Thirty years ago, Howard Shore was a recently transplanted Canadian brought to New York City - 30 Rockefeller Center, to be exact - to be the bandleader for a soon-to-premiere, upstart late night comedy show called Saturday Night Live. Within five years, he done over a hundred live broadcasts, helped Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi put together the original Blues Brothers Band, and much more.
During the 80’s, however, Howard made the full-time transition to film composing, becoming an important collaborator with David Cronenberg, and eventually hooking up with Peter Jackson for his epic adaptation of The Lord of The Rings. While abridged soundtrack albums have available for years, the rather rare and exciting step of releasing the full, unedited scores for the films began last year with the debut of Fellowship of The Ring: The Complete Recordings, and this Fall has seen the release of The Two Towers (with Return of the King on tap for next year).
We got a chance to chat with Howard about the Rings scores, as well as SNL…
KEN PLUME: My first question, to dive right in - do you see any distinction between being a film composer and a composer outside of film?
HOWARD SHORE: Well, they are different in sense of collaboration. To work in film is a very collaborative art. It’s like theater, and so you have to have a good sense of working well with other people. If you’re writing for a concert hall, it’s a less collaborative approach.
KEN PLUME: Do you find that film takes you in directions that you wouldn’t otherwise normally go, creatively?
SHORE: Yes. That’s what’s interesting about it. It does do that, and it takes you into places you may never have gone, and I love that about it.
KEN PLUME: If you were to choose a particular film score that was completely shocking to you as far as that sense of discovery, what’s the furthest you’ve ever gone into a territory that is just alien to you?
SHORE: (laughing) Well, I don’t know. A lot of projects that I’ve done, some of them have been very challenging. I think some of the work with David Cronenberg has taken us on some interesting paths. Films like Crash and Naked Lunch. But also Middle Earth was an interesting, challenging world to go to and to create music for.
KEN PLUME: In what respect?
SHORE: Just to create a world in music, that was a Tolkien book. Because really that’s what you’re doing. You’re trying to do a piece that mirrors the world that he created.
KEN PLUME: Would you say that, comparatively, the amount of music required for something like Lord of the Rings is much more than the standard film you would score? Not just in terms of running time, but as far as how the music is used within the piece?
SHORE: I think it’s used in a very specific way in Lord of the Rings. An older style, really, like a film from the 40’s. And the music is written in a mid-19th century style. It was really trying to capture a sense of history to this world, long ago. And we wanted the films to stand up to the test of time. The music for those films, for Lord of the Rings, took close to four years to create. Film music for other films might not necessarily take that long… Although I have worked on some films, single films, for a year.
KEN PLUME: Is that usually just a matter of you and a director reaching the point that you want to get to?
SHORE: I think sometimes you just… the process is… it is what it is. Some films require a certain focus, and working together with the editor and the director to arrive at the film. Some projects just take time to do that.
KEN PLUME: Is there any film that, during the process, you reached an impasse for a period of time that just left you stymied?
SHORE: I think that when you have good collaborators, they help you when you need help, and you do the same thing for them. They might be struggling on something and you can offer help to them. I think that’s the good process of making a film, is that camaraderie with filmmakers in working toward a common goal.
KEN PLUME: How difficult is it for you when the collaboration is not so good?
SHORE: You can’t achieve greatness if it’s not good. You can only do something great if you have the collaboration. Because as I say, filmmaking is collaborative. So there has to be a sense of collaboration to create something really great. And if you look at the history of film, you’ll see incredible collaborations with actors and directors. With cinematographers and directors. With writers and directors. With composers and directors. With editors and composers. You see that all through the history of film.
KEN PLUME: Do you find that your method of approaching a film has changed any in the past 30 years?
SHORE: Yes, it has. More, you want to delve deeper, and you’re interested in the tale and in the complexity - where you might not have known when you started how to really work with all of those factors of the story. I like to read, so I’m interested in working on literary adaptations, and I find that process really interesting.
KEN PLUME: It’s rather unique as a film composer, with these box sets, to have the complete score released to the audience.
KEN PLUME: How do you view making that complete work available to the public?
SHORE: Well, I think it was just a way for your work to come out as to what you had created for the film. And the complete recordings really have their own art to them, and they can be listened to in a way that’s never really been experienced, I think, in the films. I think that they have a way… that you can listen in a way you’ve never heard before. And I think that was really part of the reason for bringing them out - and part of it was to allow the complete work to come out so that the relationships and how the piece was created could be understood. Because I don’t know if it was quite well understood in its shorter form. The original CDs that came out were only, at the very most, a third of the entire piece. So nobody had ever really heard the entire piece except in the film. But in the film, you’re also playing against dialogue and other effects, and not always the best place to listen to music.
KEN PLUME: Do you feel, as presented in their entirety, that they tell a complete story in themselves, outside of the film?
SHORE: Yes, they do. And Doug Adams, he’s been chronicling the entire process. Doug Adams writes the liner notes for each release, and he does 50 pages for Fellowship and 50 for Two Towers and he’s now working on Return of the King. And when Return of the King is released next year, Doug Adams book notes will be a standalone book. He writes about the relationship of the piece to the thematic material, the orchestration, the choral music. He writes about it in a sway that’s very readable and accurate to the relationship of Tolkien’s story to the music, to Peter’s film.
KEN PLUME: Is there anything, in sitting down and assembling the material for this presentation, that surprised you? That came out of listening to it as a whole?
