In this series of blogs, I explore the musical details of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. For a comprehensive introduction to my approach and my creative experience, start with my introductory four-part “Appendices:” Part 1 “Journey to Middle-earth,” Part 2 “Themes of Middle-earth,” Part 3 “Forming a Fellowship,” and Part 4 “There and Back Again.” I also blogged about scoring episode 101, and scoring episode 102.
SCORING EPISODE 103
SPOILERS AHEAD: Over the first two episodes, the score to The Rings of Power introduced and developed most of the major musical themes for the season. The majority are divided into musical cultures, each with an anthem and subsequent character variations. “Galadriel” and “Elrond Half-elven” relate to the music of the Elves, “Valinor.” “Durin IV” is a Dwarven theme that relates to the rousing theme of his father, “Khazad-dûm,” as “Nori Brandyfoot” relates to the music of her people, “Harfoot Life.” “Bronwyn and Arondir” represents a forbidden relationship in The Southlands, a location signified by the rustic “Halbrand.” “The Stranger” and “Sauron” stand out from the pack as unique oddities, each with their own mysterious attributes not shared with any cultural musical language.
Nevertheless, two new major musical languages come to the forefront in the third episode, “Adar.”
MUSIC FROM VIOLENCE
Just as with the premiere episode, music informs the audience’s experience over black at the start, before visuals – a long and tortured human scream, echoing through the distance. This spine-chilling sound is actually the result of a musical performance on an instrument called an Aztec Death Whistle, and it is a foundational color for The Orcs Theme.
Aztec Death Whistles were discovered by anthropologists in the last quarter century in the hands of sacrificial victims in Tlatelolco, Mexico. The small skull-shaped objects were mistaken for toys until one researcher happened to blow into the end of one and discovered it had been designed with a unique resonating chamber, designed to create a distinctly terrifying sound. As scholars still debate whether the Pre-Columbian instrument’s purpose was ritualistic or for war, modern instrument makers have reverse-engineered the design and made them commercially available. I always wanted to feature this sound in a score, and Tolkien’s Orcs provided the perfect opportunity.
In Tolkien’s legendarium, Orcs are a hideous race originally devised from the mutilation and corruption of Elves. I was inspired by this concept to create their music from instruments that were, themselves, twisted corruptions of something that was once alive and beautiful. I found musicians with a collection of rare woodwind and brass instruments, many of which fit this description. These musicians blew into animal horns, bones, conches, and unusual folk horns unlike anything I had ever seen, creating a variety of strange sounds beyond the reach of any traditional orchestral wind or brass instrument. In the music of the Orcs, audiences will hear Aztec Death Whistles screaming across piercing gestures from Gemsbok Horn, Ram Bone, Hartebeest Bones, Conches, Water Buffalo Bones, and even a flute crafted from a Human Femur.
Unlike the finely crafted themes for other locations and characters, the Orcs Theme is really a mood and a color more than anything else. They are a vile race, molded from pain. I wanted to imply that even their music had emerged from violence and death. However, that is not to say that the musical world of the Orcs is completely without order and construction.
Throughout the episode, Arondir hears frequent references to Adar, the Orcs’ mysterious leader. This terrifying figure ultimately emerges from the shadows at the episode’s climax. All these moments are underscored with a dissonant new melody, introduced by hammering groups of three notes in the low brass – the Adar Theme.
In addition to the melody, Adar also provides a sense of military precision to the Orcs with the addition of a march-like signature rhythm. This rhythm is punctuated by orchestral celli and basses glissing ominously downward by an entire octave range in long, slow bends. Adar’s Theme is often presented in Bb minor, and so the low strings gliss down to a Bb a whole step below what is physically possible on orchestral instruments. This was achieved by recording the phrases separately and digitally detuning the audio to achieve a color that is impossible otherwise. This creepy detuned string effect, combined with the relentless pounding of mallets against hide drums, imbues the Adar Theme with a sense of ominous military leadership, filtered through the weird musical language of the Orcs Theme.
