ScoreKeeper Interviews THE MUSIC OF "THE LORD OF THE RINGS" FILMS Author Doug Adams!
Published at: Oct. 12, 2010, 11:58 p.m. CST by scorekeeper
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here feeling like a Rhodes Scholar studying Tolkien literature thanks to the near decade long work of a fantastic film music historian, journalist, writer, musicologist, and lover of film music...Doug Adams.
Doug is the author of The Music of THE LORD OF THE RINGS Films which was unleashed upon the world a couple of months ago. I wrote up a little announcement about it when it first hit the streets. As a passionate lover of film music myself, it's hard to express the sheer gratitude I feel for Doug for devoting so much of his life chronicling the efforts of Howard Shore and his amazing work scoring THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001-2003) films. The analysis that Doug presents in this book is the result of years of labor, hundreds of hours of discussions with Howard Shore, and possibly a couple million clicks of his computer keyboard.
All that's left is best part...for us to spend a few days reading it.
This is a book that music analysis junkies and non-musical enthusiasts can appreciate equally. It's ripe with juicy musical language but it's well organized and contritely explained so that anybody can read it and understand its contextual merit. As film music lovers, we don't get books like this very often. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime publication.
Not long after the book came out I knew I wanted to interview Doug about authoring it. I didn't know much about its creation so I was eager to ask my cascading flood of questions. I could've easily spent twice as long talking with him as I did. This is an interview I'm very excited to present.
Without further ado...
ScoreKeeper: Thanks for speaking with me today Doug. I first want to congratulate you. This book you've written is really something special. I've loved film music for a long time and I've never seen anything quite like this. I opened it up and as I'm thumbing through it I was continuously in awe of it. It's well written. The analysis is sound. The art work is spectacular and the quality of the printing itself is just exquisite.
Doug Adams: Well I really appreciate that. You’re so proud when you are making the thing and you get down to the end and go, “Yeah, we made something new but there’s a reason nobody ever did it. Does anybody really care about this?” So it’s really gratifying to hear that it’s connecting. That’s really cool.
SK: What has the reception been like so far? Has the feedback generally been pretty good?
DA: Yeah, actually the feedback’s been amazing. It’s weird...like no one’s really supposed to have it yet other than the press copy, but I think Amazon started shipping it a little bit early, which is fine. I have no problem with that but the word is popping up around the net and so far people are kind of over the moon for it, so that’s completely amazing to me. I’m thrilled!
SK: I want to go back and start at the beginning. I got a little bit of info from the press releases and from your blog and other various sources but I had absolutely no idea what to expect until I actually had the copy in my hands. I'd like for you to recount the history of this book and its progress over the last half-decade. I knew you were working on it for many years but other than that I didn't know too much.
I heard that Howard himself invited you early on to come in and write an article about what he was doing on THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001). Is that correct?
DA: Sort of. It was a very big and wonderfully open ended invitation. It was back in 2001 and I was a writer for Film Score Monthly and I was sort of the go-to guy for Howard Shore because he and I had done a number of interviews and we got along really well. We had similar temperaments, similar tastes in the arts…We would do our piece and then sit for an hour after the interview and just talk about this or that. We always got along really well. It was back in the days when I was in grad school living in my old bedroom that I had grown up in and Howard would call in and get my parents on the phone
DA: It was a strange collision of my personal life and my professional life. We done an article together on the Frank Oz film titled THE SCORE (2001) with Rober DeNiro, Ed Norton, and Marlon Brando. That was in May of 2001. At this point I knew that he was on THE LORD OF THE RINGS but you know, when you're doing the interview you try to sort of keep it focused on the project at hand. There's nothing worse than geeking out on this guy saying, "So what are you doing for LORD OF THE RINGS?"
So I didn’t say anything. At the end of the interview he said to me, “You know, I’m doing LORD OF THE RINGS next.” I had a chuckle and said, “Yeah, I know. I was trying not to mention it.” He then said, “Well, why don’t you stick around for this one, maybe we can do something.” So "something" kind of hung in the back of my mind for a while. The rest of the summer came and went. Then fall started to roll around and I hadn’t really heard anything. You know, a lot of times you get grand notions in show business but they get derailed as time goes on.