SHORE: Well, it does. I think when you put it together… you know, in actual fact, nobody’s ever listened to this music in that way. Because it was always done in smaller pieces and scenes at a time. So this is a way to really listen. The Two Towers complete recording’s a three hour piece, and when you listen to it as a three hour piece, it has its own inherent logic, music logic, to it. Having written it, I didn’t really sit down and listen to the hours of music I was creating. I think I was too busy trying to keep ahead of Peter’s film, and trying to just complete my work in each film, and each scene by scene. So I think I was like that little Hobbit, where I was carefully working at small pieces, and then of course you were creating this entire tapestry which I never really had a chance to really sit down and review. And that’s really what the recordings show you. It shows you all the complete work, and the relationship of how it all works. Which was… I guess I sowed into it, but I didn’t really have the chance to, as I say, review everything as I was doing it.
KEN PLUME: And, stepping back, knowing that next year’s going to see the release of Return of the King, do you see it as a nine hour epic?
SHORE: It’s eleven hours.
KEN PLUME: It’s going to be eleven hours total. So when are you going to perform that live?
SHORE: It’s eleven hours with good architecture. I think you can listen to it, and you’ll have a way of taking you through the story. It’s a very narrative piece. But it really has good bones, as they say.
KEN PLUME: If someone were to sit down and listen straight through to that 11 hour piece, how would you describe the journey?
SHORE: I think it would just… you know, I’ve conducted the symphony many times in different parts of the world. The symphony, Lord of the Rings Symphony, is two hours and ten minutes. And you feel like you’ve gone on a journey. It takes you through the stories in a shorter fashion. But I think you could play this long version of it, and it would have to be done over several nights to do it. But it’s a different piece, it holds a different kind of key, a different kind of knowledge to the story than the edited version.
KEN PLUME: For the three films, are there any lost pieces?
SHORE: I don’t think so. We were really diligent in reviewing everything and making sure we didn’t leave anything out. I think we may have. And if we have, we’ll put it in Doug’s book as rarities. We really tried not to miss anything. There was a lot of recording that took place over all of those years, but we’ve kept good logs and it’s just a matter of going back and archiving and retrieving everything and just making sure that everything was in the best condition.
KEN PLUME: And should, in the future… let’s say The Hobbit finally gets made - do you have a good sense, thematically, of where you would take it?
SHORE: I don’t know, but I would love to have that opportunity. We’d love to make that film. Peter & I have talked about it, and I hope it becomes a reality. I’d love to return to Middle Earth.
KEN PLUME: But knowing that story, do you feel that it would be something you would aim to make cohesive?
SHORE: I absolutely would. I think that’s the fourth part of it. That would be a wonderful way to create a new piece of this work. I think I would really relish the idea.
KEN PLUME: Is there anything at this point, any realm that you’ve left unexplored that you’d like to go into?
SHORE: I’d love to play the music to the film. I did it with Naked Lunch, with Ornette Coleman, where we did live to projection in Belfast, Ireland, with the Ulster Symphony. And then we also did it live to projection at the Barbican in London - the BBC concert orchestra - and that’s a wonderful experience.
KEN PLUME: What kind of thrill is it for you, still, to get in front of an audience and perform?
SHORE: The last conducting I did with a symphony was with the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the great orchestras in the world. The choir is phenomenal. The concert hall in Cleveland is beautiful sounding. It’s just a thrill, really. It’s still a great thrill. I love to do it.
KEN PLUME: Let’s look back 30 years to the Howard Shore who was on Saturday Night Live…
SHORE: Well, Lorne Michaels is still a very good friend of mine. I was with him last week. He just received the Governor General’s Award in Ottawa. And so I think just being so close to Lorne always still keeps me in touch with that world. And that Howard Shore from Saturday Night Live is not far away.
KEN PLUME: How would you describe the main differences between that Howard and the Howard you are today?
SHORE: (laughing) Well, I’m a little more experienced now. My interest has always been in music, so I think just… the things that I’ve learned about music I apply to my compositions. In a way, it took 40 years to write the music to Lord of the Rings, and Saturday Night Live was part of it. It was part of the training, it was part of the learning about how to write and orchestrate and conduct and record all part of it. How to work with writers and actors and directors. Saturday Night Live, you have to remember, is really live theater. Yes, it’s on television, but it’s theater. And films are very much of that world.
KEN PLUME: What would be the shortest amount of time you’ve ever had to come up with a piece?
SHORE: (laughing) Very quickly. Very quickly. I did 110 live broadcasts, and those 90 minute shows were created in a few days. Three or four days. And that was it.
KEN PLUME: It’s a stunning accomplishment.
SHORE: You have to remember, when we started doing the show in 1975, there was no show. There was no “Weekend Update.” There was no form. So it was just a group of us, sitting in a room, wondering how we fit, what we could do for 90 minutes of live television on Saturdays. Sitting there on Monday night kind of thinking, and that was kinda the process. But it was creative and it was by the seat of your pants and you learned to trust certain instincts and you seized it.
KEN PLUME: And even then you knew how to put together a band.
KEN PLUME: If there anything you would tell that Howard, or anything that past-Howard would tell you or remind you of?
SHORE: Yeah. “The show must go on.”
KEN PLUME: Do you ever envision yourself doing anything like that again, or something on a smaller scale?
SHORE: Well, I’m interested in opera, and that’s taking me back to my theater roots.
KEN PLUME: Opera as far as composing something yourself?
SHORE: Yes, I’m writing a piece now for next year based on the Cronenberg movie The Fly.
KEN PLUME: Oh really?
KEN PLUME: Where were you looking to perform that, or perform it with?
SHORE: It’s a joint commission with L.A. Opera and the Châtelet in Paris.
KEN PLUME: I can only imagine what the piece will be like. How much of it is finished at this point?
SHORE: It’s finished now.
KEN PLUME: What point next year are you looking to perform it?
SHORE: In the Fall.
KEN PLUME: Well we’ll have to get the word out about it when it hits.
KEN PLUME: I appreciate your time.
SHORE: Great talking to you…
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