MUSIC OF THE ISLAND KINGDOM
In the episode’s major story arc, Galadriel and Halbrand, desperately adrift at sea, are picked up by a ship captain, a human named Elendil. He takes them to his home, the island kingdom of Númenor. These scenes are scored with a rousing, anthemic new piece of music, the Númenor Theme, which will become one of the signature sounds of The Rings of Power.
Thousands of years lay between the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the peak of Númenorean society portrayed in The Rings of Power, a timespan comparable to that between today and Ancient Egypt. That concept sparked my imagination — I wanted the music of Númenor to feel as foreign to fans of the Jackson films as the music of the Ancient World sounds to modern listeners today. I felt the music of Númenor should evoke real-world lost empires, Babylon, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Egypt, combined with a brassy homage to the Camelot of Arthurian Legend.
With these historical references in mind, I explored musical colors from the Middle East. The other-worldly sound of the Númenor Theme’s opening refrain is achieved by combining three different instruments: an Armenian duduk, a Turkish yaylı tambur, and a solo cello.
The melody is regal, uplifting, and proud, built with massive intervals, including an iconic downward octave leap between the ninth and tenth note. These three instruments all slur wide intervals in very different ways, notably the tanbur which has an incredibly long neck. This clash of timing between the featured instruments was intentional, as it added character.
In addition to the score’s percussion section of taikos, timpani, and bass drums, the Númenor Theme adds an additional arsenal of Middle Eastern and Indian drums, including frame drums, tambourine drums, dumbeks, dhols, and small cymbals called chang-changs. My longtime percussion collaborator M.B. Gordy (from my Battlestar Galactica days) supported many of these incredible colors. The choir adds rousing chordal support to the Middle-Eastern-inspired chord progression, by singing in Adûnaic, Tolkien’s fictional language for Númenor.
Sâibêth azraô, Êphalak aglarrâma,
rahat sakal, balak-mâ
Avâlo, yad-ada adûni
Assent from sea, far away castle of the sea,
breaking shore with ships
All men wage war
The power of God, go to the West
This combination of Middle Eastern colors, soloists, and harmonies, with rousingly anthemic brass writing, results in a theme that I hope instantly stands out. I am hopeful these sounds will cement themselves in audience’s minds as just another part of the musical language of Tolkien adaptations. One day, when our show is complete, I hope fans will binge watch The Rings of Power and then go right into Peter Jackson’s films, only to be suddenly struck by the complete absence of Númenorean musical colors. I want audiences to fall in love with the music of Númenor, so that when they watch the feature films again, they realize this music was made extinct and lost to time, just as the music of the ancient world is lost to us today.
As with all the cultural anthems I composed for The Rings of Power, the music of a place is also representative of that culture’s head of state. Once in Númenor’s dazzling city, Elendil leads Galadriel and Halbrand to the palace. Here they meet Míriel, Queen-Regent of Númenor, and her cousin, Chancellor Pharazôn. As these characters assess one another, the once uplifting and prideful Númenor melody pivots to darker, brooding colors. Though the ruling house of Númenor once embraced the Elves, the people of the island now are outwardly hostile towards them. Míriel and Pharazôn present a distinct threat to Galadriel. But they also recognize that she, a lone, determined Elf, also presents a potential threat.
All the anthemic musical cultures of The Rings of Power are counterbalanced by music for outlier characters who do not fit in with that culture. In Númenor, the outlier characters are a minority faction known as The Faithful. We meet this group through Captain Elendil and his family, his daughter Eärien, his son Isildur, (his other son Anárion is referenced briefly in dialog). Their scenes are woven together by a distinct chord progression evoking Númenor’s Middle Eastern tints, above which floats the plaintive and noble melody of their shared Elendil and Isildur Theme (also known as The Faithful Theme).
Though this theme is shared between three primary characters, Elendil, Isildur, and Eärien, I employ different musical colors to delineate each. The audience is introduced to this family’s theme first through Isildur, as he practices to try out for the Sea Guard. His variant of the theme is played by bagpipes and Hardanger fiddle. These rustic folk instruments do not quite belong in Númenor – indeed, they have strong connections to the continent of Middle-earth, perhaps suggesting Isildur’s longing to escape the constraints of his society’s and father’s expectations.
