It is not very likely that a book on a classic musical score for a motion picture meets the interest of a broader audience. So one might think. But as true as that assumption has been in the past, it got proven wrong by „The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films“, a stunning examination of Howard Shore’s brilliant scores for the Tolkien trilogy. Written by Chicago based filmmusic journalist Doug Adams, the beautifully designed book is the result of intense research and years of work. Adams worked closely with the composer from day one, met the filmmakers, attended various scoring sessions and compiled tons of material. In our interview he talks in detail about how the book evolved, describes fan reactions, live performances and discusses the current state of filmmusic in general.
screen/read: First of all, thank you for taking the time. I think this is the first interview you’re doing for a German publication, is that right?
Doug Adams: Yeah, it may be.
screen/read: Generally though you’ve been doing quite a lot of interviews, presentations and booksignings recently as the interest in your book is surprisingly huge and so much bigger than one would have expected considering the topic. Until now, books on filmmusic actually appealed to anything but a broader audience but in your case things are of a profound difference. Did you expect such a wide span of interest?
Doug Adams: It’s been really intriguing. I went out assuming that we have somewhat of a niche market consisting of a very small group of collectors with a very specific interest. And so it’s a wonderful surprise and really gratifying to see that people from a lot of different backgrounds and age groups care for this book. We have people that are interested in it from the music aspect, people that are interested from the Tolkien aspect and people that are generally interested in filmmaking. I think that’s very exciting. And then it’s certainly great for the art form that all of these people are not looking at filmmusic as a very small specific interest but as a part of a bigger picture. You know, it certainly is part of filmmaking, but it’s also part of the modern music world, and in its connection to Tolkin, the way that Howard Shore composed this, there’s a literary section as well. So it’s great to see that it spans so many art forms and so many interests.
screen/read: You started out as a filmmusic journalist originally, writing for Filmscore Monthly and thus had been into the art form for many years before you got on this project. Let’s talk a little bit about how you got there. Where are you coming from and what were your first encounters with filmmusic in general?
Doug Adams: Well, it was some of the first orchestral music I ever heard. I was a typical kid of the 70’s and 80’s and loved all things „Star Wars“. So one day my dad was going out to buy me the LP of the story of „The Empire strikes back“ but actually brought me home John Williams’ score, the original soundtrack. So he apologized for the mistake and offered to take it back, but I was hooked, I loved it, I couldn’t get enough of it, and I certainly didn’t want to give it back. And that was really how I went to listen to any type of music from there on. I listented to Beethoven the same way as I listened to „Star Wars“. Because to me that was the sound of an orchestra. So I never really built up all these walls of what is supposed to be serious music and what is supposed to be music for the masses. It was all about the old Duke Ellington quote, saying that there are only two types of music, good music and the other one. So filmmusic appealed to that part of my mind, because it wasn’t interested in reinforcing any of these walls. There was no reason that a Jerry Goldsmith score couldn’t go from a Viennese waltz to some crazy musique concrete synthesizer stuff within a range of 14 bars. And I always loved that aspect of filmmusic that it is so open to any style and technology without approaching it with this type of irony that post-modern concert hall music sometimes goes for. Filmmusic instead does it with such sincerity and beauty and really creates a different aestetic that way. I guess that’s why I was virtually drawn to it. And then of course there’s storytelling. Who doesn’t love a wonderful narrative? And that is something that filmmusic is allowed to do in a way that concert hall seldom is able to. There is something fascinating about the development of ideas in an organic way based on a narrative. And I think that was what especially hooked me with „The Lord of the Rings“. It was such an immense form. I mean, if you look at the long version of the film, it’s an eleven hour shape that you have to keep moving and try to find a way to structure and make sense with. And that’s fascinating stuff, cause it’s a huge challenge for a composer.
screen/read: Back then it was quite a surprise to learn that Howard Shore had signed up for the LOTR scores, a composer who was mostly known for his Cronenberg collaborations, his edgy style and less thematic scores and in many ways not an obvious choice at all. What did you think when you heard about it for the first time, what were your expectations?
