And I guess thatís that great part of the collaboration is being able to create a piece that relates to the idea of the film. And thatís the great beauty of it. And thatís the great joy of it I guess.

DG: Very interesting, because one might think that a composer for film would be very oriented toward the visual, which no doubt youíre taking into consideration. But youíre trying to go, somehow, sort of, deeper - into the feel of something.

HS: Yeah, well Iím using the visual kind of as a reference to it. Iím kind of watching it. Like a lot of the composition itís done away from the film. A lot of... particularly with Davidís movies, I would watch the film as a spectator. I wanted to have that feeling that it was fresh and new and Iíd watch it for the first time and then Iíd put the film away and say, ďOkay, now... what do you feel about that? Express what you feel about that film.Ē And, as a writer, you could do that. And Iím sure everybody whoís watched a film or has ideas about it and they can write them down or express them to a friend or do it verbally. You know, thereís some expression about what they felt when they watched the film. Iím essentially doing the same thing except Iím expressing it in music. And I like to go through... that a very, very, important process. Thatís a very quiet process. Thatís putting it all away and in the case of a book, you want to absorb the book as much as you can. I mean, in Tolkien, I spent four or five months just reading and studying the books, studying ring mythology, studying influence of Tolkien.. you know, what may have influenced Tolkien. Professor Tolkien spent 14 years writing the Lord of the Rings, you know. What influences the book had after it was published in 1953. I needed to know that stuff intellectually. And then I need to put it all away. And just think emotionally. Because music is an emotional language. Youíre saying to yourself, ďWell, what do you feel about that? What do you feel about Burroughsís book or Ballardís book or Tolkienís book? Whatís your expression of that in music?Ē And then you go on this discovery. And that process a very quiet process, very introspective. Itís very dreamy. Because essentially youíre dealing with ideas. Itís a very internal process. And itís a creative process because anythingís possible. And youíre allowing your mind to kind of free associate. And frankly, thereís a lot of napping involved. (DG laughs) There is, because I like to use the nap as a source of intuitiveness. Because the nap places you into somewhat of a dream state. Right? Youíre kind of.. you know, a napping in the afternoon is somewhat a half awake kind of thing. Youíre not really soundly asleep, although I do get a good night sleep. But this allows you to go into a somewhat state of semi-consciousness and dream. And what Iím trying to do is put myself into that dream state so that I can get in touch with some feelings and ideas about what I feel about this piece.

And it could just be one image. One image will do it. It might just be one frame of a film will tell you the music... what the expression of this piece is. Sometimes thatís all it is and you can just... you know, itís like looking at one still or a picture and you can express it. And then the process starts and itís just a flowing of ideas after that. And the interesting thing that I was interested in - in Ornette Coleman that we talked about - was the free expression of ideas. And I was interested in improvisation as how it related to composition. Because I thought improvisation was interesting because itís a free flowing of ideas, itís very spontaneous. And I thought this is a wonderful process to express emotion because itís immediate, itís happening right at the moment, thereís no intellectual process going on. Itís a pure outpouring of feeling. And so I would use that improvisational technique and then I would analyze it in a compositional technique. I wouldnít use the intellect until later. I would try to get that feeling of it and then there would be that more intellectual process of, ďWell, okay, hereís the idea. Now how does it relate to the film? Where can you actually use this in the film? And in what way? And whatís the tempo? And whatís the meter here? And whatís the emphasis? And whatís the dynamic of this piece? And who plays it?Ē And orchestration, to me, is really the feeling, the idea of ďWho plays it? Hereís the piece now how are you going to express that piece? And with what instruments?Ē And itís a different type of process. And these things donít happen all at once. They happen in this linear, logical way until youíre on the podium or youíre in the recording studio actually creating what you hear as a recording. And what youíre doing, at that point is, really, trying to take what youíre hearing in your head and putting them down in a way that other people can hear them. Youíre hearing them all the time every day and now itís a way that you can share them with an audience, and you know, other people can... and what youíre doing is trying to realize them as well as you can in sound.

DG: Hmm. Howard Shore is here with me. Composer of many film scores including the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And weíre going to hear some of the music that he wrote for the combination of six electric guitars, three harps and some woodwinds and metallic percussion for the 1996 filming of J.G. Ballardís Crash.

Music plays to end.

DG: Thatís music by Howard Shore from his score that he wrote for Crash, the movie that David Cronenberg directed based on the J.G. Ballard novel back in 1996. A really wonderful and strange and bizarre sound which was perfectly appropriate for the film. And you mentioned, Howard Shore, that you had some metallic percussion in that. In listening to your scores, those at least that I have available to me, I donít hear much percussion generally. One thinks of a Hollywood score these days as being really propelled by a lot of drumming. And you certainly have drums that come into play in the Lord of the Rings music, but you donít seem to have been a very percussion oriented composer.

