The Lord of the Rings: Episode 105

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 episodes 101, 102, 103, and 104.

SCORING EPISODE 105
“PARTINGS”

The fifth episode of The Rings of Power, “Partings,” is the first to cover events in all the series’ major story arcs. As a result, this massive episode not only required I thread together quotations of every theme I’d written thus far, but also necessitated one final new one, and produce a heartfelt vocal song, as well.

THIS WANDERING DAY

SPOILERS AHEAD: In the opening sequence, Nori’s nomadic Harfoot family asks Poppy Proudfellow to sing her mother’s walking song. Pulling her rickety cart behind her, Poppy’s youthful voice rings out.  As the camera pulls back, we fade into a montage of the long Harfoot migration, and Poppy’s vocal is gradually enveloped by lush orchestral strings, harp, and Celtic instrumentation. Inspired by the dozens of songs and poems in Tolkien’s source material, many musicians collaborated over a long period of time to bring this song to fruition. 

The music of “This Wandering Day” was composed by New Zealand based musical trio Plan 9, David Donaldson, Steve Roche, Janet Roddick, along with David Long. Plan 9 are already legendary amongst Tolkien fans for their song contributions to the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. The wistful, nostalgic lyrics were written by showrunner J.D. Payne. This gorgeous tune captures the elusive longings of the best folk songs. On screen, it is sung by Megan Richards, the actor who plays Poppy Proudfellow.

Megan has a musical background, having started piano lessons at age four, and having studied with multiple music teachers ever since. But, she was not hired on The Rings of Power based on a musical audition. Instead, her performance of “This Wandering Day” began with a fateful night of karaoke with the cast and crew.

“We did a night of karaoke with J.A. Bayona, and the showrunners were also there,” Megan recalled recently. “J.A. puts on ‘Suddenly Seymour’ and hands me the other mic. And, so, we duet ‘Suddenly Seymour’ together, which is just really fun. The next day Patrick rings me up and he’s like, ‘do you want to sing in the show?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah I want to sing in the show!’”

Megan learned the song from listening to a demo Plan 9 produced, featuring their own Janet Roddick singing the lead vocal line. Then, the day came to shoot the scene. “That was an insane day!” Megan recalled. “When Poppy starts singing the song, she’s pulling this cart. So actually, my main concern was to not fall over because of the natural terrain there. I had to pull this heavy cart over all of these massive tufts of grass and try to do it with prosthetic feet! That actually might have helped in the sense that I wasn’t overthinking the singing. You just have to trust in how much preparation you do, so that whatever you’re thrown on the day does not undermine your performance, and you’re still able to perform and be the character.”

Some months after that scene was shot, I was hired as composer for The Rings of Power. When I watched the rough cut of this episode, I was blown away by the potential emotional impact of “This Wandering Day.” I  was eager to produce a recording of it that could tell the complete emotional journey the montage required, one that could support their long migration across marshes and dales.

I produced and orchestrated a new arrangement of “This Wandering Day.” I was thrilled to collaborate directly with Megan and produce her final vocal performance. Her live on-location singing transitioned seamlessly into her new studio-recorded performance.

Megan has a truly remarkable voice, with a confident control of her pure pitch, and exceptional consistency from take to take. “When we were working together, you never made me feel like I was overthinking it,” Megan told me. “We just went into it. You just said what you wanted, and I just tried to do it.” Dialect coach Leith McPherson was also present at the session and helpful in guiding the performance which has resonated with so many viewers.

(With Megan Richards, at the Los Angeles premiere in August of 2022)

I asked Megan for her reaction to seeing the final scene, and hearing the completed mix. “I just remember feeling peace when I heard it,” she reflected. “Poppy is constantly looking for moments of closure, I think. And that song definitely is a moment of closure for her, or at least closure and comfort, I should say.” When I pointed out that fans around the world have also responded positively to the song, she added “If I can help provide positivity in any aspect, I’m more than happy to do that.”

“This Wandering Day” was a collaborative effort, years in the making, and all the hard work paid off. During the entire process, Janet Roddick’s beautiful vocal performance from the original Plan 9 demo still reverberated in our ears. The showrunners and I felt the episode would not be complete without Janet’s beautiful voice in it somewhere, and thus I created a new arrangement of “This Wandering Day” to feature her vocals, for the episode’s End Credits.

The dialog in the opening scene makes clear that Poppy learned this song from her mother. I personally like to think that Janet Roddick plays the role of Poppy’s deceased mother – an angelic voice singing a sweet lyric to her daughter, wishing her safe travels along a perilous path.

