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Diary of a Recording: the ‘Rings’ soundtrack.

January 22, 2002 at 10:13 am by Tehanu  - 

This was kindly shared with us by the writer, Catherine Wilmers, who is a cellist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra

September-October 2001

The orchestra had been booked by Howard Shore, the composer and conductor, to record the music for the film The Lord of the Rings.

On our first day a huge orchestra was ready to play in the gigantic Watford Town Hall (recently renamed Colosseum) on the 3rd of September at 2 pm. There was an expectant and excited atmosphere. Canadian born Howard arrived on the podium. Then he began to explain about the film and how involved he was with it. He said that the film had been reduced at short notice from over 3 hours to 2 hrs 45 mins, which meant quite a bit of re-writing. Even then the film was of ‘opera-length’ with an unusually large amount of music. Present a year ago during the filming in New Zealand he was steeped in Tolkien and the atmosphere. This was to be the first of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He called Director New Zealander Peter Jackson down into the Hall to meet us, a splendid bare-footed person, who owns the film company ThreeFootSix.

Howard explained about the languages used in the film, elvish (two versions) and dwarfish; and how the Tolkien songs and poems were included. Roisin is the Tolkien language expert and she has helped coach the choir, especially in ‘black speech’, and organised phonetic translations to help the singers. Meanwhile the red light flashed in the Hall, perhaps a gentle reminder that it was now 2.30 pm and perhaps we should consider playing some music.

Howard asked how many of us have read the book. Many hands went up, and a few days later many of the musicians had bought new copies which were lying around on the floor to be devoured during the breaks. This was Howard’s first visit to Watford. The sound was immediate, vibrant and very warm. Perhaps my impressions were coloured by sitting in front of the marvellous horn section which had to play some very dramatic music.

Each player had a pile of folders beautifully organised with the music of the different sections, each a different colour. The music was very clear, with large notes printed out from a computer. Gone are the days of trying to unscramble incomprehensible manuscripts! Howard had a screen in front of him and as soon as we rehearsed a section he was able to judge whether the music sounded correct with the section of film and whether it fitted exactly. Often we were asked to make a 4 beat bar into a 3 bar and later a 4 bar into a 5 bar to compensate. Impressively he was also able to make immediate decisions about whether the instruments sounded right and we would have to make adjustments, perhaps cutting out a few cello bars or violins…

We got started and ‘Chris’ announced the number of the ‘take’, the number of the section (3F) and then we were off. We soon discovered it was vital to take notice of the metronome marks on the parts as there were often sudden mood swings with associated tempo changes. When the ‘black riders’ appeared the music was suddenly faster, rhythmic and frightening. Susanna Riddell (my cello desk mate) and I soon discovered that we could go up to the control room in the breaks and watch the excerpt of film and listen to the music. Coffee breaks were forgotten about as we got immersed in the film. Computer imaging technology has been used to ‘shrink’ normal-sized actors playing hobbits and dwarves. Elijah Wood is Frodo, Bearer of the Ring and a hobbit, Ian McKellen is Gandalf the old wizard and Ian Holm is Bilbo Baggins, the Ringfinder (also a hobbit).

A large choir came into record on several occasions, consisting of about 60. Sometimes they were booked in the evening from 9 pm to 12 midnight to record in the Hall after the orchestra went home.

We spent a long time on each section and often re-recorded the same section a week later, perhaps when Howard had a new inspiration about an extra percussion effect. The percussion list had included chains! Rachel Gledhill wore thick gardening gloves and hit the strings of the piano in a rhythmic pattern, sometimes jangling chains on the floor at the same time. Next there was a detailed discussion about the ‘bodhrans’ (Irish drums) and how many players were available to play at once and at what pitch. Could the sound be darker, perhaps one player should play the side drum to make the sound more forceful and military but still ‘from a long time ago’. There were long discussions about which tycho drums to use. Howard had a very clear idea in his head of the sound that he wanted to achieve. We were asked to play a section ‘sul ponticello’, right near the bridge for a special effect; then a contra bassoon and double basses were added as well.