HS: It really depended on the piece I was writing and how it was used in the film. And that would decide what was orchestrally right to use it in that context.

DG: Now you mentioned before we heard the music from Crash that napping is important to your creative process. Is there a score, or part of a score that really sort of came out of that dream state most directly?

HS: Oh, I think a lot of the Cronenberg pieces were originated in that process. It was something Iíd learned to do because I was trying to get into my inner consciousness... about how I felt about something. And I found that dreamy state really allowed me to kind of tap into some feelings that I had about things.

DG: Iím speaking with Howard Shore and Iím David Garland This is Spinning on Air.  Howard, weíve heard some of the music you wrote prior to the last couple of years but your last few years have been pretty much tied up in one gigantic project, the music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And when it was announced that you would be the composer for that project frankly I was surprised. You didnít seem to me to be the guy would be writing something for a big fantasy epic. How was it that you were chosen for that project?

HS: I think we talked a bit about that earlier and I think it was the interest that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh had with music that I was creating for movies like The Fly and Silence of the Lambs and Dead Ringers and Crash. And I think they knew of those films and they thought that I might be a good person to work with... to collaborate with. They were really, I think, very much feeling that they needed to find somebody that would be a great collaborator to work with them and they rang me up... I didnít really know much about the film at the time. They invited me to New Zealand. And I was of course, fascinated by what was going on in New Zealand. The level of creativity and the design work of Richard Taylor and meeting Alan Lee and spending time with Peter and Fran and Philippa was unbelievable.

DG: This was at a preproduction point?

HS: This was about half way through the original shoot which was a fifteen month film shoot. And when you saw that as a film maker you wanted to be part of that. And I think what Peter and Fran did with me was not really different than other people that they had asked to become part of the piece. I think itís the strength of what made Lord of the Rings... was the casting, the choosing of the people to create, really a true Fellowship. I mean we worked together as friends and colleagues. We supported each other and I think that was an important part of it. And people came from all over the world to work on Lord of the Rings and I think that Peter, as great as he is, was able to take the talent and create something with the people that he chose that was so much better than anyone might have created on their own. And so you see the great Shakespearean actor, Ian McKellan, and Peter would transform him into Gandalf. And he would take Elijah Wood and make him Frodo and Sean Astin - Sam. And when you watch the movie you only see Gandalf, Frodo and Sam. And he did that, I think, with everybody. And I think I was part of that process where I had done over sixty films by the time I started on Lord of the Rings. I was at the right level, really, of experience to take on the challenge of writing that. I was at a good age to do it.

DG: Why? In what way?

HS: Just energy. Because it was enormous... task to do and it was hard, I think, for all of us... to do it. Physically Ė you needed to be able to do that work and work at that... to have the stamina, really, to make those films in that time.

DG: So youíre talking literally, the length of the work day and those sort of things.

HS: Those films were made with full on energy for many, many days and weeks and months. Because we felt, and I mentioned this earlier, such a great responsibility to do it. We didnít feel people would make Lord of the Rings again, or at least not for a long time. And because the book is so iconic, say, in Return of the King when youíre writing the piece for the destruction of the Ring, you realize the enormity of that. You are now going to create a piece thatís going to live in this production for a long time that expresses this very important moment in this book about the destruction of the Ring or Gollum finally having the Ring. And what will that be? And what will you do? And whatís your expression of that? And actually, frankly, it took many years to find out. Because you couldnít write the Destruction of the Ring until you had written the beginning of the story and the prologue...

DG: Really?

HS: Yeah, you had to write your way into it.

DG: Hmm.

HS: You know, at first it seemed daunting. But as you wrote your way into it and started to create music into it, it became more and more interesting actually. And the complexity of it became even more and more interesting. And at some point, Iím sure there were loved ones saying, ďMaybe we should take Howard away from Tolkien for a little while (DG and HS laugh) because heís seems a little obsessed by it.Ē But that was the kind of a joy of it.

: excerpt above in bold

DG: You felt obsessed in a personal way, not just professional?

HS: Oh yes, you became absorbed and obsessed by creating it and itís all you really wanted to do. And of course living in Middle-earth is not a bad place to live. I mean, it was with great friends and great trusts that you were there. You had great support from the people creating the film and credit should be given to NewLine and the music department at NewLine for allowing us to create the movie in as great a way as we could. And allowed us the resources to record with a 200 piece orchestra when we needed to. So, you had the great musicians of the world, you could work with Renťe Fleming and Annie Lennox and James Galway and Enya in the first film... Isabel Bayrakdarian and Elizabeth Fraser, Sheila Chandra.. I mean, you could choose the great artist you wanted to work with. You had an amazingly great orchestra, great technical team and an amazing movie to work on. For a composer to write music to Lord of the Rings is everything you imagined the greatness of movies is. Nothing could be finer than to write to that imagery and those ideas. And so you had all this wonderful thing to work with and you wanted to take advantage of that. And so, I think the stamina part came in because of the need for the perfection and the need to create it as good as you could. There were many times when we would create something, Peter and I... and we would look at it and we knew we could do it better so we would try to do it better.

