The Lord of the Rings: Appendices Part 1

SCORING “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER”
THE APPENDICES: PART 1
JOURNEY TO MIDDLE-EARTH

This blog entry is the first of a four-part series that will chronicle the journey that led me from reading The Hobbit as a boy to scoring The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary novels and their appendices. This chapter will cover the ‘First Age’ of my career: my childhood discovery of fantasy genres and film music. Subsequent chapters will detail the challenges I faced composing, recording, and producing nine hours of music in nine months on this ambitious project.  Finally, I’ll share the thrills of performing the score publicly in the run-up to the show’s launch. For longtime readers, much of this first blog will be a recap of my early life, but I nevertheless wanted to take a few paragraphs to introduce myself to people who are probably new to this site.

(Attending the “The Rings of Power” premiere in Los Angeles, August 2022)

FALLING IN LOVE WITH FILM MUSIC

When I was a kid, I escaped into fantasy realms through my favorite science fiction, fantasy and horror stories. I first read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien when I was about ten years old. My imagination was captivated by the book, albeit only briefly, before I sped on to novels by Lloyd Alexander, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and others. I would require another decade to fully appreciate the joy, immersive scale, nuance, and historical significance of Tolkien’s writing. Because, while I enjoyed reading as a child, another narrative medium quickly captivated my heart, and changed the course of my life: movies.

As I grew older, though I continued to read, I found my favorite genre stories even more enticing on film. I believe my brain is wired to respond most immediately to audio and visual storytelling, so film’s combination of spectacular visuals and music immediately riveted my attention. My mother took me to every film she wanted to see, and I sat through them all, utterly transfixed, though I did not yet weigh enough to hold down the cinema seats. My first theatrical memories begin when I was a toddler, with adult dramas like Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, and The Natural, alongside more fantastic fare like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Last Unicorn.

I was six years old when Back to the Future came out in theaters, and I was mesmerized by the score. I begged my mother to take me back again the next night. The second time, I held up my little Fisher Price tape recorder to record the sound, so I could listen to the music at home. Later that summer, I discovered that soundtrack albums exist. Wait! I could listen to a movie’s music without all the dialog and sound effects? Film scores instantly became the only music I consumed, and film composers became my pop stars. Before I turned seven, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

The cinematic music of my favorite stories quickly became as important to me as the film’s characters, story, or settings. Beyond Alan Silvestri’s stunning scores for the Back to the Future films, I fell in love with John Williams’ work on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek scores and his collaborations with Joe Dante, James Horner’s Willow and The Rocketeer, Danny Elfman’s Tim Burton collaborations, Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian, Michael Kamen’s Highlander and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Shirley Walker’s contributions to Batman: The Animated Series. I loved this music deeply, and it was all I ever listened to.

As I approached high school, I discovered the rich cinematic heritage from which many of my favorite film scores drew inspiration. I fell in love with works from earlier eras, notably Bernard Herrmann’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Day the Earth Stood Still and his stunning work with Hitchcock. I discovered Elmer Bernstein’s iconic western scores and his timeless To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as Lalo Schifrin’s intimate score for Cool Hand Luke, Nino Rota’s Godfather scores, and Ennio Morricone’s immortal spaghetti westerns and later dramatic turns, The Mission and Cinema Paradiso. These films, and more, brought fantasy worlds to life in my imagination, fueled by the unforgettable melodies, rich orchestral colors, and emotional intensity provided by these brilliant composers.

While I was a child in Bellingham, Washington, consuming movies and music, I also harbored dreams of one day growing up and pursuing them both as a career. My mother and father were both supportive of me spending an increasing amount of my time writing music. I studied piano with a local music teacher named Paul Klein, who taught me to play Beethoven, Mozart, and Gershwin, while also indulging my desire to create piano arrangements of my favorite film scores. In high school, my band director, Mark Patterson, let me bring in original music for our jazz band to perform, including a piece in which I mercilessly changed meter every bar. My English teacher, Steven Dolmatz, created an extra-curricular film scoring class just for me, for which I wrote music, as well as papers on the topic.

keyboard2

Whenever I discovered a new genre of film music, I went to my Yamaha PSR-510 MIDI keyboard and Windows PC running an early sequencer called Master Tracks Pro, and challenged myself to compose a piece of music in that new style. I added live players, enlisting the talents of my friends who could play any instrument, recording them into a Tascam 4-Track cassette recorder. I was dedicated, even obsessed.

When I was sixteen I confronted an uncomfortable truth:  I had been writing short ‘Main Title’ style themes. But, did I actually possess the skills necessary to develop and orchestrate those ideas across a feature film? I challenged myself to write a complete film score. But, how could I find a film to score?

