Howard Shore: “The sound I hate the most would be very bad synthesizer play”

Canadian composer on Lorne Michaels, new “The Lord of the Rings” TV series and isolation

Howard Shore writes three or four soundtracks each year. He worked with David Cronenberg, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese. However, his name is often associated with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, for which he created iconic melodies. In 2020, Shore does not lose productivity and watched the films of the international program of the Odessa International Film Festival. So, we talked with the Canadian composer about the first experience of going to the movies, friendship with the SNL showrunner and, of course, music for the magical world of John R.R. Tolkien.

Did isolation during quarantine impact your creativity?

I actually worked on 2 scores since March. One was for a film called “Pieces of a woman” by Cornell Madrusco – an eminent hungarian director. And there was Deepa Mehta, the film is called “Funny boy”. It was shot in Shri Lanka and Colombo. So I’ve been working all the way, composing. I was able to complete 2 projects in isolation. Writers and composers are used to being reclusive.

Do you consider yourself a demanding composer?

No, I am not a demanding composer. I write in a very 19 century way to begin with. I do my composition in counterpoint and harmony on paper with pencil. And then I moved to digital technology for working with the film. I worked only with 2 very closed colleagues James Isnor is a music editor and Alan Frey is the production coordinator. That’s how I proceeded for years and I like to keep things rather simple in a way. 

Do you see a difference in approach to make music for a horror movie and for a comedy?

My background was in repertory theater as I was growing up, so I was used to a comedy, when tragedy went next. And darker subject offered me some interest in music, things that I was interested musically. And also they allowed me to use the recording studio and technology in certain ways that made interest to me. The comedy of course had a great timing and I was very fortunate to work with some great comedy actors and directors. 

Writers and composers are used to being reclusive

My first cinema experience was “Fellowship of the Ring” premiere. So I wanted to ask what was your first cinema experience and what score do you remember as your first one?

I came of age in the 1950s and it was common during my period to go to Saturday afternoon matinees, where you would watch 2 or 3 westerns, maybe a sci-fi film with the whole theater full of children. So that was my first experience. The score that I first recall going to see was the epic “The Ten Commandments”. The Elmer Bernstein score was, of course, wonderful. And that had kind of an influence on me, I think. Then the Hitchcock films and then I started becoming aware of cinema of other parts of the world: Kurosava, Georges Delerue, Godar and the films of Fellini. I like Nino Rota’s music. And I realized that was the world of cinema to explore.

You need to understand the difference between the cultures, so the music has a way providing clarity of storytelling to the audience

I’ve read that Peter Jackson does not mind helping for the Amazon series “The Lord of the Rings”. If someone happened to propose you write a score to it, would you agree?

I am open to it, of course.

How would that be different from the trilogy?

Well, I don’t know. It really depends on the way the story unfolds. I have to see that first.

How do you come up with the idea of leitmotif in the Lord of the rings, where some characters and even objects have the theme, but with different variations to it?

The idea came to a friend from the very beginning of starting putting music to picture. Cause Lord of the Rings is considered as the most complex fantasy world ever created. Tolkien shows you duality: not only Lothlórien, but also Rivendell and the world of men with Rowan and Gondor. You need to understand the difference between the cultures, so the music has a way providing clarity of storytelling to the audience. And it’s a very complex story, so there’s a way of which culture the sword belongs, historical fact belongs in the story. So it was common sense really to use thematic ideas to express the complex ideas. 

Except Lord of the Rings, what score was most demanding in terms of time to create for you?

I don’t know if there is one in terms of more than grand production of Lord of the rings. All films have deadlines to scripts, to shooting, to post-production, to music recording. And for the composer there’s certain focus, but there’s also certain endurance to it. So there’s always a deadline and you just learned to express your ideas in a way that are concise and focused on the task.

The art of making films includes music from all over the world, all types of cultures, all types of different forms of music

I wanted to talk about modern pop-music with you, cause it has now a lot of creativity, using different things and styles. Billie Eilish evolves ASMR and Charlie XCX inserts in her track a sound of broken glass. What do you think of that? Do you listen to modern pop?

I listen to a lot of different music. The art of making films includes music from all over the world, all types of cultures, all types of different forms of music. And really it’s always been kinda the interest for me. Working in film allowed me to work with artists like Emily Haines, canadian rock group Metric. We worked on a couple of projects. And I was able to work with Annie Lennox. I’m always delighted to work with artists of that caliber. I’m interested in jazz and worked with Ornette Coleman on Naked Lunch. That was a wonderful collaboration with him. I love the fact you can call an artist and they respond.

As you have been working on SNL for a long time. It’s really hard to find a person, who dislikes Lorne Michaels, although he has been working with so many talented and arrogant comedians. Why does everybody love Lorne Michaels?

He is a dear friend of mine. I’ve known Lorne since he was teenager, since he was 14. He’s just a wonderful open fair man who’s incredibly talented, very funny and very generous with his time. And getting a little older, he’s kinda more of a father figure to all these young writers and comedians. He’s very warm and I think people love him for all of it.

Checking the list of your scores I was amazed how different genres, directors and studios you have been working with. But I’m curious how “The Twilight saga: Eclipse” came to your attention?

Well, I just received a call for that film to join it. There’ve been other composers on the series and I thought that it would be fun to work in that realm and that to write a score that works well with Carter Burwell score and Alexander Deslpat score. So it was kind of a fun project to work on, but it was different for me. I did enjoy it.

For the composer there’s certain focus, but there’s also certain endurance to it

Who is the biggest cinephile you’ve been working with?

I have to say that would be Peter Cowey, who is a journalist and author. He is the official biographer of Ingmar Bergman. I worked with him for a few years. We have been working on the book together. It’s a kind of conversation or the interview book. It’s on-going. Hoped to finish it maybe next year.

As an Odessa Film Festival Jury member, what are you looking for in the film to be the winner? And do you like scores of contest participants?

I don’t want to give away too much, because we are still in deliberations. So I don’t want to announce too much, but there is some wonderful music in these films. And I hope to have a special diploma for music or some kind of award.

What’s your favorite sound and the sound you hate the most?

I don’t know if I got a great answer for that. I like working with the symphony orchestra. I like to use that orchestra as an instrument in itself. I like working with voices, with choirs. The sound I hate the most would be static or very bad synthesizer play. I use electronics and I have used it for years going back to the early Cronneberg films. Of course, I used synthesizers for years. There are great synthesizer scores. It’s just using them in a very certain simple way. It never interested me. It has to be layered and produced correctly.

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