THE FINAL NEW CHARACTER THEME

“Partings” also introduced one final character theme to the show’s already impressively long roster of themes. After “This Wandering Day,” we return to the site of The Stranger’s meteoric landfall to see the location has been discovered by a mysterious trio of pale characters named The Ascetic, The Nomad, and The Dweller. For shorthand, we referred to them as The Mystics. Here, the soundtrack is overtaken by a series of vocal whispers, The Mystics Theme.

This is perhaps the simplest theme in the score, forgoing most of the musical traits I focused my energy on for the others. Indeed, this theme does not even include some of the most basic musical building blocks like melody or pitch! Instead, it is constructed from rhythm, color, and text: a repeating pattern of syllables whispered by choral singers.

Quenya:
Iluisa, Iluvala, Ilucara

English:
Omniscient, Omnipotent, All creating

I wanted to underscore their trinity on multiple levels, by having the words loop in groups of three, all set in a 3/4 rhythmic meter. This is, however, no ordinary choir. My team and I used several production techniques to give the choir an otherworldly quality.

To reflect The Mystics’ ability to change their locations seemingly instantly, I wanted their choir to feel everywhere and nowhere. While some recorded layers are a regular choir, with regular mic placement, other layers were solo singers, mic’d closely and panned in interesting locations in the mix. I was inspired by ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos and wanted to create that spine-tingling feeling like someone is right behind your ear and whispering to you – an uninvited and sudden closeness.

I also asked all the choir members to record the first syllable separately, and with longer pronunciation. I then took those syllables and digitally reversed them, sliding them earlier in the track so that the reversed reverb effect would occur before the actual whispered syllable itself.

The combination of these two production techniques breaks The Mystics Theme free from the constraints of musical reality and suggests to the audience that these three enigmatic characters are unlike any others we have met thus far. With an emphasis on mystery over menace, The Mystics Theme adds a bristling tension to their brief introductory scene.

THE HARFOOTS AND THE WOLVES

Having skipped over them in Episode Four, the audience reconnects with the Harfoots on their perilous migration in “Partings.” Our nomads are attacked by wild wolves in a mysterious forest outside their normal migratory path.

As Nori and Poppy discover fresh wolf tracks in the mud, the fluttering, breathy tones of a Japanese Shakuhachi return to the soundtrack. First introduced thematically in the premiere episode, the Shakuhachi serves as the musical representation of distant wolves howling. This leads to a tense action scene, where the Harfoots are pursued by wolves, underscored by a frantic and furious wooden percussion ostinato.

Just as the wolves close in, The Stranger emerges to save the day. At this triumphant moment, the score quotes a heroic variation of The Stranger’s Theme in blaring French horns.

However, as is always the case with his theme, every uplifting variation is counterbalanced by an equally unnerving and potentially sinister one. Later in the episode, Nori is harmed as The Stranger seemingly heals himself with a power he can barely control, and his theme twists and contorts into minor variations, with ominous low male choir vocals.

TROUBLE IN THE SOUTHLANDS

As trouble brews in The Southlands, all the musical themes for this storyline recur and develop.

As  daylight sears the skin of his underling, the Adar Theme, played on breathy Asian woodwinds, underscores Adar’s ominous proclamation that soon the sun will be gone, implying an Orc victory. His melody is restated again by searing trombones and French horns at the episode’s climax, as he and his legion of Orcs march across the valley, towards the villagers huddled at the watchtower of Ostirith.

Black Speech:
Nampat sha ghash
Nampat burzum-ank

English:
Death with fire
Death into darkness

The Orcs chant relentlessly in Black Speech, in combination with the choral singers recorded in Vienna, while the Orc’s signature Aztec Death Whistles and Bone Flutes scream across the soundtrack.

The Arondir and Bronwyn Theme makes a significant appearance in “Partings,” once again stated in the English horn. Their melody takes on a heroic yearning as Bronwyn attempts to rally the people to her cause, encouraging them to stand up and face their enemies. The melody’s inherent upward leaps have always given it a sense of longing. In previous episodes, this longing was tinted romantic, but here she longs for courage from her people.

The Sauron Theme returns again, after Theo finally confesses to Arondir that he has the mysterious sword hilt the Orcs search for. Arondir recalls a mysterious carving in the walls of the watchtower. The two of them pull back the overgrown weeds to expose the full carving, including an ominous depiction of a human sacrifice.  

The Sauron Theme overtakes the soundscape, with its furious string ostinato and ominous Black Speech chanting vocals.