Doug Adams: My initial impression was relief. There was this big project and a strange New Zealand director we didn’t know much about, but it seemed like it was a perfect challenge for a composer to really do something unusual. There were rumors around that James Horner was interested or Basil Poledouris or Wojciech Kilar, and we kind of expected it would go to somebody who was known for that big large post-romantic adventurous sound. Poledouris in a way was the fan favourite to do it as he had that history with the „Conan“ pictures. He had been in that world, it would probably have been fantastic, but you kind of knew what you would get. It was more like walking on established ground. When Howard signed up though you knew it was going to be something entirely different, because he is a wonderfully brilliant composer but he had never been there before. I suppose it gave me a license to be enthusiastic about the whole project, especially as it happened in a great period of Howard’s career where he was just trying a little bit of everything. Within a couple of years he had done Cronenberg’s „Crash“, „The Cell“, „Looking for Richard“, „Copland“, and it was like everything he was doing had a completely different sound. The scores were very much custom made to the picture, they had a lot of power, and they were very literate musically. It wasn’t just good drama, it was good music evoking the drama, and that is just a brilliant combination. So putting him in a big sword-fighting-wizard-adventure spectacle, what was that going to be?
screen/read: When you got involved with the project, how did you come to write about it, how did the idea of the book come about?
Doug Adams: As you already said, I’d been writing for Filmscore Monthly during that time and I still do on occasion now. I had interviewed Howard a couple of times and we got along very well so we always sat and talked for a while after the interview as well. We had a lot in common in terms of interest in the arts, musically, visually, a lot of common ground in general I think. So I was interviewing him in May of 2001 for the Franz Oz picture „The Score“ with Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, and I already knew he was on „Rings“. I had heard it a few weeks before but I didn’t really want to say anything and tried to be professional and talk about the task at hand instead of just word out „Tell me about LOTR!“ So we did the interview and it went well and we got to the point afterwards and he said, „I just signed on for LOTR and it looks like it could be a little bit bigger than the usual project. Do you want to stick around and see if there’s something we can do with it?“ And well, of course I wanted to. Although I didn’t know what it could be, maybe a bigger article, maybe some liner notes, who knew? So over the course of the next year and a half I started visiting him on a regular basis in his office in New York. And I would come and sit and study the scores and we’d watch the films together and listen to the scores at the same time and talk about what his ideas were, what’s happening, etc. And then somewhen around the time of „The two Towers“, I compiled everything that I had collected in terms of my research, showed it to him and said, ok, here’s what I’ve got. And we both decided that it was leaning towards a book of some type. So we set up a gentlemen’s agreement and decided to pursue that idea. So little by little I sort of earned more of his trust, and getting his trust meant getting the studio’s trust as well. So eventually instead of just visiting his office in New York I was invited to visiting the recording sessions in London. And I got over there and met all the studio people and the filmmakers, Peter Jackson and all of these wonderful individuals. And that lead to additional trips to Los Angeles on order to spend time with all the producers and all that. And that’s when the act had really opened up. I not only had the ability to research Howard’s material but studio materials too, and we just sort of fell into it. There was never any great plan to say, „Here’s how the book will look, here’s what it contains.“ It was just about figuring out the way that we went. Then we did the liner notes for the complete recordings box set, and when we finally had finished those up we sort of knew that we had to tackle the actual book.
screen/read: The finished product is very high-end, it’s extensively designed, it has excerpts from the score and images from the films and a rarities CD attached. At which point of writing did the idea of making it such a special collector’s item come up and how much were you involved in the artwork?
