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Howard Shore

Howard Shore

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© New Line Cinema 2012

Film music is a subject that requires very delicate handling. As if music, more so even than sound itself, had arrived in the cinema with the table laid and the party already begun, requiring it therefore to be a very discreet guest.

It makes little difference that we know that the movies – well before they became the talkies – needed musical accompaniment; it makes little difference that film music, whether by pioneering pianists or great composers, has given greater depth to the moving image and developed into an independent language of its own, capable of establishing a narrative, sensory and emotional universe. The cinema as we know it is a twin-track composition in which interference, overlapping and exchange play an essential part in performance; all too often, however, that reality is ignored in favor of a concept which insists on cinema as a visual language, aided by music only as an accessory after the fact.

Paying homage to Howard Shore provides us with an opportunity to sweep certain prejudices aside. Shore is not only one of the best-known, most original and justly celebrated film composers – an “accomplice” of David Cronenberg, the creator of scores for some of the most powerful films by Martin Scorsese and David Fincher and the musician behind Peter Jackson’s operatically scaled Tolkien sagas – but also an artist who has been lucid and articulate about his involvement in creating a film.

He starts work by immersing himself in the storyline and its setting. Before the story has taken any kind of visual shape, Shore composes what will be a kind of parallel narrative in music. After a conversation with the director on the project’s underlying principles, plus a visit to the set – just to sample the atmosphere – he takes up the traditional tools of pencil and manuscript paper. Frequently, the process pans out in a complete suite that is a sublimation of his vision of the story. Selection and orchestration of the themes, their positioning and recording all come later. Which is not to say they are not fundamental steps in their own right, indeed Shore takes the utmost care with choosing the best recording venue and performers for each score. The point is that he does not compose from the images but works purely with melodic lines, harmony and counterpoint. In this sense his scores are ‘original’, born together with the project and not tacked on as an afterthought.

One element which offsets this classical approach is his passion for electronic music. Although today his fame rests largely on his symphonic scores and the leitmotivs of The Lord of the Rings, we should not forget that Shore started out in film music with Cronenberg in the early 1980s. At the time Shore’s work was pioneering not just for the sound world he created but also for the enthusiasm with which he embraced the computer, long before it became the indispensable interface for producing sounds and images. In Videodrome (1984) it is the music – a subtle melodic line that seems to come from another planet – which carries the narrative from the real to a dreamlike dimension, cranking our perception up a level even before Max’s nightmare is conveyed by the action. The music is also unlike what we might expect: although it does feature unusual sounds and noises, on the other hand it allows itself a crescendo which becomes powerful and solemn as Max’s rapport with “Videodrome” goes beyond the confines of his apartment, culminating in the requiem theme that accompanies the final scene on the boat.

It would be hard to imagine Cronenberg’s films without their particular sound world. The scale and ambition of Shore’s music was a key factor in their ability to transcend genre and aspire to describe a reality both intimate and universal. The Fly (1986) was a perfect instance of their successful collaboration, which continued to be extremely effective even when the director turned to period pieces such as M. Butterfly and A Dangerous Method, allowing Shore to show off his versatility in his musical response. Perhaps it was no coincidence, therefore, that Arnaud Desplechin turned to him for the music for a costume drama of his own, the mysterious Esther Kahn, and for his American debut Jimmy P. Shore’s desire to draw on a variety of ambits within a single score is apparent throughout his output, and especially conspicuous in two genre-defining thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. In both films, the contaminating strands of sounds, noises and music converge in a score which is then developed symphonically, creating a valid blueprint for many a later genre movie. 

Probably the most outstanding instance of how music can be proactive in the process of creating images, however, is Shore’s contribution to the cycles of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The composer was an avid reader of Tolkien in the 1960s and his leitmotivs play no small part in the illusion whereby the modern viewer is transported to Middle Earth.

I could not possibly conclude this rapid survey without mentioning Shore’s work with Martin Scorsese, which began with the nocturnal, surreal After Hours. As well as revealing yet another musical interest on the part of the composer, the film’s jazz score also shows his skill at working with established themes, transforming them to suit new moods and atmospheres. Subsequently, Shore worked with Scorsese again on Gangs of New York, but his most original contribution came with Hugo Cabret and its combination of fable, nascent technology and impassioned visual hymn to the Paris of the Belle Epoque. Using a historical French experimental instrument, the Ondes Martenot, Shore managed to recreate the extraordinary blend of fears and hopes that marked the early 20th century, so perfectly embodied by the young protagonist. As with his score for Ed Wood and its return to the Fifties – to date his only  collaboration with Tim Burton – Shore’s music for Hugo Cabret features a rising tide of themes that evoke not only the characters and their movements but also the emotions and sensations of an epoch. But his music goes beyond mere evocation: it has the composer’s distinctive ability to find the innermost layers of the narrative and make them resonate, with vibrations that cannot be expressed in words.

Carlo Chatrian
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