A little after the end of October toward the beginning of November I got a package in the mail from Abbey Road. I'm thinking, "What the heck did Sony send me from Abbey Road?" I open it up and inside is the CD of the score for FELLOWSHIP with a little not from Howard saying, "This is for your ears only. Give it a listen and let me know what you think."
DA: (Laughs) So I gave it a good thorough listening until I wore the CD down to dust and called him up and said “What can we do? You want to talk about this?” And he said, “Well, why don’t you come on up to my office in New York? We will sit down. We will look at the score. We will just think about this.”
I hopped on a plane and went up to visit him at his office. Again, we got along really well. It was the first time we had actually met in person and we just sat there with the conductor’s score. This took the better part of a complete day. At the end of that he said, "Why don't you come back in a couple of weeks and we sill sit and watch the film together. We'll listen to the scores and talk about how everything is meant to be in the film." Of course I said, "Okay. That's great."
So I went back and did that a few months later. It turned out to be a regular cycle of me heading out there to do a little bit more research or a little bit more watching the film with him or a little bit more discussion with him.
I think we got to about the time of the second film, THE TWO TOWERS (2002), and I decided, “Okay, well I‘m just going to compile everything I’ve got and type it up and see what sort of a thing is appearing here.” So I did that and printed everything up on my little home inkjet printer and took it out to Howard. I handed it to him saying, “Here’s kind of where we stand with everything. I just wanted to show you what I’ve got and maybe you can take a look at it.” He tucked it under his arm like “Okay, I’ll look at it and I’ll see you tomorrow. We will get together and do some more talking.”
I went back to my hotel room and FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING was actually on TV. It was very strange to have left him that day and I go to relax at my hotel room and the movie is on TV again.
I went back to the office the next day and he had the entire document marked up with a red pen with little ideas scribbled in the margins and circled what he liked and corrected my spelling and things like that. But he was very enthused about the direction things were heading. We kind looked at what we had and decided, “You know, this looks like we are pointing at a book. Do you want to try to do something like that?” Then we kind of shook hands and agreed “Let’s head down this path and see what happens.” So the geneses of the project was really back in 2001 and it started taking some sort of a written form in 2002. We put everything back in order and said, “Well, we have to head toward a book now,” and that went on for the better part of the last couple of years.
SK: That's an amazing story! So were you writing this every day? What has your schedule been like working on this book?
DA: Oh man. I don’t know if I was at the keyboard every day per se, but part of my brain was within that world everyday. I definitely would say that. I don’t really know how to describe the composition process in that it always begins with a period of dreaming and imagining and understanding your own feelings about something. I think a lot of my writing process was the same way. You have to just live in that world for so long that it becomes second nature to you and all you really end up having to do is describe what you see around you. So it’s not that sort of dry academic process where you sit down to write four pages a day and say, “I’m going to analyze the first ten minutes of this composition or whatever.” You just put yourself in that headspace for as long as you can so that the act of writing it is almost secondary. It’s expressing these thoughts that have fully clogged up your head.
SK: I don’t usually review things immediately but as soon as I got this book I wrote a review that night. I’m an analysis junkie and a lot of people think I’m strange for being that way. I was a composition and film scoring double major in school and I absolutely love analysis! All of my scores, including the Beethoven string quartets and symphonies, are marked up all over the place. In the compositional world this is a very normal thing. As a student of composition you do a lot of analysis; however, in the film scoring world it's almost non-existent. Why do we not have this type of hardcore compositional analysis in the film music world while its so essential in the compositional world?
DA: I think it’s very two-fold. For the first part, I think analysis is usually done as sort of a secret handshake. Now you are a man after my own heart so you know the pleasure of being a musician and understanding a composition with a composer’s eye but that’s our secret handshake. The rest of the world doesn’t really get that because it’s usually put in such specific terms that we are not letting anyone else in the clubhouse. So I think there’s a bit of a wall there historically.
