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How Bear McCreary’s Music Fills Middle Earth and Still Leaves More to Discover

The 'Rings of Power' composer tells IndieWire about writing a new musical lexicon for Middle Earth and his own 'Lord of the Rings' experience.

Rings of Power Orc

“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”

Matt Grace/Prime Video

No matter how zoomed-out the view, you can only fit so many mountain ranges, so many massive armies, and so many dirty hobbit fingernails into a single frame. In Middle Earth, it’s the musical score that can always go further, capturing emotion, character turmoil, and the awe and wonder of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world in a way that (sometimes literally) echoes far beyond what we can see. The way music works with the image often makes the best scenes out of Tolkien’s stories feel as rousingly epic as they do and why, in both the Peter Jackson film trilogy and Prime Video’s new television series, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” scenes that are just bits of landscape catching on fire (or flooding and catching on fire) pack such a punch.

The Amazon show posed the same challenge to showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne and composer Bear McCreary: The complex Hollywood wheeling-and-dealing that yielded “The Rings of Power” bars them from repeating anything contained within the Jackson films. McCreary couldn’t quote any of Howard Shore’s compositions for the trilogy, and needed to come up with a new sonic story that fits the younger, more innocent, more ambitious Second Age, thousands of years before the Fellowship of the Ring forms. So McCreary, no stranger to imbuing music with a sense of the mythic, made a conscious choice not to emulate Shore (who did write music for the show’s opening titles), but to provide an evolutionary track towards where Shore’s music ends up going. He built very clear, melodic themes with distinct intervals and varied instrumental choices from cultures around the world to differentiate all the places the show goes and to provide a sense of how the characters fit within them.

He built 17 of them, in fact. The moments where McCreary’s themes interact are some of the most electric in “The Rings of Power,” so clearly defined that they’re able to push the series’ story forward on more than one occasion. The show’s first episode ends with Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) on a boat to the Undying Lands of Valinor, the elven equivalent of retiring to a nice farm upstate, and the way that McCreary incompletely blends and alternates the “Valinor” theme and Galadriel‘s own theme creates an intuitively understood push-pull inside the elf captain. It’s one that rages across the soundtrack, making Galadriel’s conflict feel furious and immense, even while the imagery is serene and still.

The last minute or so of the sequence, with the music ramping up in fullness and intensity as Galadriel makes the choice to refuse entry into Paradise, gets almost operatic, and the final statement of Galadriel’s theme sets up the pathos of her self-imposed exile, one that will likely hover over her for the rest of the show. Although all of McCreary’s material is distinct, in using music in this way, the “Rings of Power” score often works the  same way as Shore’s does in Jackson’s films: as the emotional narration, a crucial sonic key that makes the scope of the story as impactful as it should be.

To tackle the immense amount of thematic material that could be used for clear narrative storytelling in its own right, McCreary turned to the composers that had inspired him growing up; on his blog he named as influences musical legends ranging from John Williams and Elmer Bernstein to Nino Rota and Shirley Walker. When working out the key melodies that audiences latch onto for the characters, however, “James Horner really was one of the early influences on me with ‘Star Trek 2,’ and ‘ The Land Before Time’ and ‘The Rocketeer’ and ‘Braveheart’ a little later than in my life — just like hit after hit,” McCreary told IndieWire. “And these had really memorable melodies that were unabashedly lyrical in their melodic construction, and iconic. If I had to pick [apart] ‘Rings of Power’ music, if you were to say, ‘What other composer does it sound like?’ It’s James Horner.”

Horner-esque melodies abound in “The Rings of Power,” ones that can be tweaked to be brash and expansive or more plaintive as the story dictates, and McCreary is prepared for them to evolve to be either heavier and darker or lighter and more lyrical as the show goes on. The theme for the island nation of Númenor was one of the mightiest, most anthemic that McCreary has written for the series so far — but, like all the music tied to a specific place and culture within Middle Earth, there are fissures and tensions built in that may change it over time.

