An Interview with Howard Shore by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.10/No.37/1991
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Film music is functional music. It has to serve the movie without drawing too much attention to itself. Film music depends upon the kind of movie it was composed for. So it is perhaps daring to think that a film score can give us an impression of the composer’s personality of his psyche, his character and individuality. This may apply to absolute concert music, but film music?
Despite the functional character of film music, I do think so. A film score can reveal a composer’s interior life. “If it’s in the music, it’s in the man,” the late Aaron Copland once said about Bernard Herrmann. Think of some Goldsmith scores in relation to the aloofness he used to display in concerts and recording sessions. Think of Mancini’s soft and enchanting music in relation to the warmth and cosmopolitan charm of his character.
I had a similar impression when I met Howard Shore. His scores tend to be unobtrusive, inconspicuous and restrained when isolated from the cinematographic context. But they do their job perfectly within the movies. Shore’s character – at least as I perceived it – is likewise: he is very quiet, very introverted, very reserved. His shyness and modesty find their outward expression in a pale skin and a slight body. Before Howard Shore started his career in movies with David Cronenberg’s horror films, Shore was the musical leader of one hundred and twenty SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE shows, each one 90-minutes long, each weekly show broadcast live. This was a good training ground, and the best apprenticeship any film composer can get, since Shore had to deal with any styles imaginable, from Mozart to Led Zeppelin.
Howard Shore and director Jonathan “Something Wild” Demme spent a few days in Munich in July 1990, recording the music for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS with the Munich Symphony Orchestra (former the Graunke Orchestra). Jody Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn play the leading parts in this psychological thriller, based on the best-selling novel by Thomas Harris. According to Shore, it’s a “dark, disturbing and sad movie. It’s actually a difficult movie to score, because it’s not traditional, it’s not in any sort of genre.” The composer wrote one hour of music, a lot of it beneath dialog. Again, it’s not a score that will excite you if you haven’t seen the movie, but in the film, Shore’s music serves the visuals quite well.
Would it be correct to say that VIDEODROME was your first “wetting of the feet” in the film business – your first “hit”, so to speak?
No. That was the third David Cronenberg movie I did. The other two were THE BROOD and SCANNERS. I think SCANNERS was more popular than VIDEODROME.
But VIDEODROME was your first soundtrack album?
Yes. But I don’t bother too much with the sound tracks.
That’s the reason why there aren’t that many Shore scores on vinyl? So you think mainly of serving the movie, and your attitude is not commercially-oriented?
I’m not really interested in soundtrack albums. I don’t listen to them. I never listen to the ones I have done. But I know there’s a market for them, a very small group of people who are interested. I’m more interested in the music being in the picture. Sometimes it stands alone, but sometimes not. There was a point where I thought about it – “would this be a good piece on a record?” But now I totally don’t think about it. If somebody was interested in putting my music out on a record, I’m delighted. But to me, records and movies are two completely separate media.
Your music for VIDEODROME was performed on a Synclavier. Did you write down a written score, or was the music the product of improvisation?
I wrote a full score. The Synclavier, at that time, was not what it is now. It was much more primitive. Then, I input the notes into the computer; I made sounds of what I wanted the score to sound like. It’s very electronic. It’s not always tonal sounds. In some of the scenes I would record a small orchestra with the electronic program. I like electronic music. I mean the more serious music, not just sounds and effects.
I think this is the typical approach nowadays. Many film scores sound orchestral, but they are performed on a Synclavier.
I’m not interested in doing that. VIDEODROME was an experiment, really. I had never used a computer before. Now I do it quite regularly. I use computers all the time.
It made sense of course to use electronic music in VIDEODROME. This music has a tendency to sound cold and inhuman, which was appropriate. Do you prefer working with an orchestra?
It depends on the movie. I like doing both, and I do both all the time. Pure electronic, and orchestral sounds.
How did you start your career in film music?
I just started doing the David Cronenberg movies. We have done five movies in the last ten years. Those are really the good works, the heart and soul of the work that I’ve done. It’s the core of my work. After VIDEODROME there was THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS. It’s quite a progression. Now we’re doing another one called THE NAKED LUNCH.
Tell us more about your biography.
It’s too boring! Okay: I studied composition in Boston. I did many years of playing live concerts, touring on the road for four years. Then I did radio, TV and small documentaries and nature films before I started to do features. I did lots of music for the stage. I’ve written a ballet that was produced in Canada. I’ve also written concert works for rock band and orchestra. So I probably tried everything that you could try in the music field in the last 25 years. Only in the last four or five years I settled down in film music.
This is the best background any film composer can have. That’s what’s needed in movies to be able to write a rock song when it’s needed, a ballet or whatever.
Exactly. This is what I’ve been doing for 25 years. But in terms of technique, you are constantly studying. You never learn enough. When I started scoring movies it wasn’t so much that I was looking to do one film after the other. To meet people is more important to me than the movies. It has always been my goal to look for directors and writers to work with well. It just happened that David Cronenberg was making those movies then. So I did them.
How did you become associated with Cronenberg?
We grew up as kids; we’d known each other from being very young. I like to work with him. He always deals with certain areas of the human psyche. They run through all the movies. They are very internal movies where you can take musical chances. They are sophisticated in their specific type of drama. Jonathan Demme is another one. He is a wonderful director. You want to work with people that understand your contribution to a movie.
What was your musical approach to DEAD RINGERS? I think there wasn’t much music, maybe 20 minutes?