Beyond that I think it also has to do with the way that film music is seen as an art form, or not as an art form, maybe it’s seen purely as a commercial form by a lot of people and I think more and more that wall is falling down. It takes time, you know? A couple of decades ago who would ever imagine programming Bernard Herrmann's work alongside a concert of other classical composers. But now decades after the man has passed away it’s starting to come around and can be considered a serious form of expression. Historians start to come around after awhile. So it’s sort of an uphill challenge, you know?
I always think back to the story, like when Williams went back to do the new STAR WARS films he would go to his recording sessions and he’s got brass players coming up to him saying, “Hey, the reason I play is because I loved the scores to the original trilogy and I picked up the instrument in school and now here I am recording the next one.” There are people like that who are taking up these positions and playing and seeing what’s happening in film music. People are understanding that it can and has been a form of artistic expression.
SK: So then why now? Why THE LORD OF THE RINGS? Is it simply the popularity of the films? Or is there something else there that makes this work a viable candidate for such scrutiny?
DA: I think the material really dictated what we did with it. It could have been written as a slapdash effort that simply meets a couple mood requirements then moves on, but Howard is… He’s kind of the perfect combination of a composer that writes from the heart but writes for the mind at the same time. THE LORD OF THE RINGS was something that was incredibly moving to a lot of people, but at the same time immense thought was put into how one recreates Tolkien’s literature in musical terms. It’s an incredibly well structured piece of writing and I mean that both referring to Tolkien’s writing and in Howard Shore’s writing. There was a lot of work involved with this project. I agreed to do it sight unseen, score unheard. It was something that we agreed on back in 2001. I had no idea what Howard was actually going to come up with. I had enough faith in him, because he was the composer I had incredible admiration for and I really respected his artistic integrity, but you never know what you are going to get.
I think the book that you have in front of you now was really just dictated by the incredible work that Howard did. He was so well thought out that (Laughs) that the job was sort of done for me. He always said that the score came out well, because he had a good solid ground to build it on. Tolkien’s writing was so strong and Peter Jackson’s filmmaking was so strong, that of course the score was going to inherit some of that, so I hope that if the book is successful, it’s sort of the same that the score was such a fine piece of writing that the book sort of takes that structure and gets some of that from him.
SK: Analyzing any single piece of music is a daunting task and there’s always usually more you can write and mark up about a piece of music than there actually is there, so I can’t even begin to imagine where you would even begin. What was your method for organizing and keeping track of the analysis?
DA: I just ran around with a pile of staff paper all of the time. (Laughs) I would go out to Howard's offices in New York and I would be digging through those scores and jotting things down. That’s sort of a problem too. If you are analyzing Beethoven or Mahler, you can go buy study scores. You can go into just about any library and get these things. If you want a film score, boy heaven help you. I had to sit in Howard’s offices and you can’t really take these things with you, because there’s all sorts of copyright issues and all of that, so you are sitting there and you are virtually copying down things that are important and making sure the notations are correct, then trying to do your own little compressed orchestration, so you can go back later and remember what everything looked like in full form. That was really what I did, just keep it all in a notebook and then write myself as many notes as I could, so that by the time I finally got to the computer it was in some recognizable form.
SK: How often would you meet with Howard or call him on the phone?
DA: Oh boy. Every couple of weeks there was some sort of contact, I think an email or a phone call or a visit up to his office. It was pretty consistent.
SK: And as you are writing this and it’s becoming a book, what about a publisher? When did a publisher enter the equation?
DA: Yeah, the old publishing bit. (Laughs)
SK: Obviously you are starting to write this book and there’s no publisher banging your door down telling you that they can’t wait to publish it, right?
DA: Right, yeah exactly, because who knows what this thing is right? I’m writing a book about the music that was from a film that was on a different book. There’s no sales pitch for this thing at all. There’s no way to pitch this to a company saying, “Yeah, that’s the kind of thing we want.”