(Concept art I created for an imaginary film.)

I spent three months with a friend writing a script for an adventure film. The Amazing Saga of George was a science-fiction adventure comedy about an unwitting hero who embarks on a crazy adventure to rescue the princess and save the world from invading aliens, a story packed with lore, comedy, and action. I visualized the entire movie in my imagination. I composed themes for each character, and then set out to develop and intertwine those themes into a score tailored to the drama and action in my mind. I worked every day for over a year – before school, after school, and weekends. I composed the score in narrative order, scene-by-scene, from the brooding opening teaser and Main Title, to the End Credit suite. When I was done, The Amazing Saga of George was a completely realized seventy-five-minute cinematic score. Ok, I thought to myself, I can pursue film music as a career for the rest of my life. 

During this time, in my Junior year of high school, I was awarded “Student of the Month” from the local Rotary Club. At the luncheon ceremony where I was presented with a certificate, the group was informed I wanted to write film music. Afterwards, I met a man named Joe Coons. Joe said he had a friend in the film music business that he would like to introduce me to. “Have you heard of Elmer Bernstein?” he asked. I could only stammer out that, yes, I had heard of him. Inside, I was reeling:  Elmer was one of my favorite composers: The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, Animal House, Ghostbusters, and many other classics. As it turned out, Joe ran the local yacht club and Elmer kept his boat in the marina in my hometown!

Joe kindly sent Elmer a cassette tape with my in-progress score for The Amazing Saga of George, and a few other compositions. I met Elmer that spring, and he encouraged me to seek formal training in harmony, theory, counterpoint, orchestration, and conducting.

Under Elmer’s guidance, I attended the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. Over my career there, I studied classical composition, scored dozens of student films, played in rock bands, and I became one of Elmer Bernstein’s protégés. I sat in on all his classes, and worked summers for him. I attended every film music industry event and recording session of his I could. (For a more detailed account of my years spent with Elmer Bernstein, I recommend my blog entry on the topic.)

FROM CHILDHOOD TO ADULTHOOD

During my college career beginning in the late 1990s, the widespread adoption of the internet dramatically changed the world. I scoured this newly accessible resource for rumors about various movies in production. One day, I was thrilled to discover that an epic film trilogy was in production, directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, a relatively unknown Peter Jackson. I had voraciously followed Peter Jackson’s career from the delightfully gory splatterfest Brain Dead (released in North America as Dead Alive), through his stunning dramatic debut Heavenly Creatures, to his first American studio effort, the sublimely brilliant (yet sadly commercial failure) The Frighteners.

(Working in my dorm room in 2001. Photo credit: Nick Williams)

As a kid I watched Ralph Bakshi’s ambitiously rotoscoped animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but I was too young to appreciate it. The Rankin/Bass Tolkien television films, The Hobbit and The Return of the King, certainly had their moments but they failed to resonate with me.  Now Peter Jackson, whose work I so admired, was bringing The Lord of the Rings to the screen. Anticipating his films, I revisited, and truly rediscovered Tolkien’s writing.

In December of my fourth year (of what would ultimately be five years) at USC, Peter Jackson released the first film in the trilogy. I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on opening night, utterly spellbound. For those three years, seeing each new Peter Jackson film on opening night was a major event in my life.

(USC Graduation, 2002, with my eventual wife Raya Yarbrough)

The release of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy happened to occur at the exact nexus of my childhood and adulthood. On screen, Peter Jackson ignited my imagination by bringing Middle-earth to life. I had fantastical dreams of running across the plains of Rohan with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. I felt like a kid again, enjoying the same sorts of thrills I had experienced when I first discovered epics like Star Wars, Star Trek, Highlander, and Aliens.,

But, these were also the years in which I transitioned from a passionate amateur to an aspiring professional. The film trilogy also inspired my career hopes. I voraciously watched the DVD’s “The Appendices,” the thorough behind-the-scenes documentaries about how Peter Jackson and his crew made The Lord of the Rings films. I recognized in his artists, crew, craftspeople, and in his relationship with composer Howard Shore, the same passion for storytelling I felt in my own heart. I wanted to one day work on a project like The Lord of the Rings.

(The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Premiere, 2022, with my wife Raya Yarbrough.)

The year after the final film of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, The Return of the King, was released, my life and career changed forever.  My beloved mentor and friend Elmer Bernstein passed away, on the very day that my professional career began: I became the composer for a new television series called Battlestar Galactica. My work on Battlestar set in motion a series of events that would, over the course of nearly two decades, lead me to score The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

-Bear McCreary
September, 2022

UP NEXT IN PART 2: CALLED TO ADVENTURE, COMPOSING THEMES, AND CREATING DEMOS.

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