SCORING “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER”
THE APPENDICES: PART 2
THEMES OF MIDDLE-EARTH
This is the second of four blog entries chronicling my personal experience scoring the first season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. The first, “Journey to Middle-earth,” can be found here.
CALLED TO ADVENTURE
I have always approached my art with an intense level of passion and dedication. When I saw the behind-the-scenes documentaries on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy in my early twenties, I realized there were many other people out there like me, and I made it my quest to find them. I discovered just such a dedicated group of professionals working on Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, a series I was honored and fortunate to score throughout most of my twenties. Battlestar completed its run in 2009, the year I turned thirty.
I spent the entirety of my thirties pursuing more film, videogame and television scoring opportunities. Each new project inched me closer towards the kinds of epic, sprawling genre storytelling that had inspired me as a kid. I was thrilled to branch off into historical fiction with Da Vinci’s Demons, Outlander, and Black Sails, and to dive into deep Nordic mythology with God of War. I scored an epic thousand-year story with Foundation. I snagged my first animated fantasy series when Kevin Smith asked me to score Masters of the Universe: Revelation. I felt especially fortunate to collaborate with J.J. Abrams, and his team at Bad Robot, on 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox. Among the many truly wonderful and inspiring individuals I met working on those films was a young producer named Lindsey Weber.
Lindsey left the company shortly after Paradox was complete to executive produce Amazon Studios’ ambitious new epic Tolkien adaptation, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. In late 2020, Lindsey called to ask me if I would be interested in joining the project as series composer, and I felt a jolt of exhilaration as I replied emphatically, “Yes!” Over the course of several months, I read their scripts and attended several virtual meetings with the showrunners, all of whom were based in New Zealand, while I am based in Los Angeles. Writers and producers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay instantly impressed me with their passion for storytelling, and their knowledge of Tolkien’s legendarium. They told me they hoped for a dramatic and bold score, with iconic, memorable melodies.
Finally, in the Summer of 2021, Lindsey called me with the news they were ready to hire me! I was also thrilled to learn that Howard Shore himself would eventually provide the series’ Main Title theme. I was overwhelmed with elation, adrenaline, gratitude, and even a bit of terror. I felt like I was about to set off on a grand adventure. My wife Raya and I toasted the great news with champagne at our dining room table that night, while we explained to our daughter, Sonatine, that her dad was about to work on “something very exciting.” Raya and I could not tell her more than that. From the beginning, and for everyone involved, secrecy on this project was paramount.
My creative process began with several video conferences to discuss the broader scope of the narrative, with J.D Payne, Patrick McKay, as well as producers Lindsey Weber, Justin Doble, Callum Greene, and Ron Ames, who coordinated the series’ massive post-production apparatus. (I had still never met any of them in person, beyond Lindsey from our work at Bad Robot. And though I did not know it at the time, I would not meet any of them in person until after the score was done!)
The creative team sent me cuts of the first two episodes. My musical imagination spun into overdrive as I beheld images of Valinor, Khazad-dûm, Galadriel, Elrond, and countless other icons of Tolkien’s Second Age. I felt Spanish director J.A. Bayona was clearly able to synthesize references to Peter Jackson’s visual language with his own unique directorial style. Particularly claustrophobic sequences in the second episode evoked his masterfully terrifying feature The Orphanage. I poured through the scripts for all eight episodes. As I read, the story came alive in my imagination, making me feel like a kid again, reading my favorite fantasy novels.
FIRST MUSICAL STEPS
My approach for any project is to start by generating the primary themes the score will require. What would the themes and score to The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power sound like? Of course, Howard Shore’s heavenly scores for the Jackson films loomed large in my mind. But, as I began to sketch, I found to my surprise that the works of other composers, ones I had discovered earlier in my life, began to influence me just as much.
The sweeping melodies of James Horner, the muscular rhythms of Basil Poledouris, the brassy anthems of Jerry Goldsmith, the exotic colors of Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman, the fluttering woodwind lines of John Williams, the heart-wrenching strains of Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, the thematic iconography of Shirley Walker, the elegant orchestration of Elmer Bernstein – I felt these concepts pour out of my brain. These composers wrote boldly melodic music, resulting in tunes that had resonated in my heart for years. Theirs was the musical philosophy I wanted to bring to The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
I was contractually unable to directly quote any thematic material Howard Shore wrote for the Peter Jackson films. And perhaps that is altogether fitting. The original books and film trilogy take place in Tolkien’s Third Age, but The Rings of Power takes place thousands of years earlier, in the Second Age – a time of relative peace. The tone is very different. I thought, perhaps, I could create a score that would reflect these differences in tone at first, and then evolve over the seasons, a process of continuity, not quotation. I thought to myself: if I do my job right, I’ll one day be able to binge watch The Rings of Power and go right into Peter Jackson’s movies and feel a sense of continuity.