After LORD OF THE RINGS, Warner Brother’s publishing division got folded down into a company called Alfred Publishing. Paul Broucek was the music executive for New Line that produced all the scores on the LORD OF THE RINGS pictures. They put a bug into Alfred’s ear and said “This is something that we’ve got a guy that’s been working on and we don’t really have a place for this, so if you don’t have a publishing division, but you guys are essentially absorbing our catalog, maybe you should look at this” and the Alfred guys…They are LA based so they know that the film music industry is something that has commercial appeal. They are the guys that sell all of the John Williams piano books and things like that. They know that world a little bit. So we started. I got in contact with them and there’s not really much you can do to explain the project. It is what it is and you just go out for lunch with each other and see if you want to do this. Everybody got along fine and it just kind of struck the publishing/distribution deal and everybody went from there.
But you are right, there was no clear explanation. It was a lot of people going on faith that, “Well maybe there is something here. We will see what happens.”
SK: When did that happen? When did you know that, “Okay, it looks like this book I'm writing is going to be published?” At what point in the writing?
DA: It was like...last week.
DA: I honestly didn’t believe it, because it was such a weird and twisty road so when that thing showed up on my porch, I was expecting someone to pull the rug out. We didn’t have the easiest time with it, but anything we knew that’s sort of what happens. That’s okay. It wasn’t ever an issue of people saying, “We don’t think you can pull this off.” It was just a matter of “How do you really pitch this to someone?”
Then we had the same kind of rights issues that everybody dealt with on the RINGS pictures and that even went to some extent with THE HOBBIT and there’s a lot of legal waters you’ve got to navigate in order to make something like this happen. I have to laugh, the first time I ever started to write a book ended up involving like four different movie studios and record companies and two different publishers, like “Man, I should have started with something a little bit shorter maybe. I don’t know why this is the first one…” (Laughs)
SK: No kidding. I think the real beauty of this book hinges on the fact that somebody like me, who is very involved in the technical analysis of music can really enjoy this book. It has real legitimate analysis in there. But at the same time I believe that somebody who is non-musical can get a lot out of it as well. I find that to be almost impossible to pull off. I can’t even imagine how to balance that. Was that a conscious effort on your part to not get too technical? Who was your audience when you were writing this?
DA: I guess it was with both in mind. I think the discussion of music should never be something you have to apologize for. If you want to talk about music, let’s talk about music. I don't want to have to use fake dumbed-down terms. At the same time you don't want these specialized discussions of music to be a coded language. Especially something like LORD OF THE RINGS, because look at who that appeals to. It appeals to academics but it also appeals to people around the world. It’s such a universal story and it would really be wrong say, “I’m going to write this book for a handful of musical academics but not really call out to the rest of the people." You want to make something that has that same emotional pitch to it.
We started off on two ideas. One was basically to write in layers so that the layperson reading through the paragraph will grasp essentially all of the information in that paragraph. At the same time, there’s a few specific musical terms that the music heads will get right away. Maybe the general audience will infer what it means or at the same time you stick a couple of footnotes in, there’s nothing wrong with that. You can have their eyes move around the page. You can trust people.
SK: I thought the footnotes were rather helpful. Simple little things like that add to its accessibility.
DA: Right. You can actually use the vocabulary without having to apologize for it. You can say what you really mean. You don’t have to use some sort of fake euphemism for "quartal harmony" you just have a little definition.
Our saying became, “Comprehension is context.” If you put it to this timeless narrative or whatever you want, then it suddenly makes sense to everyone and anything that’s musically specific, you can figure out exactly what we are talking about, because you see how it relates to the story. That’s challenging to do, because you don’t want to take it too far one way or too far the other way, so there’s a lot of careful consideration of how to do that, but hopefully we hit the right mood on that.
SK: Was there a moment when you were writing when you hit rock bottom and wondered, “What the hell am I doing? This is never going to happen.”
