The personality of the screen composer is often a baffling mystery. From André Previn to John Williams to Howard Shore, the music might be dashingly sexy, inspired with fevered religiosity, or shrouded in enigmas - and completely unlike the composers who created it.
The amiable, low-key Shore wouldn't seem to fit in with the myth-steeped screen characters for whom he has so memorably written in the Lord of the Rings series. That will be celebrated in a special concert screening of the film The Fellowship of the Ring, accompanied live by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mendelssohn Club, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. Yet Shore's distinctively misty, foreboding, Oscar-winning music is surely as much a part of the films as the often-severe New Zealand scenery against which the stories were shot.
"I grew up in Canada and spent all of our summers in the Northern Ontario parks and lakes. They became part of my life," Shore said by phone from his New York City office. "And as I got older, it more and more resonated with meaning. [Canadian pianist] Glenn Gould talks about the connection with the northern idea, and I may have that as well. . . . A lot of the Ring is nature-based and related to saving everything we love about the world."
Then there's his connection to J.R.R. Tolkien, whom he reveres. "I've written a lot to films adapted from literature - Naked Lunch, Crash, Richard III," Shore said. "I love to read and used that as a way to delve into the books and create a lot of music directly from Tolkien's story." Much of the music, he said, "was created away from the films. I feel very close to Tolkien's work."
Unlike many composers, Shore didn't wait to receive a rough cut of the movie. That suggests a level of immersion that was perhaps necessary to enter such a complicated and complete network of mythology. "Tolkien created a culture predating our own by five or six thousand years. He used a lot of northern European imagery to create a language specifically to tell the tale," Shore said. "I was writing so much music that the vast palette allowed me to try everything that I had learned in all those years of conducting and writing."
Often, film scores aren't allowed to have much emotional ambiguity. But that's part of the point of Shore's Ring scores. "It's a story of impending doom," he said, "that draws in the audience and makes them part of the performance. They're able to draw their own conclusions."
While one tends to think of composers as the lone creators of their work, it's easy to wonder to what extent the Ring mythology created Shore, at least as he is now. Certainly, the 68-year-old composer has evolved far from his younger self. "Certain comedies that I once tried, I wouldn't necessarily do now," he said. "At different times, different things seem interesting. It's a kind of discovery process about myself."
About 75 films ago, he was lucky enough to grow up in Toronto, down the street from David Cronenberg. Cronenberg later became one of the more interesting directors on the landscape - and a regular collaborator with Shore, allowing a degree of experimentation that film composers don't always enjoy. Another boyhood friend, this one from summer camp, was Lorne Michaels, who made Shore the music director for Saturday Night Live during the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd/Blues Brothers period of the 1970s. He was sometimes seen on screen leading his All-Nurse Band, conducting with a thermometer and costumed in nurse drag with Lily Tomlin, in "St. James Infirmary."
Later on, Shore's high-profile films - which include Silence of the Lambs, Gangs of New York, and Doubt - were often concurrent with his association with the Ring films, which began in 2001. "I didn't say 'no' to a lot," he said. "I just follow the philosophy of keeping the pencil moving."
What about some of his work, left on the cutting-room floor? "You learn to live with that for the greater good."
Lately, though, he has been saying "no" with a certain frequency, partly because demand for his work now extends beyond the film world. Like John Williams before him, Shore has been writing works for the stage. His 2008 operatic version of The Fly (based on the Cronenberg film) wasn't a success. But noted musicians commission concertos from him: The latest, for classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglic, will premiere at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada.
Although Shore doesn't require cinematic visual stimulus to compose, one notices that his concert works usually have an extramusical subtext. For Shore's Piano Concerto, the great keyboard composer Frédéric Chopin was in the back of his mind. Vocal works have well-chosen poetry as the starting point. "I don't need to see it," he said of his creative impetus, "as long as I can feel it in my inner eye."
"The Fellowship of the Ring," with the Philadelphia Orchestra
7:30 p.m. Thursday. Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave. Tickets: $25-$85. Information: 800-745-3000, MannCenter.org.