His sister, Eärien, is introduced with a lighter variation of the theme, played with gentle restraint by a woodwind instrument called a recorder. This simple instrument, with its warm and inviting tone, dates back to the Middle Ages and is a common sound in Renaissance and Baroque music. In subsequent episodes, Eärien’s recorder variation will also gently support her blossoming relationship with Pharazôn’s son, Kemen.
Brass instruments, notably French horn and trumpet, are always used for Elendil’s signature color for his theme. His theme variant is introduced at a crucial scene, in which Queen-Regent Míriel threateningly questions Elendil’s loyalty, and his decision to bring an elf to Númenor. The scene begins with an establishing shot of Nimloth, the White Tree outside the palace, and Imade a deliberate effort to use music to tie together the tree, Elendil, and Míriel.
Over all this, a lonely solo trumpet quotes the Faithful Theme. When Míriel demands of him, “Are you an ‘Elf Friend’?” a solo French horn picks up a regal variation of his theme. These regal brass lines inform the audience of Elendil’s good intentions, but also imply that Míriel may have a deeper connection to The Faithful. The music in their scene subtly foreshadows dramatic conflicts of loyalty that will fuel the story.
(Perhaps my favorite variation of the Faithful Theme does not even occur in the first season at all. For the soundtrack album, I expanded upon my initial sketch, with a tragic, soaring, operatic finale statement of their theme, which I composed as I imagined the climactic moments of the story arc for Elendil and Isildur. In a surreal moment for me, fans online took this passage from album, and placed it against Peter Jackson’s vision of this exact moment from the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. Though our series will take a long time to get to this particular narrative event, I wanted to make sure the theme I wrote for these characters will work when we get there. I felt validated seeing fans put my theme to the same test!)
By the end of this first sequence in Númenor, the audience has heard two new primary themes (The Númenor Theme, and The Faithful Theme) introduced with distinct variations across five unique characters (Pharazôn, Míriel, Elendil, Isildur, and Eärien). These are the basic musical components that will underscore the drama to unfold in this exotic location in future episodes.
OTHER THEMES RETURN
“Adar” also contains notable evolutions of previously established themes, which help propel the story.
One of the episode’s most beautiful musical transitions comes as the Orcs viciously murder Arondir’s friend, Médhor. As the wound in his neck slowly opens in poetic slow-motion, the soundtrack fills with a choir singing in Tolkien’s most common Elven language, Quenya.
Vanwa Enyalië, Quanta Talanda
Light Faded, Impossible to Pursue
Lost Memory, Filled with Sadness
This elegant funereal dirge turns into rage, as Arondir makes the decision to succumb to the Orcs’ demand and chop down the tree in their path. The orchestra churns while French horns offer a tragic statement of his theme.
This marks the first occasion that the romantic Bronwyn and Arondir Theme enters the score in a brassy, heroic variation, a color that will recur frequently as Arondir’s story evolves.
As Arondir climbs the tree, axe in hand, the choir acknowledges his Silvan Elf heritage by singing in another Elven language, Sindarin, marking the first appearance of this particular Elven language in the score.
Curunír, natha în nos
Dadwen bardh, covada adan
Man of skill, to save his people
To return home, to bring together Man
Later, the audience is transported abruptly to a forest, where strange winged, masked beings weave among the trees. Here, the score introduces ominous, low guttural humming male voices, achieving a sense of terrifying mystery. As shots progress, the audience gradually receives new visual information, and slowly realizes these are not evil creatures after all. They are Harfoots taking part in a ragged, ceremonial parade. With each new visual clue, the score gradually introduces sounds that represent this musical culture: the iconic wooden percussion, West African balafons, Celtic bagpipes, tin whistles, and bodhrán frame drum. The final result is disorienting and wildly effective.