McCreary’s already started doing some of that work in the later episodes of Season 1. “The theme does take on a darker tinge in the second half of [Episodes 3, 4, and 5], although it obviously has triumphant moments,” McCreary said. “And I think in these episodes, [Pharazôn’s] theme is the Númenor theme. There’s not another theme for him. And in many ways, when we meet Míriel, when we see the tree, we hear Elendil’s theme, but it’s under her dialogue,” McCreary said. It took an “absolutely brutal” six weeks at the start of working on the show for McCreary to design themes that are distinct from the jump but will be able to grow and develop as the machinations of Sauron get more complicated; themes that also need to be able to grab characters and pull them along as they develop, and to contain variations that can signal where characters stand apart or where internal conflicts will grow. The process involved a lot of experimentation on McCreary’s part, and in some ways is still ongoing.

“If you listen to the soundtrack album for Season 1, there’s a track called ‘Elendil and Isildur.’ The second half of that track isn’t even in Season 1. You won’t hear it, because in my mind, when I wrote the theme, I thought, what might it sound like at the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, many episodes from now? And I like that enough that I thought, ‘I’ll just record it. I’ll put it out there,’ but that was me doing a test,” McCreary said. “[The theme is] very plaintive and wistful, so can it survive in a more tragic, operatic, soaring, symphonic statement, you know? Before I even started the first episode, [I wanted to know] every theme, to the best of my knowledge, will be able to do what I knew these themes needed to do.”

Some of what these themes need to do is still shrouded in secrecy, and with so much scrutiny placed on every piece of music released for the show — the soundtrack for Season 1 has now been thoroughly decoded for how ideas about characters build and interact on every track — McCreary has had to obscure some of his own work.”The later we get into the season, I think fans are gonna realize there are cues that they’ve heard on the Season 1 album that, when they finally see the episode and listen to the full episodic album, there were tracks quoting certain themes that I muted for the Season 1 album — just so anytime they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s this theme meets this one,’ I’m like, ‘You don’t know it all.’ I have muted tracks and split out themes on purpose, knowing I want to put out an album that doesn’t show musical interactions in a certain way,” McCreary said.

Some of the most fun McCreary has had on “The Rings of Power” has involved writing music that doesn’t play well with anything else and has a very hard time being obscured. For example: What he’s composed for the orcs, for which he used Aztec death whistles and flutes made from the bones of animals and humans. “The whole thing feels very threatening and scary,” he said. “That Aztec death whistle opens Episode 3 over black and it just sounds like someone’s screaming far away. I love that the orcs have a musical cloud around them made out of ritualistic woodwinds and bones. That just feel so apt. And it’s in contrast with everything else in the score. Even Sauron’s theme has a beauty to it and a construction and an elegance that the orcs just could not have.”

The orcs may not have elegance, but they have a power that’s wholly their own. McCreary explained that Black Speech, the language Tolkien invented for Sauron and his evil minions, has core linguistic rules — as befits the creation of a philologist. One of these is the balance between how the consonants and vowel sounds are pronounced, with a heavy emphasis on the percussive nature of the consonants. “If they are not spoken with a certain energy, you’re doing it wrong,” McCreary said. “Well, there’s cues that I wrote with Black Speech in Sauron’s theme. There’s one, when Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) is running frantically towards the tavern and it’s really aggressive. I didn’t want it to be that aggressive. I wanted it to be quietly sinister and mysterious.” But Black Speech, and the choir who recorded all of the soundtrack’s invented language cues had other plans.

“The choir listened to dialect coach Leith McPherson say these words and they sang the lyrics twice as loud as the notation said for them to do,” McCreary said.”When I was listening, I went, ‘What are you guys doing? It’s incredibly aggressive.’  And then they said, ‘Well, if we sing it quieter, it won’t translate. It actually won’t be the correct pronunciation.’

“It reminded me of how in the books and in some of the adaptations, just speaking Black Speech caused a shadow to come around. They said the words correctly in the way Tolkien intended and it brought out an aggression and an anger in their performance that was not on the page. I thought, well, if that’s not an authentic ‘Lord of the Rings’ experience, I don’t know what is.”

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