A DWARVEN DINNER GUEST

In a world where various races are nearly uniformly suspicious of one another, the relationship between Elrond and Durin is especially heartwarming. “Partings” showcases further heart-warming, terrifying, and dramatic turns in the Elrond and Durin storyline. High King Gil-galad’s true intentions are made clear to Elrond, that he and Celebrimbor lied to him, having suspected the existence of Mithril in the Mines of Moria all along. With remarkable gravitas from actor Benjamin Walker, Gil-galad then offers a shocking revelation: the light of their people is fading, and without the magic provided by Mithril, they will be forced to abandon Middle-earth.  

As with Episodes 102 and 104, these scenes are supported by interwoven strands of The Durin Theme, The Elrond Theme, and The Mithril Theme. A lovely clarinet solo offers a wistful refrain of Elrond’s Theme as Celebrimbor shares a memory of Elrond’s father, Eärendil, echoing a similar passage from the last episode, where Elrond himself shared memories of his father.

These scenes culminate in one of my favorite in the entire series thus far, when Elrond confesses to Durin that his people require Mithril. I wove into the soundtrack a statement of The Durin Theme, that begins heavily, melancholy and downtrodden, laden with breath-holding suspense. As the scene progresses, we see a twinkle in Durin’s eye suggesting he will not be angry with Elrond, and the music gradually shifts into the jaunty version of his theme.

This statement of the Durin Theme, transitioning from foreboding defeat to light-hearted romp, is wildly effective. I found myself in tears as I wrote it, inspired by the heartfelt and joyous performances from Robert Aramayo and Owain Arthur.

NÚMENOR GOES TO WAR

The Númenorean scenes in “Partings” continue to explore the complex political machinations. A minority group known as The Faithful hope to live in harmony with the Elves, but the majority feels otherwise. Caught between these clashing ideologies, Queen-Regent Míriel takes counsel from both Galadriel and Chancellor Pharazôn. The Middle Eastern tinged Númenor Theme and The Faithful Theme are the bedrock for all these scenes, with threads of the Halbrand Theme and Galadriel Theme woven throughout.

One noteworthy quotation of the Númenor Theme occurs about midway through the episode when Kemen confronts his father, Pharazôn with the question: why should we go to war for the Elves?  (In the previous episode, Pharazôn’s rousing populist speech on behalf of war was accompanied by a slightly darkened version of the Númenor Theme, as he worked to win an unruly crowd to his side.) Now, in “Partings,” Pharazôn drops his façade and explains that he does not support Míriel’s plan to help Galadriel for altruistic reasons.

Here, with a dark droning backdrop, his melody slithers into the soundscape with a yaylı tanbur and orchestral celli, playing quite ominously, though not maliciously.

I strove to support the idea that Pharazôn is not a villain, but simply a politician willing to use even dire circumstances to advance his career and beliefs. His theme is a dark version of The Númenor Theme, because he truly believes in the greatness of his nation.

The Faithful Theme, centered around the captain, Elendil, his son, and his daughter, was last heard in a glorious rendition at the climax of “The Great Wave.”  Here it underscores the growing rift between Elendil and his son, Isildur, who wants desperately to join the soldiers traveling to Middle-earth. Elendil clearly does not believe his son has earned that right, though other young men have. The disappointed tone in his voice is echoed with a melancholy French horn that plays a sad variation of their shared theme against melancholy arpeggiations of a Middle Eastern guitar.

SCHERZO FOR VIOLIN AND SWORDS

Númenor is going to war. The episode’s most exciting sequence takes place when Galadriel dares a group of young soldiers to demonstrate their prowess against her. Isildur’s friend Valandil, played with affable confidence by Alex Tarrant, is the first to step up, believing he can best her in this contest of arms. But Galadriel effortlessly evades his every move. I wanted to underscore her stunning display of virtuosity with an equally stunning virtuosic performance in the score, so I turned to my friend Sandy Cameron.

Sandy’s violin had already been heard in the score once before, in the haunting end credits of the first episode, but that was not an adequate showcase of her skills. I wanted to challenge her by composing a blisteringly fast violin cadenza over a vivacious orchestral scherzo. I wrote and orchestrated for a smaller ensemble at first, just a handful of strings and light woodwinds behind Sandy’s intense phrases.

As Galadriel shifts her shoulders to easily dodge Valandil’s clunky thrusts, Sandy bursts on to the soundtrack with quick streaks of color. Each of Galadriel’s physical motions is replicated by lightning fast arpeggiations in Sandy’s nimble fingers, as Valandil tries futilely to score a hit. Though I rarely score action with continuously tight musical hits (a technique often associated with cartoons and comedy), I simply could not resist the temptation to accompany every flick of Morfydd Clark’s blade with an equally impressive flourish from Sandy Cameron’s bow, timed precisely down to the frame.