The Harfoot parade is one of several pieces of in-world Harfoot source music that I composed to add texture to their society. For the parade, I meticulously tempo-mapped the actor’s steps and chants. For later ceremonies, I crafted upbeat folk grooves, written in strange, mixed meters evoking the uneven 11/8 of the Harfoot Theme. The source music’s sounds of small Scottish bagpipes, African balafons, hand percussion, stomps and claps, and Irish pennywhistle not only evoke the sounds of the score’s Harfoot Theme, but are also sounds that Harfoot society would have the technology to create.
The Harfoot Theme evolves further in “Adar,” making its most emotional statement yet. Sadoc Burrows, the community leader, reads from the list of their dead, members of their tribe who were tragically left behind on previous migrations. This scene, underscores the harsh reality of their nomadic life, the losses more poignant as the camera moves in on young Poppy Proudfellow. In a single shot, actor Megan Richards tells her character’s entire backstory, through her struggle to master her grief as she hears the names of her lost family. The Harfoot Theme was introduced as an upbeat, quirky tune for a jaunty people. But this scene illuminates the deeper reaches of emotional authenticity within.
Halbrand’s plaintive theme evolves into an entirely new color towards the end of “Adar,” when Galadriel confronts him with her suspicion that he is, in actuality, the long-lost king of the Southlands, based on a crest she has discovered.
Here, the raw scratchy tones of Halbrand’s iconic Hardanger fiddle and nyckelharpa are replaced by regal low brass, playing a noble chorale version of his theme, with rich new harmonic support, truly fit for a king. This also marks the first appearance in the score of the B-Section of his theme, a gorgeous melody that modulates and leaps with implied heroism and nobility.
The musical interplay between The Stranger’s Theme and Nori’s Theme reaches beautiful new heights in this episode. Nori’s family’s progress in the migration is slowed because of the injury to her father’s foot. The family, and Poppy with them, fall behind the caravan. The Stranger emerges to help Nori’s family, just as she had helped him. Portrayed with a lovable loyalty by the brilliant Daniel Weyman, The Stranger picks up their burden and joins the family. The audience beholds the vastness and the peril of their journey ahead. Here, the score offers a majestic, soaring version of Nori Brandyfoot’s Theme.
Nori’s iconic little pennywhistle still carries her tune, but now it flies aloft with massive support from the choir and orchestra. This musical moment tells us that the wide-eyed little Harfoot girl who wanted to see the world is embarking on an unforgettable journey, and she has strength she had not guessed at.
For the climax of this cue, I pushed the little Celtic instrument to the absolute peak of its range, asking for notes that only a brilliant performer like my longtime friend and collaborator Eric Rigler would be capable of coaxing out of the instrument. He called me before the session and warned me that the peak notes might not even be possible, but that he would give it his best. I assured him I had every faith that his performance would be magnificent. And of course, I was right. (On the soundtrack album, check out “Nobody Goes Off Trail,” and listen for the high penny whistle note at 3:54. I still get teary-eyed hearing it!)
The Orcs Theme and the Adar Theme return at the climax of “Adar,” in a gritty action scene in which Arondir and the other captive Elves struggle to escape from their imprisonment, battling heavily armed Orcs and even a frenzied Warg. This was my biggest action cue yet on the show, and like the Worm attack scene in “Adrift,” I spent nearly a week on it, filling the soundscape with irregular time signatures, stabbing brass, shrill ripping woodwinds, choir clusters, propulsive exotic percussion, and the Orcs’ iconic bone flutes. Still, I knew that much more intense action sequences with the Orcs loomed on the horizon in future episodes.
In these three hours of narrative, concluding with the introduction of the Orcs Theme, the Adar Theme, the Númenor Theme, and the Faithful Theme, I had finally implemented into the score the vast majority of the essential themes for The Rings of Power. I finished “Adar” feeling exhausted, but confident that all the musical themes were working as intended. My journey from here would become one of reinvention, evolution and development, tying the stories and characters together with increasingly diverse musical variations for each narrative twist.