The Lord of the Rings: Appendices Part 3

SCORING “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER”
THE APPENDICES: PART 3
FORMING A FELLOWSHIP

This is the third 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. The second, “Themes of Middle-earth,” can be found here.

JOINING THE FELLOWSHIP

In the summer of 2021, I spent my first creative weeks on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power composing more than fifteen themes that I felt were necessary to tell the story. I did not send a note of music to the showrunners during this time, because doing so would deprive them of the fresh perspective necessary to judge the themes in narrative context. If the themes were all I hoped they would be – memorable, distinct, and inherently conveying essential truths about their subjects – then I believed it best for the the showrunners to hear them in actual scenes.

To put my newly composed themes to the test I initially scored about twenty minutes of material, from the first two episodes. I scored the opening prologue, depicting how Galadriel left Valinor, as well as Nori Brandyfoot’s introductory scene where she picks blackberries, Elrond’s entrance into Khazad-dûm and stone-breaking competition with Durin, their subsequent emotional scene on the lift, and finally Elrond’s meeting Disa.

The day of the first music review with showrunners arrived. I opened the video conference link and saw all the producers I had come to know: J.D. Payne, Patrick McKay, Lindsey Weber, Justin Doble, and Callum Greene. They were all based in New Zealand, finishing production on the series, while my team and I are based in Los Angeles. Also on the call were Ron Ames and Jake Rice, from post-production, and the helpful and astute Brian Claeys, from my studio Sparks & Shadows.

This was a crucial moment; the showrunners would hear mock-up demos of my music for the first time. I was especially tense because I could not be physically present. A filmmaker’s body language often reveals more than they are prepared to say in words. When I attend these playbacks in person, I usually sit off to the side, so I can glance at filmmakers through the corner of my eye while footage is playing. I observe how they shift their posture, slightly move the muscles in their face, or glance at their phone. As discussions begin, I use these clues to ensure I get the whole truth.

The first score cue playback of the season began, starting with our prologue scenes in Valinor. I discretely studied the little video boxes on my screen showing each producer’s camera. In these compressed, low-resolution squares, their body language was hidden from me. I bristled with anxiety. The first clip ended, and there was a beat of silence. Did they hate it? Or was this just a lag in the connection, New Zealand to Los Angeles?

Suddenly, my speakers crackled with distortion as all the producers erupted into spontaneous applause. I felt my eyes welling up. From that instant, I knew I would be able to pull this off. I knew that these filmmakers understood what I was going for. I was now part of the fellowship.

PRODUCING THE SCORE

Over the last two months of summer, 2021, I wrote music all day every day for about a week, and then conferenced with showrunners to get feedback. I knew, however, that my life was about to become vastly more complicated. At the end of November, production of the score went into full swing: prepping sessions, recording, editing, mixing the music, and dubbing the music into the episodes. I would be at least partially involved in every step, while still writing under increasingly tense deadlines.

For every episode of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, we recorded four days of symphonic orchestra in London, at either Sir George Martin’s iconic AIR Studios or the legendary Abbey Road Studios. We recorded three to four days of choir and children’s choir at the beautiful Synchron Stage in Vienna, Austria. We also recorded a variety of solo instrumentalists in Los Angeles, New York, Norway, and Sweden, a process that took approximately seven days. Due to time constraints, all these sessions had to be scheduled concurrently.

Like every other aspect of production, music recording was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We operated under strict guidelines for how many people could be in a single room at a time and ensured that everyone had passed a COVID test. As a result, we could not place an entire orchestra in one room simultaneously. Instead, we split the ensembles in half: recording all the strings together in one group of sessions, then the woodwinds and brass together in their own separate sessions. Percussion, soloists, and choir were all recorded in their own unique sessions. This added immense logistical challenges, and doubled the amount of recording days needed at the world’s most in-demand stages. However, this separation did give us more mix control, allowing mixers access to more discrete musical layers in order to rebalance as needed.

This intense process required a seamless workflow combining the efforts and expertise of literally hundreds of people. Musicians, singers, conductors, orchestrators, copyists, music librarians, proofreaders, tech crews, engineers, mixers, Tolkienian language experts, music producers, and music editors: a massive team came together to bring this to fruition. Due to the project’s extreme secrecy, the majority of these people did not even know they were working on The Lord of the Rings at the time.  

Everyone stepped up. The team at Amazon Music, led by Bob Bowen, collaborated with the post-production team for the show, led by Ron Ames and Jake Rice. They all worked closely with the administrative and support team at my studio Sparks & Shadows, led by Brian Claeys and Bailey Gordon. Everyone put in endless hours to ensure that this score was recorded at the highest possible production quality.

