by Francesca Marini and Sebastiano Tassinari
The three-year period 2021, 2022 and 2023 represents a remarkable milestone for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson. In these three years, in fact, each film will be twenty years old: last year it was the turn of the first chapter, The Fellowship of the Ring, this year it’s the turn of the second chapter, The Two Towers, and next year it will be the turn of the final chapter, The Return of the King. Tolkien Italia wants to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of these three films release in cinemas around the world by offering you a series of interviews in which we explore with experts some aspects of the trilogy, such as the soundtrack, costumes, props, locations, etc. We start with the by now iconic music composed by Howard Shore, and we do it with an interview to Jordan Ellis Rannels, Canadian podcaster and musician who, in his podcast Music of Middle-earth, explores Shore’s soundtrack in an immersive way.
Welcome to Tolkien Italy dear Jordan!
Thanks, it’s my pleasure to talk about Howard Shore’s music!
When did you started reading Tolkien?
It is hard for me to pinpoint when I started to read Tolkien. It is more that I gradually became aware of the books. I know that my first introduction would have been the movies, though that was at an age when I couldn’t have fully taken them in. So the first experience I can really remember of “reading” the books was when I listened to an audiobook version of them that used the film music and sound fx etc. After that I almost always listened more than read Tolkien, or any book series.
You are also a musician. What instruments do you play? Have you ever composed a song inspired by Tolkien books?
I am a Musician yes, I play many instruments, some well, some less so. The electric bass and acoustic guitar are my main instruments but I’ve played many more across the years and spend most of my time composing music instead of actively practicing or playing any of my instruments now. The music I’ve written that is inspired by Tolkien is all orchestral for the immersive audio experiences I do in my podcasts. I don’t think I would ever write anything lyrically inspired by Tolkien.
Can you tell us how this podcast was born? What are your sources to make the podcast?
The main idea for my podcast: The Music of Middle-earth was to try and give myself an excuse to explore the Music from Howard Shore’s score to the Lord of the Rings films in more detail. I also wanted to present that in the way that my main resource: The Music of The Lord of the Rings by Doug Adams achieves so well. That is to present theory and musical concepts in an easily digestible and meaningful way.
You made also a sort of spin-off of your podcast: Middle-earth: sound design. What is the difference between this new podcast and Music of Middle-earth?
The second podcast in the Tolkien realm that I started, Middle-earth: Sound Design, is a simple exploration of the sound design that went into making the movies. How they built the sounds for the Balrog, Cave Troll, and so on. Again, this was designed to give myself an excuse to learn and share that experience with others.
Every Tolkien fan associates Shore’s name with the LOTR soundtrack, but the composer already had a long career behind him: how would you describe Howard Shore’s background? Did you watch other movies with his soundtracks in?
I have to be honest and say that I haven’t listened to Howard Shore’s other work. I don’t really follow too many composers or Musicians in that way. I stumble upon work of theirs that I like but I don’t necessarily dive through their whole catalog. A composer should serve the movie they are working on and so just because I love Howard Shore’s work on the Rings films doesn’t mean I will enjoy all of his other scores because they serve different purposes. I am sure they are excellent as well, but without the investment in those movie stories prior to hearing the Music, the significance could be somewhat lost.
How did the process of composing and recording the soundtrack unfold?
Every composer has a different way of working. I don’t see myself as an expert on knowing how Shore approached the whole production. From what I’ve seen however it seems like he very much took on the role of Frodo heading out on this huge quest. So he understood the weight of what he was doing. He developed themes for many, many different characters and realms. He then intertwined those themes together and had them grow and influence each other. Some composers like Hans Zimmer in his recent films, go about composing in more of a sound design approach but some go by thematic material. Leitmotifs they are called. So Shore really took that concept and went to the extreme with it for these films. If you watch the appendices or making-ofs for the films you will also see the immense pressure that Shore was on to compose and deliver the scores for these films as he was writing, orchestrating, and conducting for the recording sessions all throughout.
Shore’s orchestra was composed of what instrumentation? Were unconventional instruments used for a symphony orchestra?
There are quite a few examples of less typical instruments being used in the score. The most famous is probably the Norwegian Fiddle – the Hardanger Fiddle. Working through the themes on my podcast has been a great time exploring these instruments and how Shore used them. Some are played the way they traditionally would be but others are more transformed into a westernized version of the instrument in terms of their play style.
Did Shore’s soundtrack bring anything new to the world of film, technically and conceptually?
I think that Shore’s soundtrack provides an interesting challenge creatively to any composer working in the fantasy realm. The impact these films had and the influence the score had means that all future fantasy projects will fortunately or unfortunately be set beside it in comparison. This leads to very interesting different compositional approaches like that of the new Wheel of Time series from Amazon. I think that at the end of the day, there are no rules to scoring a film and that if the audience is emotionally affected by the score, then it was a success. Shore showed us how to do that with leitmotifs. Zimmer showed us how to do that with more of a sound design approach. Djawadi showed us how to do that with a very small amount of leitmotifs and a lot of playing with tempo, tembre, range and instrumentation.
What is one scene in which Shore’s soundtrack is particularly effective that could be illustrative to describe his style?
The Council of Elrond sequence might be one I would jump to to showcase Shore’s prowess. Small hints at themes like that of Gondor which won’t really come fully to life until the third film. Small elements that come in and out to suggest and hint at things to come or things that have occured in the past.
What other composer would have been worthy of setting Middle-earth to music in your opinion?
I think the job could have been done by many other composers, They wouldn’t necessarily have approached it the same way or to the same depth and detail that Shore did. I would love to hear a Lord of the Rings world composed by: Bear McCreary, Ramin Djawadi, Ludwig Göransson or Thomas Newman.
Trade magazines revealed that negotiations were underway between Shore and Amazon Studios for The Lord of The Rings: Rings of Power soundtrack. It also appears that he could have composed the music we heard in the title announcement teaser: according to you, is it composed by Shore?
I believe that from the rumours I heard, Shore is likely working with McCreary on the score. Which is great. I hope that Shore is working in a secondary role to another composer. This will bring new life to the show while still having Shore’s influence and colour be a significant part of the landscape of the Music.
Are you going to watch it? Are you going to explore the tv series soundtrack in your podcast?
I hope to analyze the score as the show comes out, I’m not sure how I will be approaching that yet. I will be watching the show though, I’m excited and I’m sure it will be excellent. That many people with that big of a budget who love the source material..I find it hard to believe it will be any let down at all. I also believe that with the landscape of streaming media right now, they have to deliver something worthy. They will be going head-to-head with the huge Star Wars franchise that is releasing excellent top quality shows. House of the Dragon will be enormous as well. So Amazon has to make sure this one works. I’m confident it will. I am also confident that Tolkien “purists” will have issues with it. That’s fine by me! I plan on enjoying the love and creative work that has been put into this show by so many people.