Doug Adams: It’s been years and years of collecting and polishing all the material in terms of what the text of the book would be. When I wrote I always wrote into some sort of mocked-up book. I never used a plain text file, instead I had the idea sorted out of how music examples would fit in and that sort of thing. But that went in for years and years and then we came to like the last couple of months and we realized we have to design this thing. So we went on a search for an art designer and came across a gentleman named Gary Day-Ellison who had worked with Alan Lee, a famous Tolkien artist and one of the conceptual designers on the film. He had worked with him on some of his sketch books that came out after the films were done. We thought he would have a good feel for the property as he knew the whole Tolkien world and so we brought him on board and showed him what we had. And then Gary also brought Alan Lee into the company and John Howe as well who is the other brilliant Tolkien artists. He and Lee really designed much of what you see on screen with their sketch work. So they all sort of came into the project and we began with probably the most intensive amount of work on this book imaginable. Gary lives over in England, I’m in Chicago, so I would get up each day around 4 am to speak with him and review all the materials that came in during the night. We literally had things going on all around the clock. As I got up for the day we worked together for a few hours, then he would go to bed and when he was getting up I was going to bed, so we just continually had this cycle of work. But there was so much to consider, from the sketches to technical aspects of the quality of imagery, from things that needed to be retouched to the full-page score examples, Howard’s handwriting, and so much more. But that was part of what we realized when we went. When you’re doing a book on LOTR, either Tolkien’s writing or Peter Jackson’s films, you have to make it something physically beautiful. There is such a legacy of handmade elegance, that you just could not have done this book looking like one of those whimsical encyclopedias. It had to have elegance to it. And even the writing had to. So when I was writing the book we tried to keep a very narrative flow to it and use a lot of Tolkien-like phrases and writing in order to give the language a certain place and keep it part of this world. And that was really fun for me because when I initially set up to do this, I was coming out of the world of journalism, and that’s how I thought of something. You collect materials and you present them, you quote people and you show your reasearch and that’s sort of how it’s done, you’re putting a more academic trust to it. And as this project developed over the years it really became something more creative, an artistic statement about music from a film from a book.
screen/read: And that is one more point why it differs so much from any book that’s been written on filmmusic before. And hopefully it will function as a role model for future publications.
Doug Adams: Yeah, I mean, we were actually the ones to do something like that for the first time but I hope you’re right. It’s like the idea of books detailing the behind-the-scenes-goings-on for a film, they didn’t make those originally, but now there’s a book on the art, a book on the special effects, there’s a published version of the script, and how wonderful would it be to have a book on the film’s score as a regular thing as well – if the score deserves it.
screen/read: When you first got into the project, were you familiar with the whole Tolkien universe or was it something rather new to you?
Doug Adams: I was familiar with it, I had read it as a kid, but I knew it much more as sort of a story book, something that you read as a young person and you like it and that’s about it. When I knew I was getting into this project, everybody involved was deep in that world. For instance, if there was a scene in the middle of the film they would never talk about Elijah and Sean on this or that set, it was always Frodo and Sam in Moria. Everything was very specific to that world. The people who were creating these things really believed in Middle Earth. So I went back and figured I’d better read these books backward forward and so I did over and over again, I bought it on tape that would drive around with me in my car, so I could do a chapter every once in a while, and at that point I really started to appreciate Tolkien’s writing much more as a piece of literature and not just a piece of storytelling. So it sure was to become more familiar as we went, and I think that was true for most people on the project.
screen/read: If you compare Howard Shore’s music to the score that Leonard Rosenman wrote for the animated adaption by Ralph Bakshi, what would you say are the basic differences in approach? And do you see similar touches somewhere that reappear in both scores?
Doug Adams: Well, I think they’re fairly different. If you look at Rosenman and at Howard they both are composers with a very distinct and very personal voice. Neither of them sounds like any other composer out there. I suppose there are certain dramatic gestures that they have in common, but I don’t think Howard was all that familiar with the Rosenman score and the musical language is already very different. Rosenman’s sound is really rooted in that 1960’s sort of post-romantic type of composition. You could also say he imposed a musical structure on the storytelling – which is not a bad thing. It is sort of the „Star Wars“ approach, it’s using the music to establish a structure rather than to highlight it. But opposed to that, Howard used the literature as the structure and built his score around that. The way that his themes work and everything else is based on the cultures of Middle Earth.
screen/read: It’s interesting to see that Rosenman’s score was a fan favorite for years but sort of vanished completely by now, and it looks like not only the films by Peter Jackson but also the musical language that Howard Shore created have become the definition of LOTR. Even people who are not too familiar with the films are familiar with the music and by this it became a cultural phenomenon.