TOLKIENIAN LANGUAGES

One of the most logistically complicated parts of the recording process was also likely the most important to Tolkien fans: choir. (Tolkien famously created several of his mythic languages first, and then wrote his stories around them.) Human voices offer the most unique musical color; they are the only sound capable of carrying text, and imbuing music with additional layers of meaning. Even without understanding the language of the text, the listener intuits a lyrical significance that augments the emotional impact. I knew voices singing text would be a foundational layer of my score.

The vocal layers of this score are sung in five Tolkienian languages: two Elvish languages, Sindarin and Quenya, as well as the Dwarvish language Khuzdûl, along with Adûnaic, the language of Númenor, and Black Speech, the language of Sauron. (Several songs are also sung in English.)

A small team dedicated themselves to generating the text, translating it, and ensuring that choirs and soloists pronounced every word correctly. Text started in my composition. I placed markers in the timeline of my music with lyrical requests. I specified the language needed for each scene, and I offered keywords and phrases for every passage. I drew many words from a tome I had been provided that contained virtually every canonical word in Tolkien’s languages. While it was possible for our language experts to generate new words in any of these languages, using rules Tolkien had devised, I nevertheless strove to use actual words Tolkien himself had imagined. This restriction limited our verbal scope, but imbued the music with more authenticity.

With text markers in place, I turned the choir parts over to my invaluable right-hand man, Brian Claeys. Brian matched the syllables to musical rhythms and ran the completed texts and translations past showrunner J.D. Payne, who took time out from his insanely busy schedule to proofread and approve all the text for every cue. (J.D.’s investment in the text being correctly sung testifies to the care and precision he and the other producers brought to all the details on The Rings of Power.) Once the text was certified correct,  it was time to record.

For this step, our brilliant dialect coach Leith McPherson proved absolutely vital. She recorded a slow and clear pronunciation audio guide track for every cue, which was then loaded into the recording session files. The choirs and singers would listen to her pronounce each word, before rehearsing and recording. (I could probably assemble a six hour meditative soundtrack album entirely of Leith speaking every word of text in the entire score!) Collectively, Brian, Leith, and J.D. put in dozens of hours of work to ensure that even the most subtle, frequently imperceptible component of the soundtrack was telling an authentic story.

TO CONDUCT OR COMPOSE

Conducting an orchestra is one of my life’s greatest joys. So, I was crushed when I realized there was absolutely no way in which I would be able to conduct the vast majority of my work on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and still have enough time to write all the music. While the first two episodes were being recorded in a massive marathon of sessions, I was already finishing up the third episode and moving on to the fourth. I knew that this score would only be completed to my personal standard if I wrote every single note, even on days when the score was being recorded.

In order to focus on writing while production occurred, I put complete faith in my team at my studio, Sparks & Shadows. I have spent a decade building up and mentoring this remarkable group, who all demonstrate a passion for music, and an enthusiastic collaborative attitude. On a typical project, particularly for a television show, among the ways in which my team at Sparks & Shadows has helped is by composing additional music cues. This is how the vast majority of big-budget and high-pressure projects are scored in our modern era. I have always strived to ensure that composers writing additional music for me are compensated with both onscreen credit and an appropriate share of the performance royalties. (In the near future, Sparks & Shadows will take ground-breaking steps out of this ‘additional music realm,’ and into the realm of composing projects of their own, as a studio. I am excited to share their big news soon! Fantasy genre fans will be excited about what we are working on together!)

Contrary to how most television is scored today, I personally composed every second of every cue for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. I wanted to ensure that the audience’s narrative experience here was shaped by a consistent musical voice. I felt that this score was too complex and nuanced to ask even my most experienced writers at Sparks and Shadows to contribute music. And truth be told, writing music for The Lord of the Rings was a lifelong dream, and I wanted every second of musical drama for myself. It was… precious to me.

Making that decision came at a cost. I had to compose nine hours of music in nine months. To write music this complex, on my best days I average about two minutes a day of original score, putting in twelve to fifteen consecutive hours of work. As I set out, looking at what lay ahead, I knew I would have to do better than those two minutes every single day for the foreseeable future.

