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A true milestone of Film Music as Art..., Oct. 5 2010
OK, first of all, full disclosure: the author of this book, Doug Adams, happens to be a colleague and friend, and I have thus enjoyed a unique view of the work as it came together over the better part of the last decade. That said, I don't benefit from its sales, nor have I been asked to write this review. I DO write this review because, irrespective of my association with the author, I am a film music journalist myself - and I firmly believe that THE MUSIC OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS FILMS is perhaps the most accomplished and significant analysis of a film score ever published.
Let's begin with an appreciation of the sheer magnitude of the film score under discussion. At the outset, we must note that there is very little in the history of music that can easily be compared to Howard Shore's score for Peter Jackson's film trilogy of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. When you consider that the films are most accurately viewed as one continuous story, with the similarly continuous score totaling more than TEN HOURS in length, you realize the true scope of Shore's opus. In the world of cinema, there is little to compare it to. One can draw some parallels with John Williams' work on the STAR WARS saga, although its entries are far more individualistic and spread out over a longer period of time. Certain composers for television have written more total hours related to a contiguous body of work; but the musical architecture of, for example, 200 episode scores from THE X-FILES is so vastly different as to defy direct comparison. Even in the world of classical music, it is likewise difficult to find points of reference. For sheer length, narrative scope, and leitmotivic complexity, we can turn to history's *other* great musical ring cycle, Wagner's DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN ... and that's about it.
Nor (as Adams ably demonstrates) is *length* all there is to it. No doubt any number of composers would have risen to that challenge, with varying degrees of showmanship and craft. But would any of them have entered into the same ambitious spirit of world-crafting as Tolkien himself? Shore did. His music goes beyond the traditional role of a film score to become a veritable musical representation of the peoples, languages, cultures, and histories of Middle-earth. Point by point, Adams reveals to the reader how Shore's choice of instruments, performance styles, method of orchestration, incorporation of texts, and even recording venues and techniques all contributed to express something deeply meaningful about the characters, races, locations, and events that comprise Tolkien and Jackson's stunning epic. To give just one example: Adams explains how Shore used a distinctive range-based style of orchestration, rather than relying on the traditional divisions of instrument families - creating a unique soundscape that would feel both cohesive and somehow ancient.
Adams further breaks down how instruments and thematic elements migrate between characters and cultures, constantly forging chains of interconnection. Take Gollum, for example. The primary instrument associated with the character - the cimbalom - is a relative of the dulcimer, one of the key instruments of the Shire; thus reinforcing the creature's twisted hobbit origins. Furthermore, the chords underpinning Gollum's pitiable theme have a surprising connection to the crucible of Mount Doom, where the character's destiny is bound. This sort of thing is largely invisible to the average filmgoer, but operates on a subconscious level to enhance the drama - and when considering the music on its own terms, it makes the listening experience infinitely more fascinating and enriching. Far from being a "cold" dissection, this sort of analysis will reward you with the ability to listen to the music with fresh ears ... it will come alive in ways you might never have imagined! This, to me, is the hallmark of good analytical writing.
At this point, you might say to yourself, "But I know nothing about the technical side of music! How on earth am I going to follow all this?" Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, "I crave hard-core analysis - how do I know this isn't dumbed-down for mass audiences?" It's hard to be completely objective here, but in my professional estimation as both a reader and writer, Adams has pulled off something of a minor miracle. By treating the ANALYSIS AS NARRATIVE, the author allows the musical theory on display to unfold with surprising clarity and lucidity. Certainly, basic musical literacy will only enhance your ability to understand and enjoy this text. But you don't have to worry about a lack of "conservatory" training - I'd venture to say that anyone who enjoys listening to music with an attentive ear will benefit much from this book, regardless of their educational background.
You might also say to yourself, "I read the liner notes Adams wrote for the Complete Recordings box sets, and I read the Annotated Scores that were posted online - what more is there?" In response, you should first know that the aforementioned texts were extracted and abridged from the larger book-in-progress. They were portions of the whole, serving a valid purpose in their own right ... but they are no substitution for the total package. Here, you will find a more flowing and expansive text, with more space to discuss the big ideas, and a wealth of detail that was necessarily left out of the more restrictive earlier formats. You also get significantly more context in terms of Shore's creative methodology, and the history surrounding the composition and recording of this monumental work. Shore himself contributed a special foreword for the book, and the introduction was penned by LOTR screenwriter and producer Fran Walsh.
And there's more! The number (and readability) of musical examples has been greatly increased throughout, and includes full-page manuscript pages as well as samples of Shore's original sketches. The complete choral texts and translations are here - a real treasure for Tolkien linguists. As an officially licensed project, the book also includes numerous full-color film stills, and - more impressively - an amazing selection of sketch artwork from Tolkien artists John Howe and Alan Lee (who also drew an original piece for the cover). Book designer Gary Day-Ellison (whose portfolio includes work for that *other* Douglas Adams) had full access to Howe and Lee's sketchbooks for this project, so much of their artwork appears in print here for the FIRST TIME, making it doubly essential for enthusiasts. And speaking of the book design, it's simply beautiful. There is a gorgeous aesthetic on display throughout, making the pages a delight to the eye as well as the mind.
Finally, there is the CD which accompanies the book: THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RARITIES ARCHIVE. This album of previously unheard material includes theme mock-ups, unreleased versions of cues from the films' theatrical cuts, and other alternate or unused compositions ... all capped by an intimate conversation between the author and the composer. It's a thoughtful musical program that is amazingly coherent as a disc-length listening experience - a testament to the long hours Adams spent poring through Shore's personal archives. Such glimpses into the creative journey are exceedingly rare; even more rarely are they so very rewarding. If "Sammath Naur," an alternate vision of the trilogy's climax, doesn't make your throat catch and your eyes mist up, you may want to check your pulse!
It should be clear by now that I am an unabashed fan of this music, which I think is some of the best ever written for film. Not everyone agrees, of course ... but if you are a devotee of the art of film music in any capacity, you owe it to yourself to at least investigate this book. No study of a film score has ever been published on this scale (in truth, only the rare score could hold up to this kind of rigorous scrutiny), by someone with Adams' musical background and credentials, and with his unprecedented access to resources - extending to the composer himself, who was generous and enthusiastic in his support of this project. If you, like me, celebrate the art form, you should rejoice that a book of this nature exists. It is masterful; a true milestone ... and, I devoutly hope, the harbinger of good things to come.