The concept of “Musical Continuity, Not Quotation” is best exemplified in the music for the Dwarves. In the films set in the Third Age, the Dwarves are a displaced people in a diaspora, who long to reclaim their lost homelands of the Lonely Mountain or the Mines of Moria. For them, Shore’s music felt dark, noble, and sad, with an emphasis on repeating celli and basses, moody orchestral colors, and low male choral singers. In contrast, viewers of The Rings of Power will visit the Mines of Moria as the mighty city of Khazad-dûm, a capitol of industry filled with light and teeming with life. I wrote a theme for this location that similarly emphasizes chugging celli and basses, and deep male vocals, energized by the clang of metal hammers against anvils. This is no melancholy dirge, but instead a rousing, patriotic anthem for the Dwarves at the height of their civilization. By contrasting with the music of the films, this score creates continuity with them.
With a musical philosophy and long-term goal in my mind, I began the most difficult part: writing the notes! For a typical television series, I might write five to seven primary themes, of which only two or three are musically substantial. As I read the scripts and discussed the structure of the show with the showrunners, I laid out a list of the most vital themes I felt necessary. That list came out to seventeen themes! This included character-specific themes for Galadriel, Elrond Half-elven, Sauron, Nori Brandyfoot, The Stranger, Durin IV, Bronwyn and Arondir, Halbrand (shared with the Southlands), Elendil and Isildur, Adar (shared with the Orcs), and The Mystics. I also wrote cultural or location specific themes for Valinor, Khazad-Dum, Númenor, Harfoots, The Southlands (shared with Halbrand), and the Orcs (shared with Adar). Lastly, I composed a theme to represent the Rings of Power themselves.
I wanted to build these themes into fully-realized symphonic structures. Each theme would usually consist of a signature ostinato (repeating musical figure, often serving as a backdrop), a primary A Theme, a secondary B Theme, often a developmental variation, and a Finale. Some of these themes evoke a narrative arc that represented the first season. But, others were more ambitious, imagining the narrative ahead. For these, I challenged myself to compose music that captured the dramatic arc for the entire series. “Elendil and Isildur” and “Elrond Half-elven” are examples of themes with this type of foreshadowing. When the narrative finally arrives at the climactic Last Alliance of Elves and Men, presumably several seasons from now, I wanted to make sure my melodies would still fulfill the story’s dramatic needs.
My goal was to provide each theme with an identity so strong that audiences would recognize them in isolation. For example, if my themes were conceived successfully, a viewer could intuitively discern Galadriel’s Theme soaring in the French horns over low strings furiously chugging away at Sauron’s ostinato. They could perceive Prince Durin’s evocative solo cello theme weaving between phrases of his father’s stern Khazad-dûm ostinato. This technique would only work if every component of every theme were striking enough to be unmistakable. I had a clear direction, even if it remained a daunting task.
My first six weeks writing The Lord of the Rings were absolutely brutal. Scoring drama is already hard, but generating memorable melodies requires a more substantial level of energy. I would hammer away at a melody for five to eight hours, until I was so mentally exhausted that I had to collapse and take a nap. Despite the pressure, I kept myself at a steady pace. I knew that if I rushed this process, if I jumped ahead and started scoring scenes without polished themes, I would eventually hit a dead end too late in the process to recover. Every single theme had to work before I could start working with the footage.
Composing over fifteen distinct themes required every skill I had ever learned in my training and professional career. The biggest challenge is in not repeating oneself. In the past, I’ve written myself into a corner when I realized a desired variation of one theme would unintentionally morph into a completely different theme, creating a wholly unintended thematic connection. To prevent this, I methodically mapped out three significant musical characteristics across the themes: musical colors, musical intervals, and narrative intent.
UNIQUE MUSICAL COLORS:
If a theme were performed by a signature instrumental or vocal sound, and that sound did not appear anywhere else in the score, the theme would stand apart. I knew that the orchestra and choir would form a foundational layer for the score. Thus, I could rely on specialty colors to set themes for specific races or realms apart from one another.
I emphasized ethereal female vocals for Elves, declarative tenor male vocals and mechanically steady low string patterns for Dwarves, guttural bass male vocals for Sauron, and whispered choral syllables for mysterious characters known as The Mystics.
Nordic instruments such as nyckelharpa, Hardanger fiddle, and hammered dulcimer represented The Southlands. Middle Eastern instruments such as the Armenian duduk, Turkish yaylı tambur, and frame drums represented Númenor. I combined Celtic instruments such as the uilleann bagpipes, small Scottish bagpipes, Irish tin whistles, and bodhrán frame drum with West African mallet instruments called balafons to create a signature sound for the Harfoots. The Orcs would be represented by horns of war: Aztec death whistles, conches and primitive bone flutes made from goat horns, antlers, various animal bones, and even a human femur. The Stranger’s Theme features a Balinese gamelan ensemble – a wholly distinct color because we do not know from which culture he originates.
UNIQUE MUSICAL INTERVALS:
I strove to create a unique interval between each theme’s first and second note. If each major theme had a unique first interval, listeners would be able to identify that theme in only two notes, the smallest amount of musical information possible. This would be an exercise in efficiency! The more iconic I hoped a theme would be, the rarer should be its opening interval.
