The Lord of the Rings: Episode 106

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, 104 and 105.

SCORING EPISODE 106
“UDÛN”

SPOILERS AHEAD: “Udûn” is unlike any episode of television I have ever scored before. It was substantially more difficult and  demanding even than scoring a feature film. Scoring a big film is a sprint (as I learned on Godzilla: King of the Monsters). The composer blasts down the racetrack, gets to the end in one piece, and can collapse when done.  Television is a marathon. I could not even start “Udûn” until I had already scored five hours of narrative for nearly half a year. Even before I laid down the episode’s first notes,  I was already nearing exhaustion. And when I was done with its fiery climax, I would still need to have in reserve enough strength to keep going for another two months.

The score for “Udûn” teeters constantly on a tightrope between heroism and horror, valor and violence. The action, beautifully paced, builds quickly, over its first forty-five minutes, reaching a furious climax as Galadriel and Halbrand stop Adar from escaping the battlefield. The gradual crescendo to this moment is sustained through a series of narrative twists, sudden defeats after narrow victories, with each new development heightening the tension. In order to sustain this musical growth, I pushed the limits of my action music composition, employing every technique I have ever learned. Multiple octaves of orchestral strings ripple fast patterns across a massive battalion of percussion and Nordic folk instrument soloists, all punctuated by stabbing brass fanfares in surprising harmonic progressions.

FIND THE LIGHT

To begin, continuing where the music left off in the last episode, the track “Nampat” accompanies the terrifying march of Adar’s Orcs up the cliffside to the watchtower of Ostirith. With its relentless rhythm, guttural vocals, and blaring brass lines, the opening of this episode features my personal favorite of all the passages of Orc music in the first season.

Black Speech:
Nampat sha ghash
Nampat burzum-ank

English:
Death with fire
Death into darkness

In the first of the episode’s many twists, the Orcs have unknowingly marched into a trap. Supported by a heroic fanfare of his theme, Arondir fells the mighty tower and traps the vile  creatures inside. The people of The Southlands regroup in the village of Tirharad and prepare for the siege to follow.

Arondir and Bronwyn lead the people in making preparations, as the nyckelharpa, Hardanger fiddle, and hammered dulcimers of The Southlands Theme builds their confidence. Theo makes a plea for strength to his mother, who offers the inspiring lullaby she told him as a little child, encouraging him to “find the light.” During this intimate moment, an angelic choir offers lilting chords before Raya Yarbrough’s delicate solo vocal supports Theo and Bronwyn’s embrace. Raya sings in Tolkien’s Elvish language of Sindarin, a subtle reference to Arondir, to whom they are both now connected.

Sindarin:
Ein-amdir, egleria bellas

English:
Admirable hope, glorified strength

A tragic statement of the Southlands Theme echoes as Theo and Bronwyn say goodbye to one another, unsure if they will ever see each other again.

With only fleeting moments of connection since the first episode, Arondir and Bronwyn finally act upon their feelings for one another on the eve of battle. In this beautiful sequence, as they bond over Alfirin seeds, their hands together, the soundtrack swells with the lyrical strains of the Bronwyn and Arondir Theme, in its iconic English horn solo.

This scene marks their theme’s most complete statement yet in the series, and offers the audience one last glimpse of hope and light, before the sun sets on Tirharad and the onslaught begins.

THE SIEGE

The first wave of battle is tense, and I strove to pace the action accordingly. The soundscape swells with the heroic refrains of nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle as villagers spring suddenly from the bushes to attack Orcs outside the tavern.

Perhaps my favorite sequence from this chapter of the battle comes in Arondir’s brutal fist fight with a particularly massive and aggressive Orc. Inspired by how John Williams scored similar scenes in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, I started their fight with a plodding march-like ostinato in the orchestra, and gradually clicked the tempo up faster and faster, adding beats-per-minute and orchestral complexity with each bone-crunching blow to our bleeding and bruised hero.

Unlike Indy, however, Arondir appears unable to overcome this foe, but an instant before he is about to perish, Bronwyn comes to his aid. Arondir collapses in relief to the ground as their English horn theme sighs with them. Then, a rousing nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle swell to the front of the soundtrack as the villagers cheer their victory. Sadly, their victorious elation is short-lived as they peel back the masks on the dead and realize that many of these fallen foes are actually their own kin, the deserters who had joined the Orcs.

Arrows whisk in from the shadowed woods, raining down death upon the unsuspecting villagers. Here, in a tragic slow-motion sequence, Bronwyn takes an arrow through the shoulder and collapses. Arondir carries her desperately into the tavern, as bodies and arrows fall like hail around him. This sequence is scored to an ominous pulsing low string and synth ostinato, above which Raya Yarbrough’s haunting vocal offers a breathy, tragic rendition of the Bronwyn and Arondir Theme. She sings once again in Arondir’s language of Sindarin, offering a further layer of tragedy in the text.