DA: Yeah, there was definitely a point every day when that hit me. Howard is a tremendous source of encouragement and I don’t want anyone to think that he was this repetitive self-serving megalomaniacal character saying [in a mocking manner], “Yes, write this book about me! Show the world my genius!” He was very supportive in that he wanted me to be able to express myself and he wanted me to hang in there. He would always say “Nothing on LORD OF THE RINGS ever happened simply.” “These movies are tremendously difficult to make, they almost fell apart just before they came out. The whole production was challenging just from a stamina standpoint. We all know about the legal trials and all of that.” He just kept telling me “This is just the tradition of this project. You are just the next one in a long line of people that have had to stick with it to make something that came out great.” He was incredibly supportive and he really became a dear friend of the process. It’s kind of cool to go from the point of him being one of my idols to a guy that I can hang out with. We spent last week in Vienna together. That’s crazy.
SK: Other than Howard Shore, you probably know the score better than anybody. In your studies, what is it about the score that surprised you the most?
DA: Surprised me? That’s a good question. No one’s asked me that. [Pauses] I guess maybe… Less from a musical standpoint and maybe more from a just phenomenon standpoint, the longevity of the score really shocked me, because we don’t see that happen all of the time anymore. I mean most guys don’t last or… most people left and they sort of remember the score after the picture and now we are almost a decade after THE RETURN OF THE KING.
SK: Yeah, it’s crazy.
DA: Yeah, it’s crazy and maybe slightly depressing, but everybody remembers these themes. Play the Shire theme for someone in the remote corner of the world and they immediately know what it is. I’ve been really lucky with this project. I’ve gotten a chance to really travel the world speaking about the music and it’s amazing how every culture that you encounter feels that this score is written for them, even to a regional thing like in different parts of the US, “You really understood our experience.” You go around the UK or Europe and they feel that this score is written from their point of view, that Howard must have spent time… They will say things like “You can tell that Mr. Shore must have spent time in Poland, because he really understood what it’s like to be…” Up until this past year Howard had never been to Poland before, there’s just something universal about… not even a specific musical language, but just the emotional content that people feel that this is their story. It’s pretty amazing to see.
Let’s face it, I was pretty wet behind my ears, so the whole thing was a surprise to me you know? I had never been to Abbey Road before doing this. I had never really spent that much time in a recording session. I had been two days here and there in LA for various projects, but you know I had never met any of these people before. I went from reading about… I was a long time reader of Ain’t It Cool all the way back to the old STAR WARS animations that Harry used to put up there. I read all of the visits from the New Zealand sets for LORD OF THE RINGS, I mean a little bit after that I found myself sitting next to Peter Jackson in a recording booth going, “How the heck did I get here?”
DA: It’s hard to pin down a single surprise I suppose, because first of all from a very personal point of view everything was like, “How am I being allowed to do this? Shouldn’t people be coming in and kicking me out of here pretty soon?”
SK: You obviously like a lot of film music and I would gather you are fond of these scores quite a bit. Where do they rank for you in the history of film music?
DA: You know, I think it really is as important a work as people think it is. I think it will be one that’s remembered. I don’t think there has been a score that has been so true to its leitmotif structure before. Even the great scores that we love that have these wonderful catalogs of themes, I don’t know if you achieved them there. What’s the classic STAR WARS theme? When Darth Vader strikes down Obi Wan Kenobi? I mean in the emotional context… You can understand exactly why he did it. That’s a little deviation in a light motif structure and it’s perfectly legitimate to do that. It’s not really like you can say “John Williams really pulled a dud there.” It’s a little deviation to it for emotional reasons. LORD OF THE RINGS on the other hand was very specific to that structure. There are no slight of hand in this score in terms of how the leitmotifs are treated. And yes, it had a much larger catalog of themes really. He really spent a lot of time developing material so that… It’s just a huge collection of motifs. Really the book has a full menu and it’s about 80 or 90 different motifs that are developed in very thorough ways throughout the score.
SK: Yeah, I have to agree. I have referred to this as "the greatest achievement in the history of film music." Whether it’s the best score or not, I think it transcends that discussion. I really look at it as the greatest achievement. I don’t know if anybody faced a bigger challenge at any time in the history of film music and yet cleared those challenges as well as Shore did with these scores. So that’s kind of how I summate this mega-awesome work. I think you are right. I think it warrants this book. I think it deserves this book. It will help show people how important this score is. Without this book, it’s just a score that people like and that’s fine. That’s the most fundamental level of appreciating film music; however, because it's such a seminal work it's nice to know that somebody took the time to break it all down. Because this book exists, it will be there for many years. I think that's exceptionally cool.