On day 4, Friday September 7th, we worked from 9-4 as Watford was being used for a disco that evening! The music stands and instruments, microphones and wires all had to go only to be put out again for the next afternoon at 2.0. We even started on time and it was ‘4T’, Strider. In the the control room there was an amazing array of knobs. We went up there to listen to the playback and heard a a beautiful cello bit to accompany Gandalf. It is nice to be chosen to represent the good! Then we moved on to ‘4B’, Knife in the Dark, deeply scary music. The titles on the music linked up with Tolkien’s own headings.

On Monday we were still at Watford 11-6, and then the orchestra checked in at Stansted Airport one and a half hours later. It did not help me that another car smashed into me on this journey and I had to report it to Hertford Police Station as well. We were off to Bucharest for two nights with concerts in the Enescu Festival. Arriving at 3.00 am does not count as a full night but at least to save time we were met off the airplane and avoided going into the terminal building. We gave in our passports as we got off the plane, lugged the instruments immediately onto buses and set off to the hotel with flashing lights and a police escort. Sitting in the front of the bus and driving through red traffic lights was quite exciting. After the rehearsal next day, September 11th we received the devastating news about the terrorism in New York. Bruckner 3 with Kurt Masur at that night’s concert was somehow got through, and Dvorak 8 the next night. Then back to England after the second concert. The police turned out again to help us to the airport. I arrived home at 3.00am.

Early next day (well, the same day really) we were back in place at Watford and our ‘film team’ were devastated about the news. Howard had lived for ten years in a neighbourhood ten blocks from the World Trade Center and sent his daughter to school nearby. We stood in silence the next morning for several minutes at 11.00 am and later the whole orchestra signed a card to show our solidarity. We were all rather subdued but Howard, although obviously deeply upset on a personal level as well as all the other levels, managed a quiet and wry smile now and then.

On Thursday September 17th we were on the river Anduin, sailing along with another lovely cello phrase. The next week we transferred to Air Studios, Hampstead. Trying to get the correct drum sound it was even suggested that the drum could be heated with the hand drier in the ‘ladies’ to tighten the sound. Another solution was arrived at when Rachel Gledhill suggested adding a different instrument. The violas had no metronome clicks in their headphones in one take, but they still managed to play in time. Howard said ‘what were you doing?’ ‘Watching you’ came the answer. ‘Novel!’ said Howard obviously rather chuffed.

Seeing the engineer in the studio, ‘when you see the engineer with the tuba player you know you’re in trouble!’ It took a bit of time to match the Watford sound. We were working from 3-10 pm instead of 2-9 pm and Howard finally admitted to a moment of tiredness and then realised we were working an hour later. ‘8-9, that was the worst hour so far’.

The next move was to Abbey Road Studio. There Howard tells us there is music almost all the way through the film, except for four minutes. The music was being mixed with the film track as we were working, having been sent down the internet. When we went to listen to the playback of the Prologue he joked that we would like to stay there for three hours and see all the film, pleased with the enthusiasm and level of commitment from the orchestra.

Howard also told us a story about Toscanini, that he knew 400 operas by heart and could hum the second bassoon from the middle of Tosca. ‘What a brain. Where is it now?’ It was this sense of humour that kept us going through 33 sessions. On September 30th Howard started the session looking around, ‘ah, some faces I know’ and launched into a description of what we were doing. He said we had recorded 8-10 minutes a day. ‘What else can I tell you… good, that’s it’. We spent the day doing ‘pick-ups’ (after two hours we recorded only 31 bars), matching the sound from one recording to another. The percussion players were asked to play a passage like Rachel Gledhill had played it, ‘exactly, but not celtic’.

On this day there was an Irish band, another day there were some Indian instruments (sarangi and nay flute) and a monochord, a wooden instrument with a rectangular flat top, and 50 strings underneath. It took ages to tune. Howard said that it is used by healers as therapy. One lies on it and it vibrates and apparently everybody has their own particular chord which helps to relax them. He said ‘conductors live a long time because of all the vibrations they get from the orchestra’.

He never lost his ‘cool’ with us. There was a feeling of deep trust all the way throughout the film and he would suddenly burst into smiles and share a friendly comment on the film or ask what the orchestra had been doing. When starting work again he said ‘and now back to Middle Earth…’ What a pleasant way of working!

Posted in Old Special Reports on January 22, 2002 by

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