Oscar-winner Howard Shore recalls his Berklee days as he composes his second movement.

Boston Magazine

“The world has changed,” Galadriel says, first in Elvish, then in English. The pure tones of a boys’ choir thrum beneath her words, ancient and mysterious against the black screen. In those first moments of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, sound is everything. It sets the scene before the screen does. It transports the moviegoer to wondrous and terrible Middle-earth. No small task for a few bars of music.

“Tolkien had 14 years to create Middle-earth,” composer Howard Shore notes wryly. “I have three to score it.” Shore is speaking from London, where he is recording the music for The Two Towers, the second installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, out this month. So far, time constraints have not appeared to hinder Shore. After all, his score to The Fellowship of the Ring won the Oscar. But Shore considers that to have been just the first of three united movements. “Creating thematic continuity—from the start of Frodo’s journey in Hobbiton to his arrival at Mordor in the last—was the goal and continues to be an enormously complicated task.”

Shore's own journey took him home to Toronto after he graduated from Berklee in 1969. A few years later, his friend Lorne Michaels brought him on board as musical director of a risky new comedy show called Saturday Night Live. Shore stayed for five seasons, contributing the now-familiar SNL theme song. But he wasn’t satisfied. “I was trying to find a way to realize some of my ideas musically,” he says. “Television didn’t give me the chance.”

Filmmaker David Cronenberg did. In 1979, Shore composed the score for Cronenberg’s psycho-thriller The Brood. Since then, he’s scored for just about every genre—edgy (eXistenZ), comedy (Analyze This), suspense (Silence of the Lambs), drama (Philadelphia), hip (High Fidelity). Nonetheless, when Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson came calling, Tinseltown pessimists winced: Though well-respected, Shore had never composed an epic. The grumblers were silenced in March, when first-time Oscar-nominee Shore beat out perennial contender Randy Newman, two-time winner James Horner, and five-time winner John Williams.

To create his winning score, Shore wove poetry and songs from the original books with his own musical imaginings. Opera was his inspiration. “Go see Turandot,” he says. “Puccini first created it on the page, then it was staged by a director. You see the orchestra play and the movement on stage—all done in time to the music. I’m trying to accomplish the same beautiful synergy, except the directing and acting come first.”

Opera’s influence is evident throughout The Fellowship of the Ring. But Shore is careful to point out that his is a decidedly modern sensibility. He says this two-pronged approach—the classical intertwined with the contemporary—was first developed while he was at Berklee. “Lord of the Rings is a perfect example of what I learned. Berklee teaches the foundations, but it also makes students aware of what’s new.”

Back in the ’60s, when Shore was “a sponge, soaking up” what Berklee had to offer, film scoring wasn’t quite the glamorous track. “Film scoring consisted of one very modest class,” remembers Michael Rendish, who taught Shore and is now assistant chair of Berklee’s film scoring department. That one course later became two, but that was it until another Berklee alum, Don Wilkins, returned from Hollywood in 1975. “The industry had moved forward,” says Wilkins, “but Berklee was still the same as when I left.”

So Wilkins and Rendish began building up the department. Today, it supports 230 students, offers the only undergraduate degree in the country, and, besides Shore, counts among its alums Alan Silvestri, who won a Grammy for Cast Away, and Claudio Ragazzi, who scored The Blue Diner and Next Stop Wonderland. The original tools of the trade—metronomes, projectors, and a green metal monster called a “Movieola”—have been replaced by sleek banks of computers.

The curriculum is a re-creation of Hollywood reality. Each student is reuired to compose a miniscore to accompany a movie scene. They then record their scores, utilizing an orchestra made up of classmates. Their first project this year was a scene from The Doctor, in which William Hurt’s superior-but-shaken physician is descending to the hospital basement. On the day I visited campus, a tiny, confident girl sporting a Mickey Mouse t-shirt was in the studio. The session began with a twitch of her baton. Her eyes flitted from her sheet music to a monitor playing the movie, then around to the circle of musicians, over to the recording techies, and finally back to her score.

In spite of all the modern touches, Wilkins emphasizes that film scoring is essentially unchanged from what it was when Shore was a student: It’s still about self-expression. For Shore, this means diving into a myth created by one man (Tolkien), witnessing its transformation by a second (Jackson), and infusing the two with his own emotional, musical interpretation. Critics rated The Fellowship of the Ring a triumph, but, ultimately, moviegoers will be the final judge of the score for The Two Towers. “If a score works,” says Rendish, “I’m totally taken into the story.