DG: Really?

HS: Oh yes. Peter says the movie is finished only when they take it away. The movieís never finished.

DG: Hmm.

HS: Thereís just a point when they take it away, meaning that there has to be an end. You know, the studio says, ďIt must stop now. You know, you must stop working on this.Ē
And thatís the way we all feel. There is that sort of delivery date, that goal, that moment when they say, ďIt must stop.Ē But you work so full on, and so completely dedicated to it to create it... because you also know youíre not going there... you know, you are creating this moment, say, of the Destruction of the Ring or describing the world of Lothlůrien that people have read about for 50 years. And you want to make sure that your imagery of those worlds is as true and as real and as well crafted as you could possibly do it.

: excerpt above in bold

DG: So you folks in the production of the Lord of the Rings were really trying to create something that had longevity to it? You were looking to a history of affection for this material, and umm... really consciously trying to build something that would stay and be revisited many times.

HS: By all means. I mean, again, I think that was always the feeling of the responsibility of putting this work, this great piece of literature on the screen and doing it as good as you could humanly do it. With the energy, all the bit of energy that you had to do it. Because it may have to last for a long time (chuckles). And people will be looking at it for a long time.

DG: I think they will.

HS: Well, we hope so and so we wanted to create something of lasting value. And so having that, and having the resources to do it and having the determination, you needed also the energy and the stamina, and all that you know, and the experience to do it.

DG: Yeah.

HS: And we talked about even doing live, I conducted live show (in early parts of the interview), I mean I think all of that, you know from the 70's and I did a thousand one-nighters in the 60's, I mean I think all that taught you how to work, how to conserve your energy and how to use it and how to create a piece. And Lord of the Rings, I mean, the piece for Return of the King is four and a half hours of music for that film...

DG: Really?

HS: Yes. (Lothlůrien Theme from FOTR begins playing in the background) And I think even to be able to create it, to do the composition on paper and to do the orchestrations and to do the recordings sessions - which were many, many, many.. over thirty, I think, for the orchestra - I mean... thereís stamina in that, just conducting it and producing it. And I think, that was all part of the process of making the movies. ...the movie, itís cast so well of what you see on screen, but I think itís well cast behind the screen, in his collaborators, the creative collaborators and all the people who worked on the film - and there were thousands of people who worked on the movie - and I think they were just well suited and well cast to create to create this piece.

DG: Well you were very well chosen, despite what I expressed earlier being a little surprised that you were chosen for it because I knew you from scores like Naked Lunch and Crash...

HS: Remember that Frodo was chosen to carry the Ring to Mordor.

DG: (laughs) An unlikely choice.

HS: An unlikely choice. And so really, the movie is really similar to us making the movie. (DG: Un-huh.) And I always associated myself with Frodo and having the weight of the Ring in my pocket. (DG: Un-huh.) And it was many mornings Iíd wake up and Iíd say to Elizabeth, my wife, ďI donít think I can really do it.. I donít think Iím really going to be able to go and do this.Ē

DG: Wow. Yeah.

HS: ďI mean, itís just not possible. It canít be done.Ē And Peter would say, ďYou can do it.Ē There were many moments where he was Gandalf saying, ďThis way my boy.Ē (DG: Yes.) ďPut one foot in front of the other and youíre going to make it.Ē

DG: It is what the movie is all about.

HS: It is true. And Peter would say the same thing to me and he talks about it, I think, in the liner notes where he says that I was sometimes the one, you know, pushing him on too. ďWeíre going to do it, Pete. Weíre going to do it.Ē You know. ďA little more editing.Ē You know. ďItís going to happen. Weíre going to make the movie.Ē And you really did feel like Frodo. And when Frodo, in Return of the King, is on the slopes of Mount Doom struggling up in the sand... that was you... (DG chuckles) struggling your way to the end... to make it as good as you could... (HS voice trails off) to get to the end.