THE TYPICALLY ATYPICAL DAY

Starting in November of 2021, my typical day went like this. I would get my coffee and enter my studio around 5:00 AM. I would then open streaming links to the various sessions happening that day, listen to the first performance of a big orchestral cue in London, and offer any feedback to my S&S team member who was supervising the session. Next, I’d switch over to the streaming link to Vienna’s choir session, and repeat the process. Then, I’d switch over to composing new music usually by around 6:15 in the morning. Usually by 9am, a third set of recording sessions in North America would commence, so I would on occasion need to check in on a bagpipe or fiddle solo being recorded. There were times when I had streaming links open to three simultaneous sessions while I was also composing new music that would itself be recorded in a matter of weeks!

I knew my team would alert me if an urgent question arose during recording, an extremely rare occasion. When I write music, I always make dozens of written requests to orchestrators and producers, detailing my thoughts on performance interpretations, specifying string bow phrasing, choir breathing points, lyric ideas, orchestration requests, and making suggestions for alternate instrumentation. For example, as I composed I would leave a marker that reads “please record an alternate take of this oboe solo on English horn,” or “divide the celli and put half of them on the viola line for added emphasis, and slur by quarters.” Furthermore, in the days leading up to recording, the orchestrators, engineers, music producers, and I had already gone over all the scores and major performance concerns in advance of every session. In short, by the time the music was actually recorded, there remained shockingly few decisions left for me to make on the fly.

MIXING THE RINGS

After recording was complete for each episode, two crucial steps remained: the mixing of the music, and the mixing of the episode, also called dubbing.

Before the music could even be mixed, all the various tracks from around the world had to be assembled into one Pro Tools session, a process handled mostly by my longtime engineers Ryan Sanchez and Ben Sedano. I then worked closely with music mixer Jason LaRocca. Jason and his team ensured that the desired samples from my own pre-recorded audio layers, and the closely-mic’d instrumental soloists, blended seamlessly into the live orchestra and choir tracks. Jason’s final mixes had to create an organic sense that every instrument and singer had been in the same room at the same time, rather than continents apart.

In the post-production dubbing process, the sound effects, dialog, and music are all balanced together to create a seamless experience. The dubs on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power were unlike any project I have ever been involved in. Producer Ron Ames devised a schedule where the sound team, led by the talented mixing duo of Lindsey Alvarez and Beau Borders, had the same amount of time to work that is typically afforded only to feature films.. The team set up initial mix reviews involving only key personnel in post-production, including the episode’s picture and music editors, our brilliant sound design Robby Stambler, and a handful of other individuals. I would attend via video conference, after having reviewed the mix in full resolution on my own studio’s 5.1 surround sound system. Notably, our showrunners were absent from these first review sessions.

Everyone on the post-production team offered unique perspective and expertise. We had to come together in agreement, like a family, and find common ground to tell the story in the best way possible. Where would we feature the music? Where would we pull music back and feature the sound effects? What dialog lines, sound effects, or musical passages needed clarification? These dub review sessions allowed us to dig into details and nuances in the score that only I would know about.

For example, on one occasion, my friends in post-production made a strong case that my piercing Hardanger fiddle melody clashed against the mid-range tenor of an actor’s whispered dialog. They wanted to mute the melody, so that we only heard the subtle string chords from the background layer. I stood firm that the melody had narrative significance in later episodes, so audiences needed to hear it in this scene. I proposed an alternative approach: what if the melody were performed by the warm, low tones of a cello instead? They agreed to give it a shot. My team was able to re-record the line as a cello solo, remix the cue, and get it back to the stage the next day. Now, the scene worked beautifully! The dialog was crisp, and a significant narrative arc was subtly foreshadowed by an evocative melody in the score.

When everyone in post-production agreed that the mix was perfect, then showrunners heard it. For the first time in my career, the showrunners’ first impression of a mix occurred after I had already weighed in on the presentation of my music, and after my changes had been implemented. Thus, the showrunners could respond to a complete version of each episode, reacting authentically to the narrative and emotion. This workflow Ron Ames and his team designed freed up the creative and mental bandwidth of our showrunners, the most important resource any series has.

Episodic dubs were in full swing by the end 2021. By early 2022, I was stretched fairly thin, listening to dub stage mixes of Episodes 101 and 102, supervising recording sessions for Episode 104, listening to music mixes of Episode 105, all while simultaneously composing new music for Episode 106. Often times, this was all required of me in the same day. Life went on like this for months. Given the limitations of my own creative and mental bandwidth, I was grateful to be surrounded and supported by so many talented and dedicated individuals. Nevertheless, the workload began to take a toll on me.