Doug Adams: Yeah, I think so. People have very personal experiences with this music, a very personal relationship. They really internalize this stuff. I had a lot of people who said, „We didn’t care a lot for these films but we love this music, so we want to get this book.“ And that fascinates me, it really became a lifestyle. How many seconds of music of the soundtrack of LOTR does it take before people out there will recognize it? They usually get it pretty fast. It became its own thing.
screen/read: I can imagine that especially you have now an extremely personal relationship to the music as you probably have listened to it a thousand times and more. So it must have become a really important part of your life. How do you experience the music today?
Doug Adams: It’s funny, it’s like looking at an old photo album of my own experiences now. (laughs) I know that it’s Howard Shore’s music, I know that he’s the creator, I saw him do it, but there is such a protective sense over this music as if it was mine. When I hear pieces I remember the first time I met my girlfriend for instance or I remember a particular experience of one of the live performances. I believe it was one of my first days at the recording sessions for „The Return of the King“ where they recorded the beautiful version of the Shire theme for the scene where everybody bows down at the Hobbits. And it’s already such an incredible emotional moment in the film, but to me there is this personal side to it as well. Back then it was my first time being out of the States on my own, I was still fairly young, it was very strange to be out in the world all by myself, and I’ve never been anywhere near to a production that had that sort of energy and enthusiasm about it. So everytime I see the end of „The Return of the King“ I get choked up a little bit not only because of the story but because of how it reminds me of my own life. So I have levels of appreciation for this music that no-one else can ever establish, only because it’s been a part of my own personal history for so long. And that’s pretty cool and a good trade-off for being on a project for such an incredibly long period of time.
screen/read: I don’t know if you ever heard of this tv show being called „The Soundtrack of your life“ where celebrities talk about the music that shaped their career. But in your case LOTR certainly is that soundtrack.
Doug Adams: Yeah, that’s tight. You know what’s funny, when Howard was working on it he always compared himself to Frodo, and that it was his task to carry this ring, with Peter Jackson being his Gandolf urging him along and telling him that he could do it. And I kind of felt like that after a certain period of time too, that I was doing my own little Frodo act and Howard was my Gandolf to keep telling me that we’re going to finish this project together and that it will be beautiful.
screen/read: Now there have been a lot of live performances of the score, either of the LOTR symphony or the whole cycle with film projections and I guess you have experienced quite a few of them. How do you experience the audience attending a concert like that?
Doug Adams: They kind of come into the show like they’re going to a rock concert. There’s a lot of chattering and people bring snacks and they’re very excited and stuff. But by the end they leave like they’ve been to the most emotionally draining opera they’ve ever seen in their whole lives. We often do a CD and book signing after the concerts and some people come up to get their stuff signed and they have this look in their eyes like they’ve just been through an incredibly cathartic experience. They’ve sort of come into this as a pop culture phenomenon not expecting how moving it is and then leave just so overwhelmed. And that’s fascinating to see.
screen/read: I think that is something that might also change the acceptance of filmmusic in general. There rarely were concerts like that before LOTR. And if that became a role model it would change the way we look at the impact music has on a film. You go and watch it in a concert hall instead of a movie theatre and that is really something new.
Doug Adams: Yeah, it’s great and it’s very good for the art form too because a lot of times people think of filmmusic as, you know, a tune. They think of a movie and just hum the main theme and that’s all it was, right? But filmmusic isn’t just that tune, it’s how the composer develops the material for the course of the whole picture, whether it’s a leitmotific score or just a single theme score or maybe just a specific instrumentation of the score, but it’s how you maintain musical integrity over the course of however much music is in this picture. And that is something we really tried to highlight with the book. It goes like, look, it’s not just a collection of tunes and you turn it on and you turn it off when your favorite character goes across the screen. It’s a matter of using this material to tell the full story. And that’s what the art is. Anybody can stick a catchy tune in the back of a film. But it’s about how you turn it into a musical and narrative structure. And that’s why those concerts are so cool because you can see that happening live, you don’t just hear a certain piece of melody. You understand how that little snippet is put into an infinite number of guises in order to tell the story. And that’s pretty amazing.
screen/read: And by pointing out in the book how those 80 to 90 themes build a structure you also show how theme-related this score is and how perfectly it can deal with all of them. On the other hand in recent years we don’t have that many scores that really rely on thematic material, especially leitmotif as much as LOTR does. Do you agree, and if so, why would you say is that?