Quenya:
Nuru oma, qilir oma
Nieriltasinwa oma


English:
Death everywhere, quiet everywhere
Unnumbered tears everywhere

I loved the dramatic irony in bringing Raya’s solo voice back at this moment. First heard in this episode when Bronwyn offered tender words of support to Theo, Raya returns here as a musical ghost, soaked in reverb and delay. Raya is the musical embodiment of Bronwyn’s resolve – strong at sunset, and mortally wounded here in the black of night.

Once Arondir brings her inside the tavern, he and Theo make desperate attempts to save her life. The grisly scene that follows is made of fantastic filmmaking: pacing, lighting, blood, atmosphere, editing, and yes, music, all combine to terrifying effect. Special mention must be made of the shockingly real performances from Nazanin Boniadi, Ismael Cruz Cordova, and Tyroe Muhafidin, who bring a terrifying realism to the scene.

As Bronwyn bleeds out, dissonant low strings clusters pulse relentlessly, an homage to the classic synth scores of John Carpenter, but filtered through a live orchestral performance. Gradually the pulses die down, recurring less frequently, creating the musical equivalent of a heart rate monitor in a modern hospital. At last, when it seems Bronwyn has died, the score simmers down to a single, sustained low note, and then fades to nothing. I hope the audience subconsciously held their breath for a few seconds before she gasps back to life!

CRASH OF CAVALRY

From this mid-point in the battle, developments escalate rapidly. We cut briefly to a distant field, as the cavalry of Númenor crests the hill in full charge. The Númenor Theme blasts in the brass, before handing focus over to the Galadriel Theme, at the moment we see her at the helm.

Back in the Southlands, Adar’s Orcs are victorious in overtaking the survivors in the tavern. Adar himself strides in, accompanied by his breathy Asian woodwind theme. He executes villagers one after the other without mercy until at last Theo gives in and offers the sword hilt. Just as all seems to be lost, Númenorean forces burst into Tirharad, with the Númenor Theme in full force.

During all this mayhem, the score tells the audience that disparate story lines have come together. The Bronwyn and Arondir Theme, The Faithful Theme, The Númenor Theme, The Halbrand Theme (aka The Southlands Theme), and the Galadriel Theme each make quick appearances in rapid succession, bursting out of the aggressive orchestral action music.

Though only heard in brief fragments, some of these themes have never before occurred within proximity to one another. This is where my detailed thematic construction at the start of this project truly paid off. If I had been sloppy about my themes, I might have accidentally created a musical continuity between, say, Arondir and Galadriel’s Themes, and I would not have noticed it until I got to this scene in episode six. At that point, it would have been too late to fix! Thankfully, each theme stands on its own, and as a result, these quick little bursts of themes work effectively to create unity among the characters and their stories.

NOLWA MAHTAR

Perhaps the most musically exhilarating passage in “Udûn” occurs as Galadriel and Halbrand break off from their compatriots to pursue Adar. I felt the audience needs to believe here that the entire fate of the battle, perhaps the fate of Middle-earth itself, would be decided by the outcome of this chase. I wanted to forgo the themes I had established and score this scene with completely new music that would be awe-inspiring and adrenaline-inducing.

I composed a choral fanfare, called “Nolwa Mahtar,” which means “Brave Warrior” in Quenya, one of Tolkien’s primary languages. The strings and percussion pound an aggressive eighth note ostinato, while the brass supports the massive choir chorale.

Quenya:
Tel i ohta, i lúmë, metya sina naikele
Alfárima, lumbulë roita cálë  
Tel i ohta, i lúmë, metya sina naikele
Calimehtar apa lúmë

English:
Finish the war, the darkness, end this suffering
Impossible to pursue, deep in shadow, follow light
Finish the war, the darkness, end this suffering
Bright warrior against darkness

“Nolwa Mahtar” was not written as a theme, merely a one-off cue for an especially exciting scene. Even as I sketched, however, I felt this cue had the potential to be really memorable. Months later, Amazon asked me to compose and perform a suite of The Rings of Power score to debut with a live orchestra at the massive San Diego Comic Con panel. Knowing this would be the first occasion fans hear my score, I wondered: which theme had the potential to best grab the attention of sixty-five-hundred fans crowded into Hall H? I realized that the best candidate was not a theme at all, but “Nolwa Mahtar.” These bombastic choral chords provided the perfect fanfare to introduce my work to the Comic Con crowd! (Even now, I don’t consider “Nolwa Mahtar” one of the series’ primary musical themes, but I must admit I’m on the lookout for an opportunity in the future to turn it into one.)

TRANSFORMED BY DARKNESS

Adar is captured around the forty-five minute mark, and it would seem the remainder of the episode would be denouement. That is, of course, not the case.

Ominous statements of The Sauron Theme build up as the captured Adar speaks with Galadriel, ultimately confessing to killing Sauron. In my initial draft, I aggressively underscored this revelation with a huge swell in the orchestra and a punchy, ominous dark chord. Thankfully, this is one of many moments where collaborative input from showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay proved ever insightful and helpful. They encouraged me to go the opposite route. Now, the scores whispers into a dying gasp and disappears completely just before Adar’s shocking confession that he killed Sauron. The impact is effective: now the audience’s attention is focused fully on actor Joseph Mawle’s cunning depiction of Adar. Is he telling the truth?

