This week, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies hits theaters. It’s Peter Jackson’s sixth and final film of Middle Earth (assuming he doesn’t tackle The Silmarillion). For those who have been along for the journey since it began in 2001, almost as familiar as Bilbo himself is the score composed by Howard Shore.
Prior to his Lord of the Rings work, which earned him much acclaim along with three Academy Awards, Shore was known for his working relationship with director David Cronenberg and his scores for movies such as The Fly and Naked Lunch. And, prior to his film scoring career, he helped found a late night sketch comedy show (Saturday Night Live… you might not have heard of it). The bulk of his career, however, has been in film composition.
Despite his friendship with Cronenberg, and despite their numerous collaborations, Shore has not limited himself to “arthouse films.” In fact, what seems to set Shore apart is his willingness–eagerness, actually–not to limit himself at all. Yes, he scored films for Cronenberg and Fincher, but he also played in a jazz fusion band, served as music director for SNL, and composed the score for movies like Dogma, Big, Mrs. Doubtfire and the third Twilight movie. This is not a man who is averse to trying something new or something outside of his (supposed) wheelhouse.
If you read his October 2014 interview with Little White Lies, it becomes clear why Shore has found success while avoiding being pigeonholed, or even developing a signature style. Not only is he open to a variety of projects, but he also immerses himself in the worlds whose music he is creating, allows his music to be guided by the story and the director’s vision, and makes sure to have a legion of musicians at his disposal without feeling compelled to use all of them all of the time. You won’t hear a theme from one film repeated in another. Instead, the music belongs to the world and the story–and to nothing else.
Having played, in a former life, the violin part of a symphonic arrangement of themes from Lord of the Rings, I can attest to the fact that Shore takes into account not only the story, the world, and the instruments available, but that he also understands and uses the best qualities of those instruments. It seems that composers write the music first and then assign parts to instruments based on range and nothing more. This does not seem to be an issue for Shore.
Although his CV perhaps didn’t mark Howard Shore as the clear choice to score something on the scale of Lord of the Rings, it’s little wonder that Shore’s music is the music of Middle Earth. Shore absorbed Tolkien’s world and processed it into music. The fact is that it is partially owing to Shore that Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit have such a devoted following (and that the battle for Helm’s Deep remains one of the most memorable bits of film I’ve ever seen in theaters–or anywhere).
He has read Tolkien. He’s imagined the world, the characters, the scenes, and brought them to life for us for more than a decade–improving the lives of epic fantasy lovers and hobbit fans the world over. As a Lord of the Rings fan (and particular fan of The Two Towers–ents!), let me just say: thank you, Mr. Shore. I look forward to seeing where the road takes you next.