THE COST OF WORK

Exhaustion from the creative marathon seeped in as the psychological and emotional toll mounted. I found myself in an increasingly isolated mental place. Such were the demands of absolute secrecy, I could not tell anyone how I spent my time. I all but vanished from my personal and social life, alienated from everyone outside of my immediate family and my creative collaborators. Even in the safety of my own home, I dared not say the words “The Lord of the Rings” aloud, for fear that my young daughter, Sonatine, would repeat them at school. Even my wife, Raya, and I spoke in code at the dinner table.

The demands were beyond psychological and emotional – I soon realized there was a physical cost inflicted upon my body as well, the price of the hours I was consistently demanding of myself, usually twelve to fifteen hours a day. I spent the majority of my twenties working like this when I scored Battlestar Galactica, and continued that habit through my thirties. But, I am forty-three now. My body is not the same!

Over the last ten years, I’ve put an increasing emphasis on my physical health to avoid the strain on my muscles that arises from sitting in one position for twelve straight hours. I have maintained a fairly regular workout routine of yoga or Pilates four times a week, but as I wrote The Lord of the Rings, this schedule became nearly impossible to maintain. Sometimes, when I reached for the piano keyboard, a jolt of pain down shot my arm as if I had poked an electrical socket! I scheduled weekly visits from both a chiropractor and a masseuse, desperately trying to undo the damage to the muscles in my neck, shoulders, and back. I felt like an old stock car hurtling around a track with no time for a pit stop. These measures were barely enough to survive, but I did survive!

After nine intense months of dedicated writing, the score was done, and had become everything I hoped for. The journey to achieve all this had drained and demanded of me mentally, emotionally and physically. However, this was an experience I had chosen for myself: after all, I could at any moment have asked my Sparks & Shadows team to write additional music and taken pressure off myself, but in this case, that would have resulted in a score that did not represent the full extent of my vision. Instead, my family and I chose to sacrifice together so that I could defy modern day television scoring conventions and write every cue myself. This was a cost my family and I were willing to pay so that the score to The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power could be everything I wanted it to be.

MAIN TITLE THEME

One of the greatest honors of working on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is being part of a series that begins each episode with a majestic Main Title sequence scored by Howard Shore, the legendary composer of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien film adaptations. I was in the midst of writing the sixth episode when I finally got hear Shore’s mock-up for the title. From noble French horn fanfares, to evocative choir and vocal solos, everything about this piece of music transported me on a nostalgic trip back to the iconic Peter Jackson movies that first brought Middle-earth to life in live action. Though we crafted our music separately, I was excited to hear how beautifully our work fit together.

I had several opportunities to communicate with Howard during our work on The Rings of Power, and I found him to be delightful, supportive, and curious about my work and career. We bonded over our creative process, finding common ground in how we tell dramatic stories through music, even though we tend to approach our daily use of music technology differently.

As I chatted with him, I smiled as I thought back to what my twenty-one-year-old self would say, knowing that one day I would get to speak with Howard Shore, about Lord of the Rings itself, because I was in the middle of writing my own music for it! Who says dreams never come true?

(Cast and Crew at the London Premiere, August 30, 2022)

THE MUSICAL FELLOWSHIP

I hope that this chapter of my blog has made clear that it takes a village to bring a score to the screen, even when I am only person composing the music. Working with these dedicated and passionate musicians, technicians, creatives, and storytellers, was a joyous experience. Though I approached total mental and physical exhaustion, I was energized, knowing I had the best team in the world to help bring this score to fruition.

I must give a shout out to my world-class team at Sparks & Shadows for their support, especially Brian Claeys and Bailey Gordon for their tireless efforts spearheading the administration and coordination of this behemoth. I would also like to thank S&S team members Marisa Gunzenhauser, Kelsey Woods, Hannah Lustine, Jacob Moss, Pierre-André Rigoll, Dayna Ambrosio, as well as Etienne Monsaingeon, Omer Ben-Zvi, Joanna Pane, and Sam Ewing. I also owe thanks to my friends and partners at Kraft Engel Management, notably Richard Kraft and Laura Engel, as well as soundtrack album and concert producer Joe Augustine.

I would like to thank mixing engineer Jason LaRocca, and score engineers Nick Wollage, Bernd Mazagg, Ryan Sanchez, Ben Sedano, John Prestage, Milton Gutierrez, Damon Tedesco, Rasmus Faber, mix assistants Mick Roby, Rafael Fadul, and Eric Huergo, session assistant Alex Cote, and tech assistant Jeremy Miller. I am grateful to the crews at AIR Studios and Abbey Road Studios in London, and Synchron Stage in Vienna, as well as to Lucy Whalley and Amy Stewart for contracting the finest players in London, and Martin Barka for contracting our remarkable choral singers.