The music was recorded in London with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s interesting that you thought it was 20 minutes. It was actually 45 minutes. DEAD RINGERS is not really a horror movie. It has gone beyond that. The approach was to make it almost invisible. The movie was so good, the drama and the performance of Jeremy Irons was so impressive that I didn’t want the music to intrude at all.
This is a very interesting aspect of film scoring, finding the right balance between underlining a drama and disturbing the dramatic development of a story. Many times a composer has to be quiet to give space for the actors and the drama.
Yes, that’s right. So I wrote a very subtle score. It’s written really as background music to this drama. There really is a lot of music. But it doesn’t feel like that. The score is very monochromatic. It doesn’t have a lot of colors to it; it’s almost like black and white. It doesn’t use a lot of winds. It just uses the string section and three horns, harp, and three or four woodwind solos. It’s very sparse in the type of counterpoint that’s used. It uses a lot of fourths and fifths. It’s designed in a way just to be there and not to overpower the movie. Only at the end, the music gets very big.
This is also my impression of your score for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The music is very “neutral” and monochromatic. It’s just flowing without much counterpoint.
I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie. I tried to make the music just fit in. When you watch the movie you are not aware of the music. You get your feelings from all elements simultaneously, lighting, cinematography, costumes, acting, music. Jonathan Demme was very specific about the music. His suggestions were valuable…
… unlike some other directors who lay emphasis on unnecessary things in the music, as some composers have told me.
It’s difficult to learn how to direct a movie, considering all the different arts that go into moviemaking, from a script, acting, lighting, music and so on. Each one is a vast area. Even the people who work in those areas are still learning. Only after many years of experience do directors really start understanding how to use all the different arts.
You have done some successful comedies, SHE-DEVIL, BIG. Do you think a composer can write funny music without doing cartoon music?
It depends on the movie. I usually take a pretty serious approach for a comedy. BIG had no comedy music, the music was “realistic”. AFTER HOURS, the Scorcese movie, was all electronic. SHE-DEVIL was really a cartoon, and the music was just like that, too. It was fun to do that one with an orchestra.
Your BIG theme was recorded by John Scott on a ‘Screen Themes’ album…
I was delighted with that. Richard Kraft, who was the producer, called me.
Your theme was very nice. I always like soft and flowing piano melodies with a lush background. But, in general, this approach has become kind of a cliché. If there is a tender and emotional love scene in any movie you always here a piano playing a gentle theme.
(laughing) But I think film composers try to avoid the cliches. We are always searching for another way to do a scene.
But sometimes one has to follow the “rules” to satisfy a director or even the audience.
It depends so much on the movie. There are scenes in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that are almost like action scenes. They are scored with a very lush, slow orchestra which is a little different from what you might expect. Some of the scoring is unusual in that regard. It’s against the genre. I tried hard to avoid it.
You are maybe one of the few composers who had the luck to work with some fine female directors, like Susan Seidelman or Diane Keaton. Is there any difference between them and male directors you have worked with?
I don’t know. I get along with them very well. I find that they are great directors. I don’t have a problem. I just think they are the directors and they’re trying to make the movie.
But in the case of Susan Seidelman, I guess she must be quite a witty person. Did you find her that was or was she more serious to work with?
She was pretty serious on the picture. She had a strong idea what she wanted to do. She wanted to make the music like a Forties score, very animated and lush. She knew that right away and I liked that idea.
You did some movies with Diane Keaton, for instance a documentary called HEAVEN. This movie took her 18 months to produce. Were you also involved in this project for that long?
I was involved for a long time on it, yes. That was done in New York. I’ve done a few movies there. They were all electronic and I played all the parts. We didn’t always use synthesizers. Sometimes we used just pure sounds. Skip Livesay is a very good sound editor in New York that I met on AFTER HOURS. We did the music and the sound in HEAVEN together. We did another one like that which has never been released. It’s an hour-long picture called THE LOCAL STIGMATIC, and it stars Al Pacino. We took all the production sound out of the picture. All the natural sounds and the environments were completely recreated. HEAVEN was like that, too. Everything was just built from scratch for the whole movie, the soundtrack and the music. It did take a long time to do that. We would spend six or seven months, but off and on. It was an ongoing process. There’s a little of that in AFTER HOURS as well.
Did you write a kind of “religious” score for HEAVEN?
Yes, some of it. It has some unusual music in it. It uses some sounds I recorded live, not in studios. Some of it is pure electronic mixed with other sampled sounds. Other sounds were specially designed for the movie and became part of the score. It’s really a collage of sounds and music.
You did a picture called NADINE, starring Kim Basinger. It must be inspiring for a composer to have a beautiful woman like her to compose for…
Absolutely. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Jodie Foster is such a great actress. It was wonderful to watch the movie because I was always fascinated by the performance, even during the recording with the orchestra. The pictures would come up on a small monitor, the music would be going and I would still be fascinated, looking at Jodie Foster!
… and you would forget to conduct!
I know the scenes so well, but I’m still constantly fascinated how she looks and acts. Anthony Hopkins as well.
Do you listen to other film scores and soundtrack albums?
I like to go to the movies. Before I came to Munich, I listened to some of the recordings the Graunke Orchestra had made so that I knew what they sounded like. So I could write for them.
A personal question: I always wonder what a film composer thinks when mad freaks come along wanting to talk about film music. For a composer, it may be just a job. But then there are maniacs who collect and listen to that kind of music. Is this something strange for you to deal with, as a composer?
To talk to somebody like you who is obviously very knowledgeable about it is interesting. I’m always interested in talking to people who really understand it and who think about it.