Watch a movie scored by Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann or John Williams and you instantly recognize the composer’s signature sound.
Having just received the prestigious Vision Award at the Locarno Film Festival, Howard Shore has amassed a body of work that requires him to be mentioned among those fellow composing legends. From the ominous underbelly he gave “Seven,” to the magical rhythms that drive “Hugo,” to the dour tones encapsulating the reporters’ struggle in “Spotlight,” to the music that brought Tolkien’s Middle Earth to life, Shore has been behind some of the very best film scores of the last 40 years.
Yet what’s remarkable about Shore’s body of work, and what separates him from the other scoring legends, is that there’s nothing instantly recognizable binding together his diverse scores.
© Festival del film Locarno / Pablo Gianinazzi
Growing up in Toronto, the young audiophile discovered a music library that was stacked with records and scores from around the world. Spending hours in this world-music nirvana was a formative experience that he says opened up and shaped his sense of the endless possibilities of music.
“[Later] when I started to delve into film, I found that same interest in different countries took me to those countries’ films,” says Shore. “I discovered Toru Takemitsu’s work in Japan, Nina Rota’s work in Italy and Georges Delerue’s work in France, and thought, ‘Oh this is interesting, [there are] different ways that culturally different composers use music in film.'”
Before getting into film, Shore intentionally kept his work in music varied, through repertory theater, playing with the band Lighthouse and eventually becoming the musical director of “Saturday Night Live” for his friend Lorne Michaels.
“Really everything I did revolved around writing and the desire to try different things, experiment, and it was all based on composition,” adds Shore. “Film music seemed like a natural progression.”
Photo by Jim Smeal/BEI/Shutterstock
Luckily, Shore found the perfect partner as he transitioned to movies: David Cronenberg.
“David was always looking for new ways to tell those stories, and I was happy to collaborate with him and try different ways of using music in film,” he says of his longtime collaborator.
Cronenberg gave Shore a great deal of creative freedom early on, which allowed the composer to take a sharply different approach with each of their early collaborations: “The Brood,” “Scanners,” “Videodrome” and “The Fly.” Shore says this ability to experiment at the beginning of his scoring career helped shape him as a composer.
“The ambiguity in [Cronenberg’s] films was always an interesting thing to me, because it allowed me to work around the edges of the frame and to really work with the subtext of story and not always have to approach things so head on, which we never really did in any of his films,” Shore says.
He adds that one the most important parts of his process is actually picking the films he works on. The project needs to spark something in him. He needs to be able to connect to an “emotional truthfulness” in order to work effectively.
“The truthfulness is really important to me,” said Shore. “I want to express the ideas clearly, both emotionally and intellectually. I need to feel clarity in the details to express my ideas and move the narrative forward.”
Once Shore picks a project, he immerses himself in it, which often means doing a great deal of research.
“On ‘Hugo,’ it’s set in 1930 in Paris, of course this is a most vibrant world, an incredible world to work in and I love that period, so I became immersed in that culture,” says Shore.
Yet even being careful about the projects he picks and his research process, it’s not until he’s “inside” a film that he finds his way into the story.
“I can have a strong connection with [the material], but sometimes you don’t know in the beginning,” he explains. “Like with Tolkien [“Lord of the Rings” author], I always knew it was a great book — I read the book back in the ’60s — it wasn’t until I delved into it and started inside the story that I started to connect to it. Sometimes you have to work your way into a story, and eventually there’s a breakthrough and the clouds kind of open and you are just moving forward in a free style, you are just expressing the ideas and they are flowing out of that pencil.”
New Line Cinema
The composer, who estimates he’s been writing music for close to 60 years, has been able to remain prolific. From picking the right projects to his intensive research, Shore credits a well-established discipline for how to handle time schedules and sometimes overlapping projects.
“When you do recording sessions with orchestras everything is broken up into three-hour sessions, and that’s really how I break down my day even when I’m not recording,” explains Shore. “Every morning is a session, the afternoon is a second session and the evening — if there is a looming deadline — a third session. I follow that discipline and the amount of work I’ve been able to accomplish is a lot, the pages just pile up.”
Writing music isn’t always easy for Shore, but it’s never a struggle.
“Even if I finished the work for the day, I’m always thinking of the next 10 bars and in the evening just dreaming what it’ll look like on the page. It’s quite a fascinating life with music in that sense, it happens every day, it’s like breathing and becomes part of your life.”
Reflecting on the formative experience of the hours spent in the Toronto music library, Shore feels a deep connection with that boy discovering music from around the world.
“When I hear certain pieces of music it reminds me of that period in my life and it’s almost like I’m still discovering the beauty of some of those works and I’m still unraveling some of the mystery of it. That’s something that kept me interested and kept me going.”