'Rings' trilogy composer reflects on epic assignment

— On a recent autumn day at London's Abbey Road studios, director Peter Jackson was conferring with his composer on "The Lord of the Rings," Howard Shore.

Footage played silently overhead from "The Two Towers," the second part of the huge cinematic triptych that began last Christmas with "The Fellowship of the Ring." The scene was of Hobbit heroes Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) nearing a waterfall in their journey toward the Black Gates of Mordor.

Shore, putting finishing touches on some musical passages with the 96-piece London Philharmonic Orchestra, wanted to make sure his music would hold its own against the roar of the fall.

"You should never worry about competing against water," Jackson assured him. "We'll just pull the water down."

As before, it is Shore's job to strike the right balance -- as in J.R.R. Tolkien's books -- between gracefulness and grandeur. He won an Academy Award this spring for "Fellowship."

The Canadian composer, who also wrote the music for another long-awaited epic that opened this weekend, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," reflected in a later interview on one of the heftiest assignments any film composer has taken on.

"Tolkien spent 12 years writing the books, (so) to spend three years on the music doesn't seem that long," said Shore, 56. In any case, "I look at the three 'Lord of the Rings' films as one, and 'The Two Towers' was act two."

"The Lord of the Rings" score could have been bombastic. But Shore says narrative, not musical heroics, came first.

"You're composing not in relation to the spectacle" -- of which "The Two Towers" has plenty -- "but in relation to the drama on the screen. Keeping that in mind allows you to write in a more intimate and human way," from the Norwegian fiddles of the Viking-like culture of Rohan to the wooden instruments associated with the ancient Treebeard.

Even in the climactic battle scene at Helm's Deep, says Mark Ordesky, the movie's executive producer, Shore's music is there to make a point.

"The theme is how the battle is fought," says Ordesky, "and how will you conduct yourself, and I think Howard's music reflects that, as well."

The score of boasts a full symphony orchestra and 100 singers, including a 30-strong children's choir and 10 soloists.

By contrast, says Shore, "Gangs of New York" required a "real mosaic of American sound" to animate Scorsese's operatic portrait of New York bloodlust in the 1860s.

With one more Tolkien movie to go, is Shore worried he might go into withdrawal once the endeavor is complete?

He laughs. "The trilogy is a sort of legacy, I guess, and I don't feel I want it to end. We have all worked to make something much bigger than any of us; that's the blessed part of it."

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