At our recording session, I was contractually unable to tell Sandy what score she was playing on, due to the secrecy associated with this project. “In a way, it was fun not knowing what this cue was for,” Sandy recalled recently. “And the only direction you gave after you handed me the music was to ‘imagine you’re a person who is showing off a really great skill and translate that into violin.’ So, I dug into my experiences with violin concertos. I added more notes to the runs you had written, so that I could go higher and faster, adding even more ‘danger’ to the flourishes!”

Another aspiring soldier, Ontamo, joins the fray. As he jumps in, a second soloist joins the orchestra, this time Eric Byers on solo cello. Now, Sandy and Eric both furiously hammer away as the two men attack Galadriel, who proves that, even together, they are  no match for her. At last, the entire troop attacks her at once, and now the full orchestra charges in, supporting Sandy and Eric’s competing solos with bombastic energy.

The delightful sequence builds to a joyous statement of the Galadriel Theme in horns, orchestral strings, and Sandy Cameron playing an octave above in a nearly-impossibly high register, one her virtuosic trademarks.

Looking back, Sandy said that the final soaring Galadriel Theme moment was her favorite in the cue. “I had so much fun embellishing that melody,” she said. “Taking the tune up the octave at the end to finish as high as possible in order to underline the heroism. Even though I didn’t know it was a Galadriel moment at the time, playing that bit felt like being a hero. Although it definitely took me maybe a hundred takes to get it right. My hands are so tiny that I literally have to disengage part of my left hand from the instrument so I can physically reach notes that high. Not ‘proper violin technique,’ but oh well!”

This blistering sequence lasts about two minutes, a threshold of composition I try to reach every day I write. However, to write this cue alone took me nearly a week, which only put me under increased pressure to write the rest of the episode faster. This is not the most important scene in the episode, but I was nonetheless unable to resist the temptation to compose something really special for it. For the Season One Soundtrack Album, the track is titled “Scherzo for Violin and Swords,” (an homage to on one of my favorite John Williams action cues from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

FROM BLACKSMITH TO KING

In Númenor, it would seem that Halbrand found his calling. Having earned a guild crest by ratting out Galadriel’s escape plan to Pharazôn, he finds himself contentedly working in a forge for a local blacksmith. His iconic nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle duet has never sounded so peaceful and serene, floating above a rich string and brass chorale, implying his happiness at being here.

His peace is short-lived, however, as Galadriel confronts him. Their intimate scene in the forge simmers with tension, as he alludes to his dark past. At the same time images of simultaneous events happening in The Southlands cut into their conversation as we watch the tavern keeper Waldreg and the other deserters bowing down to Adar and his Orcs. Halbrand’s Theme and The Southlands Theme are identical, the same music drawing a subconscious link between this exiled man and his homeland. In this sequence, that musical connection is manifested directly in the scene, where the theme at once underscores his dark past referenced in the dialog, and the tragic events unfolding in The Southlands in the visuals.

In their dialogue, Galadriel uncovers these fragments of Halbrand’s past, and convinces him to join her and meet with Míriel in their crusade against the Orcs.  His theme recurs in one last introspective form, moments before he departs, leaving behind the medallion that seems to define him. Then, he reverses his decision, and snatches the medallion to take with him into battle.  

We dramatically cut to him riding a mighty steed, in full armor, marching to the harbor with a legion of Númenorean troops. Here, the brass state Halbrand’s theme in a mighty, bright fanfare. It was satisfying to finally realize the promise of his theme by arranging it in piercing, triumphant trumpets. 

The magnificent procession takes us to the end of the episode, with several significant theme threads woven in. Isildur’s relationship with his friends, Valandil and Ontamo is restored, set to a regal solo trumpet version of his theme. This brass color echoes his father’s variation of their shared theme, suggesting he may have found a path back towards his father’s good graces.

The Galadriel Theme makes its most grandiose statement yet in the series as she boards the ship. So great, in fact, was this musical moment that I repurposed it for the climax of “Galadriel,” on the Season One Soundtrack Album, part of the defining version of her theme. She walks to Halbrand and takes his hand, set to one last brassy blast of his kingly theme variant.

At last, soaring renditions of the Númenor Theme, in all its might and glory, carry us through this sequence all the way to the climactic shot of the three ships leaving the harbor. The cue at the end of this episode, “Sailing into the Dawn,” is probably the most magnificent version of the Númenor Theme in the entire season, eliciting patriotism and hope as Númenor sends brave soldiers forth to rescue their Southland kin.

After five hours of storytelling, the score has introduced all the major themes, and set the major plot lines in motion. However, my greatest challenge yet lay before me. I feared scoring the sixth episode would push me to my breaking point.

Bear McCreary

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