Arondir and Bronwyn’s theme starts with an upward minor sixth, Galadriel’s Theme with an upward minor seventh, and the Stranger’s Theme with an upward major seventh (a relatively rare opening interval in popular melodies). The Valinor Theme opens with a descending major second, Sauron’s Theme with a sinister downward minor third, Durin’s with a descending perfect fourth, and “Where the Shadows Life” with a descending perfect fifth. Intervals can also create conflict within musical cultures. The Harfoot Theme winds around simple scalar movements with small jumps, representing their desire to stay hidden, while Nori’s Theme underscores her dreams of seeing the wider world with an aspirational upward perfect fifth leap.
Each of these themes has a unique quality in sound and tone, but by beginning with a distinct first interval, they all become instantly recognizable in a matter of seconds.
NARRATIVE INTENT IN THEMES:
I wanted to clearly express each theme’s narrative intention. Each character’s theme should tell the listener how that character fits into their respective society. Are they adhering closely to the expected social norms? Are they outliers striving to break away? Their themes should suggest these narrative ideas.
To begin, I wrote for all the societies an iconic anthem – “Valinor” for Elves, “Khazad-dûm” for Dwarves, “The Southlands” for Low Men, “Númenor” for High Men, “Harfoot Life” for the Harfoots, and “Nampat” for the Orcs. Characters within each society would then have themes that featured their respective culture’s iconic musical traits. Some characters are ‘inside’ the society, sharing more musical traits, while others are ‘outside,’ sharing fewer. I felt if I could make the narrative intent clear in a character’s theme, audiences would learn crucial information about that character simply by listening to the music.
For example, Durin IV’s Theme tells you he’s a dwarf with a jaunty exterior, but underneath the surface lies a heartfelt melody with more emotional potential than the patriotic Khazad-Dum Theme that represents his father. Elrond’s Theme is firmly rooted in sounds we associate with Elves and Valinor, because he’s trying to find his way in that society – he yearns to belong to his people, but his harmonies wander between major and minor because he feels lost in the shadow of his father and brother. In contrast, Galadriel’s Theme starts out sounding Elven, but is soon overtaken by a rippling string pattern that represents her ever-present desire to hunt for Sauron – she does not belong with her people. Elendil and Isildur’s shared theme is built from a distinctly Middle Eastern chord progression, evocative of the Númenor Theme’s rousing fanfare, however their melody evokes loneliness and sadness. Notably, The Stranger’s Theme shares musical qualities with none of these societies, because we do not know his origin.
By carefully mapping out musical colors, musical intervals, and narrative intent, I set up creative guardrails for myself as I began writing. Once in a while, I needed to bend my own rules in order to craft music I was happy with, but ultimately these parameters served to inspire me, not to constrict. They allowed me to write themes that might help the audience navigate through the narrative layers of The Rings of Power.
When I compose music, I use cutting edge technology to create a mock-up of my ideas, built from samples, synthesis, and audio I self-record, sequenced and mixed in dedicated music software. I find a creative advantage in knowing my ideas will work, long before recording occurs. I also like to present filmmakers with a clear indication of what the music will sound like.
I have worked hard at the quality of my mock-up demos over recent years, but I raised my game for The Rings of Power. Most musicians would likely be shocked at the level of detail in my mock-ups. My orchestral sample layers involve dozens of articulations, combining multiple different virtual-instrument libraries, both commercially available and custom made. I sequence out every instrument individually. For example, I never play a simple string pad sound – rather, I sequence out separate lines for each member of the string family: Violins I, Violins II, Viola, Cello, and Bass. Woodwind and brass lines are individually realized as well. Despite all the hours of work I put in to create these mock-ups, the vast majority of all these sounds will eventually be replaced by live players during the recording process!
My mock-up percussion sounds earth-shattering because most of it originates from my own custom virtual-instrument libraries, libraries I have built over my career. Most of my sequenced percussion stays in the final mix, with live players performing additional layers to augment the sense of realism.
On average, I spend about ten percent of my work time conceiving and sketching a musical idea. I spend seventy percent of my time creating the mock-up, ironing out details and sequencing the various layered lines. I spend the last twenty percent of my time mixing the cue in surround-sound – balancing levels, adjusting EQs, and adding effects to make clear my desired emotional impact. When all that work is done, I know producers will hear a close approximation of what their score will sound like. Just as importantly, I know that my entire music team, from engineers, orchestrators, conductors, to players and singers, will have a clear understanding of my musical vision. For every hour I invest in detailed mock-up work, I save myself two hours of explaining the music later.
After six agonizing and isolating weeks of sketching, composing, sequencing and mixing demos, I finally began to feel confident in my thematic material for The Rings of Power. However, a crucial step lay before me. I had not yet played a single note of music for the showrunners, and it was now time to find out how they would react to the score. Would any of these themes actually translate beyond the confines of my own mind? Would the score be allowed to soar? Or would it shamble towards a slow, painful death by a thousand cuts?
UP NEXT IN PART 3: PRODUCING AND MIXING THE SCORE, TOLKIENIAN LANGUAGES, THE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL COST OF WORK