DA: Yeah, you know it’s a crazy thing too, because there’s always the old saying of, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and that there’s really no point in doing it, but I firmly believe that great art needs to be discussed. That’s kind of where it lives. It’s an important aspect of that creative cycle. There has to be the point at which someone looks at it and asks, "How did the composer envision this piece?”
SK: I always use the sports car analogy. Lots of people like sports cars. They get inside, step on the gas and drive fast. That's all they ever want to do with it. I'm the type of person who wants to open up the hood. I want to see how all of the nuts and bolts come together to create the is gorgeous working machine. I'm not bashful at all talking about music. When you get inside the hood and you study every part of that machine you really begin to truly understand it.
DA: That’s the thing, because then you get to see it as its creators saw it. I don’t mean to go off on that sort of thing, but it’s like that’s one of those things that I always kept in my line as I was writing the book, “How does Howard Shore see this music? Both now and when he was in the act of creating it?” There’s something very important about that. Of course it’s important how it affects every one of us, but at the same time how did he see it? That’s incredibly important to me and it’s hard to articulate. Certainly it’s not something that anyone really can articulate in an incredible specific way, but there’s a certain at some level sincerity to that I think.
SK: Well hopefully maybe a university will give you an honorary doctorate for this…
DA: Yeah, believe me I don’t think they’re going for that. Thanks. We tried to make it something that can escape the ivory towers as well. We brought in the designer Gary Day-Ellison who helped us get all the production artwork for the film. A lot of it I don't think have ever been seen before.
It’s like we spent all of our time figuring out content, then we sort of realized “We are actually designing a physical thing. A book is not just this warehouse of thought and ideas, you have to make a physical book.” Both Howard and I had no experience in this world. That’s kind of an eye opening thought. It’s like, “How do you make a beautiful physical thing that has all of these ideas in it?” It's nuts. That might have been the toughest part of the whole process to be honest, because that’s where neither one of us has any experience. You just dive in, pinch your nose, and hope that you can figure it out.
SK: Are you going to ever do this again?
DA: Yeah, you know, I think we would both like to do this again for THE HOBBIT. It’s early on and as everybody knows there is no green-light as of this moment.
We are trying to remain hopeful that THE HOBBIT will happen and we will have something to talk about. (Laughs) Hopefully this next one won't take ten years to make, but we will see what happens.
It was funny, when I first signed on to do this book, like I said, I was just finishing up grad school and was very new to the whole world and I met somebody who knew that I was working on the project and they kind of laughed. They said, “Oh, I expected you to be like an old man with a grey beard.” I was on my way home from Vienna last week and of course you spend a long time on the plane and I’m looking scruffy and I’m getting ready to finally shave after a couple of days of…I noticed “There’s a lot of grey in this beard now, what’s happening?”
DA: I guess this project took a lot out of me.
SK: Well Doug, I wish you the absolute best success with this book. I hope it does well. I hope people are into it. I know I am. Best of luck to you. I hope we get to talk again in the future about this or something else.
DA: Thanks man. Well you know, we’ve got a lot of friends in common, so feel free to give me a call if you ever need anything.
SK: Cool, I appreciate that.
DA: Fantastic. Thanks. I’ll talk to you soon.
SK: Alright, take care. Bye.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News I'd like to extend a hearty thank you to Doug Adams for taking the time out of his schedule to speak with me. I'd also like to thank Beth Krakower of Cinemedia Promotions for her assistance setting up this interview and a quick thanks goes to Mike McCutchen for his transcription help.
Doug Adams has been maintaining a blog for the past couple years chronicling news and recent developments surrounding the book. You can check that out HERE.
THE MUSIC OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS FILMS is currently available for order at Amazon.com and other major retailers.