After this scene, Galadriel and Halbrand share a pivotal emotional scene, grounded by honest performances from Morfydd Clark and Charlie Vickers. In the aftermath of battle, they are both forced to confront decisions that brought them to this moment. Threads of the Galadriel Theme and the Halbrand Theme interweave behind their dialog, indicating they are finally reaching an understanding, a way to move forward together in this struggle. The music emphasizes what the drama implies: this conversation with Galadriel provides Halbrand with the emotional fortitude necessary to embrace his heritage as the King of the Southlands.

Weaving melodic fragments into score behind hushed dialog is a challenge, one I did not fully appreciate as I composed. My friends at the mix stage called to tell me that Halbrand’s iconic fiddle melody in this scene was simply too bright: they intended to mute the melody because it clashed with Vickers’ performance. I proposed an alternate approach, replacing the bright fiddle with a reedy, rich cello solo. My team assembled a last-minute recording session and the solo cello recording was sent to the mixing stage the next day. Finally, the scene worked beautifully, with all the intended theme quotations preserved. (We lost a little sleep to make that happen, but it was worth it!)

The kingship of Halbrand is made public in the next scene, as Míriel introduces him to Bronwyn, who instantly recognizes the insignia on the medallion he wears around his neck. The battle-weary survivors raise their glasses in his honor, and the score surges into a mighty fanfare of The Halbrand Theme, and the Southlands Theme, now one and the same.

Epic brass soar the melody over aggressively bowed nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle, musically combining two story threads, linked by a common musical theme. 

WATER AND FLAME

This action-packed episode would have ended triumphantly, had we not witnessed Theo open the canvas he believed to be holding the evil sword hilt, only to discover it was a decoy! The Sauron Theme bursts furiously forth as we cut to the treacherous tavern-keeper, Waldreg, back at the watchtower of Ostirith. He uses the hilt as it was intended at the shrine that Theo and Arondir had uncovered. Turning the blade, Waldreg unlocks a mysterious mechanism that unleashes a massive lake, flooding water down into the valley. The choir bursts on to the soundtrack, with a proclamation in Quenya.

Quenya:
Naikele, lilómëa, telumë quat-as ruinë

English:
Suffering, full of darkness, sky filled with fire

Unaware that flood waters are about to rage down upon the village, Isildur and Elendil come together tending their horse, Berek. The score supports this intimate bonding of father and son with gentle refrains of Middle Eastern guitars and a lonely French horn carrying their melancholy melody, The Faithful Theme. This statement of their theme projects warmth and resolve, gently framing the fantastic performances from Maxim Baldry and Lloyd Owen.

This scene of their bonding is interrupted as towers of water violently erupt from the ground. The captured Orcs chant triumphantly, and Adar eagerly places his ear to the ground, smiling to hear the water churning below in underground tunnels. The sinister tributaries align towards an underground magma chamber, miles away, beneath a distant mountain: Orodruin. The name of this mountain was referenced once in fleeting dialog in an earlier episode, and Tolkien fans no doubt recognize it. Casual fans would know this mountain by another name: Mount Doom. Orodruin erupts in a terrifying event of biblical proportions as volcanic flame and ash rain down upon The Southlands.

After writing nearly an hour of some of the biggest music of my entire life, I now had to top it all for a symphonic finale. I composed a massive choral passage supported by huge block chords in the orchestra, music I hoped would be massive enough to withstand the necessary onslaught of sound effects in this shocking sequence.

Quenya:
Unqualë, qonda ar farnë quat i telumë
Naira umbar lilómëa
Ruinë ohta, sina am lantuva
Naikele, carnë vinya
Nefitas-qonda, qoro to farnë, nuru
Nier, sercë, ar talandas
Naikele ar nuru, si naira unqualë

English:
Agony, smoke and ash fill the sky
Unendurable doom full of darkness
Fire everywhere, this world will fall
Suffering, scarlet sky
Breathe in smoke, choke on ash, death
Tears, blood, and sadness
Anguish and death, this unendurable agony

Anguish and death, indeed. The Southlanders who have believed themselves to be victorious scream and suffer under a fiery sky. The last moment, accompanied by ominous blasting chords in the low brass, show Galadriel, standing alone, blasted by fire.

I finished writing the score and turned it over to my team at Sparks and Shadows to be orchestrated, copied, recorded, and mixed. For these five consecutive episodes we had set up an efficient workflow process, but this one, “Udûn,” taxed us to the limit.  My tireless music prep and music production teams at Sparks & Shadows were overwhelmed by the deluge. They never complained to me, but they did not have to. I could hear it in their voices, and see it in their faces, especially the beleaguered orchestrators who had to notate probably quadruple the amount of notes compared to a typical episode of The Rings of Power. The marathon of scoring this show began to take its toll on all of us.

When I completed “Udûn,” my body and mind were in shambles. But I could not yet rest. Two more episodes remained before me. The day after I completed the shockingly volcanic final scene, I awoke at my usual time, five am, went back into the studio and began composing the first cue of the seventh episode. I had to find the strength and creative wherewithal to keep writing, to see this massive project to the end.

Bear McCreary

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