I am a film score geek. Don’t ever say the word “soundtrack” around me or I'll dump a load of John Williams vinyl on your head. A soundtrack is the compromise reached by a studio marketing department and the director of a film requiring a real world hook, i.e. a compilation of mnemonic pop tunes designed, on the one hand, to sweeten the moviewatching experience with an evocative, emotional gloss, and on the other to trigger the music-download/second viewing/DVD purchase trifecta. Certain films, of course, stretch the credibility of a real-world hook. One doesn't expect—or want— to see hobbits phunking to the Black-Eyed Peas (although Enya and Annie Lennox are deemed acceptable Middle-Earth fare in some circles, apparently). The point of films such as The Lord of the Rings
trilogy and The New World
is to transport rather than to reiterate, so that the musical accompaniment has the task of establishing a whole new set of associations in the viewer, a map for navigating new territory. This task does have a strong tradition in the real world, dating from 19th Century opera and Romantic programmatic music and encompassing the modern avant-garde, which came of age by the strobelight flicker of early cinema. Such a film requires a score
No film score composer today has a more comprehensive grasp of this musical tradition than Howard Shore. His approach to projects as varied as Naked Lunch
, The Cell
, The Lord of the Rings
and The Aviator
is tactical and brilliant. Naked Lunch
repurposes the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and his combo as the core of a beat noir orchestral dissonance, and throws in a few echoes of the Master Musicians of Jajouka for authenticity (William Burroughs based the Interzone in his original novel on the Tangiers of the early 50s, where he lived in a heroin-laced conundrum and visited Brion Gysin's café the 1001 Nights... the Master Musicians were the house band). The Cell
is a fractured tour de force, the sonic counterpart to the terrifying torture chamber/doll's house of the mind of serial killer Carl Stargher, within which most of the action takes place. The Master Musicians of Jajouka have a stronger presence here, along with industrial noises, “Mairzy Doats,” and enough kettle drums to fry your low-rent sub-woofer, so don't take this one on lightly. By contrast, The Lord of the Rings
and The Aviator
are more classic in their orchestration, and yet Shore can't resist the exotica: LOTR does right by Tolkien with entire songs in Elvish, their music an elixir of Celtic and Asian influences, while something as seemingly circumstantial as the The Aviator
’s Southern California setting becomes an excuse to spice the Wagnerian rumblings with Spanish castanets.
Stylistically, the only things these scores share is a thrilling density of sound and a certain gravitas not found in more typical scores, which spend a lot of notes “mickey-mousing” the on-screen action (i.e. a noodling oboe mimics the skipping of Little Red Riding Hood on the path to Grandma’s house). In the past few years (decades?) I've had the feeling that I've “graduated” from the school of John Williams appreciation (the scores for the oeuvre of Spielberg and Lucas ad nauseum) to that of Shore and of gone-but-not-forgotten masters like Jerry Goldsmith (the 1968 Planet of the Apes
, The Omen
) and Bernard Herrmann (The Twilight Zone
and other Hitchcock classics). One listens to Shore’s music on its own terms, long after the images have faded. As such, the new release of his complete score for the first of the Ring movies, The Fellowship of the Ring
, a massive multi-disc set, is big news for the soundtr— er, film score geeks.
And, yes, we still get a kick out of the cue titles. Hence, this week's great band name.