By Matt Wolf
Associated Press
Wednesday, January 15, 2003; Page C09

LONDON — On a recent autumn day at London’s Abbey Road studios, director Peter Jackson was conferring with Howard Shore, his composer on “The Lord of the Rings.”

Playing silently overhead was footage from “The Two Towers,” the second part of the huge cinematic triptych that began with the Christmas 2001 release of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The scene was of Hobbit heroes Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) nearing a waterfall in their journey toward the Black Gates of Mordor.

Shore, putting the finishing touches on some musical passages with the 96-piece London Philharmonic Orchestra, wanted to make sure his music would hold its own against the roar of the fall.

“You should never worry about competing against water,” Jackson assured him. “We’ll just pull the water down.”

As before, it is Shore’s job to strike the right balance — as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books — between gracefulness and grandeur. He won an Academy Award last spring for “Fellowship.”

The Canadian composer, who wrote the music for another long-awaited epic that also opened last month, Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” reflected in a later interview on one of the heftiest assignments any film composer has taken on.

“Tolkien spent 12 years writing the books, [so] to spend three years on the music doesn’t seem that long,” said Shore, 56. In any case, “I look at the three ‘Lord of the Rings’ films as one, and ‘The Two Towers’ was Act 2.”

Late this year will see the project’s culmination, “The Return of the King.”

Shore was speaking by telephone on a December weekend in Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles County Museum was holding a retrospective of his film music.

“The Lord of the Rings” score could have been bombastic. But Shore says narrative, not musical heroics, came first.

“You’re composing not in relation to the spectacle” — of which “The Two Towers” has plenty — “but in relation to the drama on the screen. Keeping that in mind allows you to write in a more intimate and human way,” from the Norwegian fiddles of the Viking-like culture of Rohan to the wooden instruments associated with the ancient Treebeard.

Then there’s the sinister, scampering Gollum, who comes with his own sound — a hammered dulcimer theme from the first movie that, says Shore, “has been mutilated a little bit,” as Gollum has.

In the waterfall scene, Jackson suggested, “The delicate feel is nicer.”

“The music doesn’t have to impress the audience. It shouldn’t be overly dramatic — more of a question mark,” the director said.

Even in the climactic battle scene at Helm’s Deep, says Mark Ordesky, an executive producer, Shore’s music is there to make a point.

“The theme is how the battle is fought,” says Ordesky, “and how will you conduct yourself, and I think Howard’s music reflects that, as well.”

The very title “The Lord of the Rings” in musical terms conjures up Wagner’s 19th-century “Ring” cycle, a four-opera sequence — itself rooted in mythology — that makes up one mammoth and imposing whole. Shore acknowledges the influence.

“Of course you had to look into Wagner’s great and amazing work and into the opera form. In writing a 10-hour piece, the only thing you could look to is opera.”

To that end, the score of “The Two Towers” boasts not only a full symphony orchestra but also 100 singers, including a 30-strong children’s choir and 10 soloists.

By contrast, says Shore, “Gangs of New York” required a “real mosaic of American sound” to animate Scorsese’s operatic portrait of New York blood lust in the 1860s.

Much of Shore’s music for “Gangs” derives from an extant composition, “Brooklyn Heights,” that was expanded and re-recorded for the film.

Says Shore, “I would have loved to have been able to have worked with Martin directly” — the two collaborated on Scorsese’s 1985 “After Hours” — “but because of ‘Two Towers,’ there just wasn’t time.”

Although Shore has been living “The Lord of the Rings” of late, his work also has traveled beyond the land of Legolas and Gimli. Last year, his music punctuated the fears of Manhattanite Jodie Foster in the David Fincher thriller “Panic Room,” and in David Cronenberg’s 2002 film “Spider,” Shore’s Alban Berg-like musical jags echo the disturbed mind of the hero, played by Ralph Fiennes.

With one more Tolkien movie to go, is Shore worried he might go into withdrawal once the endeavor is complete?

He laughs. “The trilogy is a sort of legacy, I guess, and I don’t feel I want it to end. We have all worked to make something much bigger than any of us; that’s the blessed part of it.”