DG: Iím speaking with Howard Shore, composer of the music for Lord of the Rings trilogy. Letís hear some of it. Those of you whoíve seen the movies will find these themes very familiar and itís interesting that, of course the movies are very emotional movies, and that comes through, obviously - as you watch the film, through the actors and their expressions and their delivery of the lines and those spectacular visuals. But I think as you listen to Howard Shoreís music all by itself you begin to realize how much of what you felt, watching the movie, was a result, in part, in large part, of the music you were listening to as you saw it all in front of you. Music by Howard Shore. Iím David Garland. This is Spinning on Air.

Lothlůrien from FOTR fades out and The Black Gate Opens from ROTK plays to the end of the track.

DG: Thatís music from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thereís so much music thatís been composed for that. All of it by my guest, Howard Shore. And Howard, I thought weíd mention one, in particular, sequence in the latest of the movies, the Return of the King, where I think people will remember how sort of surprising and effective the music was. In the sequence in which a small party of soldiers - I donít know. soldiers is the right word - but some of the loyal followers of the mad king (geek comment: he means Denethor who was Steward, not King of Gondor) were sent off on a hopeless task to...

HS: Gondorian knights.

DG: Is that the right way to refer to them? They couldnít possibly win the battle they were being sent out to. And was that a collaborative decision made with director Peter Jackson, or how was it chosen that, as these knights go toward their battle instead of what might be expected Ė some rising orchestral excitement Ė suddenly everything drops out except the singing voice of one actor.

HS: Yes. Uh, very careful collaboration with Peter on all these moments in the film and the use of contrast, of using the large... our large forces are two hundred to the one voice... we would discuss these ideas and we would try to find the emotional moments. We would try to be as true as we could. As the knights are leaving Minas Tirith, the music is playing (ďSteward of GondorĒ starts playing in the background) more just the emotional feeling of the suicide. The civilians are watching them leave and they know they might never come back. And so youíre really... the music is expressing the idea of the pain of war and the loss of these young soldiers.

DG: And then we see and we hear the song thatís being sung to the mad king...

HS: Yes, thatís sung by Pippin to Denethor. And Denethor wants to hear a song. He wants to be entertained in his court and he asks the Hobbit to sing him something. (DG: Um-hm.) And Pippin sings this solo piece and then Peter contrasts that with the charge of the knights against the besieged city of Osgiliath. Itís held by Orc army. And theyíre just riding into a hail of arrows. And you hear that solo voice. I mean itís beautifully edited and cut for the feeling involved.

DG: And a very effective use of music in the Return of the King, part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The music is by my guest, Howard Shore, here on Spinning on Air.

(solemn version of Gondor Theme from ďSteward of GondorĒ plays to the end of the track.)

DG: Iím curious, how did you begin the task of writing for the trilogy? How did you get started?

HS: I think you begin with the words and there was a lot of research done before any composition was attempted. There was many months, four or five months of reading Tolkienís books, studying Ring mythology, studying influences of Tolkien. I had to do that in order to write, to express any ideas. I had to feel that I had absorbed at least some of the ideas of this vast book. And having done that, I started to write pieces all the way from the film. And I would write pieces based on what I felt of the Shire. Iíd write pieces based on the idea of the Fellowship. And quite a lot of the pieces in the film were created away from the movie. And I would do them with Peter.

DG: But they werenít linked to a certain action sequence, or something?

HS: No... not at that time. Itís part of the process of what I was discussing earlier about creating music away from the film based on what you feel about it and not really based on the specific imagery of the movie. And Peter and I would work on the pieces as stand alone pieces. I mean I would write pieces based on, say, the culture of Rohan. So there actually existed a piece that expressed the major theme of Rohan and the sub-themes of Rohan. So it would give you the material, really, of which you would then start to score the film. And the scoring of the film is a more head-on approach where youíre actually, you know, working directly with the action on screen and the imagery on screen. And that process was really, I call it reverse opera process where, when you go to see an opera on stage and the music being created first is then dramatized on stage, all based on the feeling of the music, the rhythm of the music, the expression of the music. And so itís affecting the movement, the gestures, the lighting, all the visual performances all based around the music in an opera. Whereas in a movie, what we tried to do with Lord of the Rings is to create the music afterwards but have it have the same feeling as that. So it was so a part of it, it was so much connected to the worlds that you were in that it just became, (it) placed you in the world. (last minute or so of ďThe Grey HavensĒ begins to play in the background) In Turandot, Puccini is trying to put you in the world of Turandot. And weíre trying to do a similar thing, so when youíre in Lothlůrien, and you hear the music of Lothlůrien, or if youíre in Edoras or in Minas Tirith, the music is helping to create those worlds and place you in those worlds... in the time and the space of those worlds. And it also is creating clarity, as well, for the listener so that you know that you are in the world of Rohan or you are in the world of Gondor. Itís helping to describe objects and places and things and helping to tell the story.

DG: Howard Shore has been my guest here on Spinning on Air.