Doug Adams: Well, leitmotif is a very specific way of scoring a film. The original idea for LOTR was to provide clarity. There are so many characters, so many cultures, how do you keep it all straight? Especially when someone is coming to the film and has no familiarity with Tolkien’s writing. And of course that clarity translated into a specific musical structure which then translated into a specific development of ideas. And I would probably guess that „Star Wars“ came around the same line. John Williams spoke about how George Lucas used things like „Peter and the Wolf“ as a concept model. A lot of films right now aren’t offering that expanse of characters, which is not a terrible thing, it’s just a specific way of telling these stories. I guess it’s interesting to see how John Williams only sort of treated „Harry Potter“ as a leitmotific score although not really. I guess it’s a question of zeitgeist that those types of pictures and that type of storytelling and a certain type of scoring go in and out of style.
screen/read: Thinking of films like „Inception“ or „The Dark Knight“, both movies have a lot of characters but do not really rely as much on leitmotif composing as could be expected. Both scores are rather popular, but doing concert versions of them wouldn’t be very likely. And that’s probably not even the composer’s fault but rather what filmmakers and producers want right now.
Doug Adams: It’s interesting, we’re at some point in cinematic history where reality is such an important thing. You mentioned „The Dark Knight“. Look at the way the presentation of the character Batman has changed over the last twenty years. We did actually have the Tim Burton Batman where there’s still a very hightened up feel to it. And then of course Schumacher maybe pushed that too far for the audience’s comfort and then it all swung back round into Nolan’s Batman pictures wich are incredibly realistic. You sort of have a logical explanation for almost everything happening in those pictures. But the way the music works has gone down the same road. Elfman’s score has a lot of leitmotifs – there’s a love theme, there’s a Batman theme, there’s a Joker theme. It has an almost Germanic Wagnerian feel to it. And now look at how Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard approach. „The Dark Knight“ sort of did have leitmotifs I guess – you had that eerie portamento string sound for the Joker, you had that little sort of brass hymn for Harvey, I guess Batman has two notes that come back a lot – but yeah, it’s not hightened in a sense that there are long drawn-out musical statements. Instead you get very compact ideas being maybe less based on melody than on just certain tone colors, and because those tone colors are so specific and so unique they don’t really have much to do with one another. The Joker’s theme hasn’t much to do with Harvey’s theme. They could easily be from two different pictures, because they have their own specific sound worlds. And that’s its own form of storytelling and it’s legitimate but you do lose a certain mythological sense to it that we had five or ten years ago. Maybe we became too accustomed to a world of reality tv and to making videos with our phones and chatting with each other on the internet, so that the only way we accept hightened stories is by presenting them in a cinema verité form. I think scoring is following that. But maybe we’re just laying the groundwork for everything to go into the other direction.
screen/read: If you think of other scores of recent years which ones would you point out as being really important, influential or remarkable in one way or the other? Apart from LOTR of course.
Doug Adams: I think the „Harry Potter“-theme has certainly dug ist way into the public consciousness, and I don’t think this one is going anywhere for a long time. It’s just Williams’ gift to always compose a tune that has actual musical content and yet any person on the planet can hum along without having to think about it. Although it’s interesting that other composers who come on to the „Harry Potter“-pictures don’t want to use that theme too often. They like to hit it here and there but then stay away from it. – Also I suppose the Zimmer scores for Nolan’s pictures have been very influential. Will they stick around for years to come? I don’t know. I mean I suppose everybody is going to know that big „Wooaam“-sound of „Inception“ for a quite a while until it’s played out as a youtube joke and people are tired of it.
screen/read: You can download it as a ringtone for your cell phone.