This project marks my twelfth year collaborating with my partners in orchestration Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, and Jonathan Beard, and with their team at Tutti Music Partners, including Benjamin Hoff, Jamie Thierman, and Sean Barrett. I am grateful for the copying and librarian support from Andrew Harris, Matthew Carlton, Courtney Clark, David Foster, Phil Knights, and Stefan Höll, as well as the care and attention from music editors Michael Baber, and Jason Douglas Smith, and the sound team, especially Robby Stambler, Lindsey Alvarez, and Beau Borders. Though I wish I could have conducted every session myself, the sessions were in even better hands under the batons of orchestral conductors Gavin Greenaway, Cliff Masterson, and Anthony Weeden, as well as choral conductors Gottfried Rabl, and Bernhard Melbye Voss.

(Photo: Monica D Photography)

My score was brought to life by the astonishing musicians I was fortunate to collaborate with, including the London orchestral musicians, led by concertmasters Everton Nelson, Steve Morris, and Clio Gould, and the singers of the Synchron Stage Choir, led by Michal Juraszek, and the talented young singers of our children’s choir, Gumpoldskirchner Spatzen. Paul Jacob Cartwright played fiddle, featured predominantly in Harfoot cues, alongside my longtime partner Eric Rigler’s earthy bagpipes and Irish whistles, and Bruce Carver’s expert Bodhrán frame drum grooves. The sounds of the Southlands were defined by the resonant Hardanger fiddle strains from Olav Luksengård Mjelva, and nyckelharpa performed by Erik Rydvall. The exotic yaylı tanbur refrains of Númenor and jaunty Dwarven viola da gamba lines were performed by my dear friend Malachai Bandy.

Sandy Cameron performed the blistering violin solo on “Scherzo for Violin and Swords,” and the other-worldly “Where the Shadows Lie (Instrumental).” Elegant cello solos were provided by Eric Byers, and percussion was led by my longtime collaborator M.B. Gordy. Mysterious woodwind colors were provided by Zac Zinger on shakuhachi, and William Roper, who brought the music of the Orcs to life with horns of war, ceremonial shells, antlers, femur flutes, and Aztec death whistles. Haunting vocal solos were provided by Sladja Raicevic (on “Sundering Seas” and “The Broken Line”), Laura Maier (child soprano vocal on “True Creation Requires Sacrifice”), and my wife Raya Yarbrough (on “White Leaves,” “Find the Light,” “For the Southlands” and “The Veil of Smoke”).

I would also like to take this moment to thank and congratulate the other composers who contributed music to this series. I was fortunate to arrange and produce “This Wandering Day,” a gorgeous song with music composed by David Donaldson, Steve Roche, Janet Roddick and David Long, and lovely, nostalgic lyrics provided by J.D. Payne. I enjoyed producing that vocal recording session with Megan Richards, who sang in character as Poppy Proudfellow, with help from our dialect coach Leith McPherson. I would also like to congratulate Sophia Nomvete, who plays Disa, with whom I co-wrote “A Plea to the Rocks.” She provided a haunting vocal solo that became one of the score’s most enchanting moments. I am grateful to Howard Shore for his majestic Main Title Theme, and his gracious support of my work.

Lastly but certainly not least, I would like to thank all the producers, writers, cast, and crew involved in the show, as well as everyone at Amazon Studios, for their complete trust in, and support of, my work. I would especially like to thank J.D. Payne, Patrick McKay, Lindsey Weber, Justin Doble, Callum Greene, Ron Ames, and Jake Rice. I would also like to thank Bob Bowen, Stephen Brower, and the team at Amazon Music, as well as Mo Shafeek and everyone at Mondo Music. This score would not be possible without support from Jennifer Salke, Jeff Blackburn, Andrew Lee, Courtney Brown, Liz Catullo, and the entire team at Amazon Studios. And thank you to Jeff Bezos for making this all possible!

By the middle of April, 2022 — with mere hours to spare before the deadline – I completed composing the last cue of the season finale. As spring approached, I emerged from my studio, feeling rather like a mole poking his head out from the ground, blinking against the sunlight.  I boarded a plane to London where I would conduct the orchestra for the final episode. After a year working virtually and in secret, I would hold a baton in front of an orchestra, and I would meet the showrunners in person for the first time.

The next stage of my journey lay before me.

-Bear McCreary
September, 2022

UP NEXT IN PART 4: CONDUCTING THE FINALE, LIVE PERFORMANCES, AND SOUNDTRACKS

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