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Lord of the Rings CD Review

The Fellowship of the Ring *****


By Doug Adams

For the past several years, Peter Jackson and the crew of The Lord of the Rings films have obsessed over the creation of a Middle-earth that both reflects the aesthetics of its creators, yet appears to have spontaneously grown out of ages of heritage. As a filmic goal, this is at best a challenge, but it creates a real difficulty for a composer. On one hand, the composer is free to add his own aesthetic spin to the story, his musical interpretation of the plot, characters and events. However, if this approach is applied too liberally, the composer is moving the audience a step further away from the films' version of reality with a second level of interpretation. Ideally, the films call for music that is both from this world, and about this world -- a cross between source music and score, a seemingly contradictory requirement.

Past composers who have tackled Tolkien's legend have, pretty consistently, only addressed one of these two concerns. Leonard Rosenman's score to the 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated version is unquestionably a strict account of the story as heard through Rosenman's mental filter -- an "about the world" score. Same goes for Johan de Meij's popular First Symphony based on his reading of the book's characters. Several lesser known works have found composers setting Tolkien lyrics to music, and in such, almost entirely suppressing their musical personalities to create music consistently "from the world" -- music that, say, a Hobbit supposedly could have written. Still, neither of these polarized approaches could have been entirely successful in Jackson's new films. An "about the world" score, a score that related events only through the perspective and interpretation of someone outside of the film's reality, would stand between the audience and the story. Yet a diagetic/period score would fail to acknowledge the story's larger issues, dramatic connections, and resonance.

Howard Shore has long been known for his talent to tie music to film. In works like Crash, Naked Lunch, The Game and so on, he related music to stories that didn't immediately suggest simple musical counterparts. But the Lord of the Rings challenge was one he had not faced before, because not only did it require the above stylistic balancing act, but it demanded an unprecedented scope and scale. Happily, Shore proves himself more than up to the requirements, in one of the most intelligent and emotionally satisfying scores of 2001.

Shore's score begins with "The Prophecy," utilizing an ensemble of amassed instrumental and choral forces in a confident and powerful display. The cue functions somewhat like an overture, though displaying an array of ensemble colors rather than a parade of themes -- dramatically and musically the perfect choice. The writing establishes Shore's "about the world" voice, and it is this voice that will underscore the film's two main recurring elements: the One Ring itself, and the Fellowship of the Ring. Shore scores these ideas with the full resources of his palette, although this isn't to imply that every time these themes occur they're blasted in a full orchestral garb. Rather, Shore allows himself access to his full ensemble to pick and choose colors as the moments dictate. It should also be noted here, that the vocalists are treated as part of this ensemble, and not as a featured element. Soloists, choral ensembles and instrumentalists commingle in cohesive textures that continually push new elements to the foreground.

The Ring has a number of motifs, the most prominent being an alluring Swan Lake-like melody heard over a series of twisting minor chords -- Bb min., Gb min., Bb min., Db min., F min. in the opening track. The Fellowship theme, on the other hand, develops out of pieces -- most notably a trio of major chords, descending by step then returning -- sprinkled throughout the album's first half until they coalesce in a forceful, revelatory statement in "The Council of Elrond."

For his "from the world" tone, Shore pulls from this menu of timbral colors to provide each culture and setting in Middle-earth a signature sound. Shore's egalitarian treatment of his forces in the Ring and Fellowship music allows him to create an almost limitless number of variant ensembles, all of which relate to this greater musical/dramatic whole. Shore is also free to apply specialized vocal soloists to specific characters and regions, while they're still an extension/reduction of his amassed ensemble. Not only does this provide a wonderful parallel construction to Fellowship's story, its clear structure makes the album all the more enjoyable.

Shore does have a third recurring melody, a pastoral and gently beautiful Celtic tinged tune that develops throughout the score, eventually surfacing as the song "In Dreams." This melody seems to be associated with the Hobbits' quest, and I'd imagine we'll see its continued development in the next two films. Like the other recurring themes, it's allowed access to the score's full orchestral resources, with its Celtic suggestions growing from its harmonic inflections. As such it provides a nice bridge between the Hobbits' quest and their home. The Hobbiton music in "Concerning Hobbits" is swathed in Celtic instrumental sounds, including fiddle, dulcimer, harpsichord, wooden flute, accordion and pizzicato strings. The heroic Hobbits are also associated with the clear tones of a boys choir, aptly representing the characters' nobility, stature and disposition, and establishing yet another link to the greater whole. The Hobbit melodies are very tuneful and vertical, almost song-like in construction, again reflecting this simple culture.

The mystical Elf cultures, on the other hand, receive some of Shore's most horizontal writing, which creates an ethereal, timeless quality. An all-female chorus often appears, as do female soloists Elizabeth Frasier and Enya. Shore compounds this otherworldly writing with the inclusion of African and North Indian instruments, and by the occasional introduction of Eastern influenced harmonic nuances -- note the bent pitches in the "Lothlorien" track.

The album's two Enya songs are closely related to the Elf styles, and, as they are orchestrated by Shore, fit rather seamlessly into the overall musical fabric. In fact, they coexist so neatly, neither Enya song is relegated to its own track.

Fellowship of the Ring only deals in Dwarf culture during the dangerously exciting Mines of Moria sequence, so Shore's gruff and angular men's chorus couples nicely with low brass and string clusters to highlight both the cultural aspects of the setting and the danger of the moment. Shore's use of guttural grunting effects and syncopated rhythms in the chorus augment the general effect, while allowing the choral sounds to remain audible through the swelling, dissonant instrumental clusters. The composer also taps into Tolkien's mention of drums in this scene with an ever-building texture of pounding percussion. The Moria music is Shore's most extroverted on the album and, over the course of two tracks ("A Journey in the Dark" and "The Bridge of Khazad Dum"), intensifies into a dense musical stranglehold, before cutting to a remorseful mixed choir and soprano soloist.

The Ring Wraiths are allotted Shore's darkest music (heard prominently in "The Black Rider," "A Knife in the Dark," "Flight at the Ford" and elsewhere) as a Gothic mixed chorus chants thick blocks of sound over a network of churning ostinati. Again, there's an amazing thickness to the counterpoint made clear by wise rhythmic decisions -- the instrumental ostinati provide intricate detail while the voices are used in percussive bursts. The Wraiths also have their own characteristically imbalanced 5/4 galloping motif for low strings and metal percussion. Interestingly, the metal percussion in this writing seems as if it may have gone through some sort of electronic filtering, adding to the ghostly quality.

Shore has described this score as an opera, and while it makes great copy, it's also an accurate description of the sort of elaborate detail and scope that the score presents. The CD is overflowing with fascinating harmonic relationships (some cultures have chromatic music, some have diatonic; the Ring Wraiths' singularity of purpose is almost always pained in d or e minor, the pure and simple "In Dreams" melody is almost always in C major, etc.); with vocal soloists singing mellifluous Tolkien languages; and with genuine thematic development allowing material to noticeably form and change in conjunction with its dramatic counterparts. And like an opera, the music is written in such a way to be satisfying even when separated from its story.

For a project with unlimited potential and unlimited pitfalls, Shore has carefully and intelligently crafted one of the year's best works. The score meets and exceeds the demands of the film, while providing one of the year's most interesting musical/dramatic efforts. The music demands a close listening, but the rewards outweigh the exertion.

Howard Shore's The Fellowship of the Ring CD is set for release on November 20. Doug Adams can be reached at

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