Doug Adams: (laughs) I bet that sounds great. – But apart from that, gosh, I don’t know which scores to mention. Remember when we were first getting into filmmusic and Varése used to do „Best Themes of 1995“ or some other year? How can you do that nowadays? What would be the best hits from 2010? What would be the themes? It’s got to be a short album.
screen/read: I guess if there was a „Best Themes“ album nowadays it had to contain tv tunes like „Dexter“ or „Lost“ or shows like that. I think that is the medium where themes are alive and happening even more than they ever did. They’re vanishing from the big screen and become more important on the small one. You have loads of characters on these shows so you need the leitmotif structure.
Doug Adams: That’s a very good point, and I think there’s another one to mention. I recently came across „Reign of Fire“, that dragon movie from years ago. And I was watching the way that montage was used in the beginning of that film and listened to Ed Shearmur’s score and thought, there’s not really much of a cinematical equivalence to that melody. It rather reminded me of modern video games. And I wonder if maybe that’s where a lot of that big thematic writing is going to begin appearing more, and actually it already has. Video games can’t replicate these reality based entertainment forms that we’re all obsessed with right now, it has to be sort of hightened because you’re using these digital characters and these specific storylines. And I wonder if that’s where the mythological side of musical storytelling is heading for a while.
screen/read: It certainly is a trend. A lot of composers working in the industry today started out with writing video game scores and on the other hand some big name composers eventually turn to write for games as well. Which is really remarkable thinking of the fact that a couple of years ago everybody was convinced that this was the worst you could go to as a composer.
Doug Adams: (laughs) That’s right. And that was Howard’s follow-up to LOTR. Right after „Return of the King“ he did a big video game that was called „Soul of the ultimate nation (S.U.N.)“, I think it only came out in the far east. But it’s a big LOTR style score. It had a few more modernistic touches of the Cronenberg works to it but it’s a big orchestral palette. It’s a fantastic score, a great piece of writing. And that’s what video games allow nowadays. People can head off and write their type of stuff.
screen/read: Now having done this book you’re probably involved in the upcoming adaptions of „The Hobbit“ as well and probably will be doing something comparable on Howard Shore’s music there. Is there a plan for that?
Doug Adams: Yes, that’s exactly what we hope to do. We just start sliding back into Middle Earth. They will start filming around February.
screen/read: Do you think that the approach, and the way you look at things and the way you observe things will be different this time around or will you try to be as open as possible?
Doug Adams: I think you have to pursue it on two different levels. You definitely want to be very open and let the content sort of dictate how you present it. At the same time it’s going to be a real effort to make „The Hobbit“ films feel of a piece with the LOTR films. And should that be the case then we will probably want to create a book that really feels like it’s in the same world as the book we just finished. But I think there are certainly new ways to approach some of these things and hopefully we’ll find the process a lot easier now that we have some sort of a model. What I’m going to find to do is getting into the world of „The Hobbit“ and see how Peter Jackson is approaching it, see how Howard Shore is approaching it and see what I can contribute.
screen/read: Good luck for that, have a pleasant trip back to Middle Earth and thanks again for this conversation.
Doug Adams: It was a pleasure talking.
About the book: „The Music of The Lord of the Rings films“ by Doug Adams is a comprehensive account of Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning score for the Tolkien trilogy. At 416-pages it contains extensive music examples, original manuscript scores, numerous full-color images from the films and original artwork by John Howe and Alan Lee. Also included are a foreword by composer Howard Shore, an Introduction by screenwriter and producer Fran Walsh, as well as „The Lord of the Rings: The Rarities Archive“, a CD presenting 21 tracks of previously unreleased music created for the films and an audio interview with the composer.
Recommended LINKS for further reading:
- Official Homepage: DOUG ADAMS
- Official Homepage: HOWARD SHORE
- Official Homepage: THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY
- DOUG ADAMS @Twitter
- DOUG ADAMS @Facebook