The Fellowship of the Ring

Recording the soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring with composer Howard Shore


Cellist Catherine Wilmers gives her account of the orchestra sessions in September 2001 that brought to life Howard Shore's score for this new film.

3 September 2001 A huge orchestra assembles in the gigantic Watford Colosseum (formerly known as the Town Hall). There is an expectant and excited atmosphere as Canadian-born composer, Howard Shore, arrives on the podium. He starts off by describing the film and his involvement with it. Present a year ago during the filming in New Zealand, Shore is steeped in Tolkien. Director, Peter Jackson, a bare-footed New Zealander, is also on hand to meet us. Howard explains about the languages used in the film: elvish (two versions) and dwarfish; and how the Tolkien songs and poems are included. Roisin, the Tolkien language expert, has helped to coach the choir, especially in 'black speech', and organised phonetic translations to help the singers. Meanwhile the red light flashes in the hall, perhaps a gentle reminder that it is now 2.30 pm and that we should consider playing some music.

Howard asks how many of us have read Lord of the Rings. Many hands go up and a few days later new copies are seen lying around on the floor to be devoured by musicians during the breaks. This is Howard's first visit to Watford. The sound is immediate, vibrant and very warm. Perhaps my impressions are coloured by sitting in front of the marvellous horn section which has to play some very dramatic music.

Every player has a pile of folders, beautifully organised with the music of each section in a different colour. The music is very clear, printed in large notes direct from a computer. Gone are the days of trying to unscramble incomprehensible manuscripts! Howard has a screen in front of him and as soon as we rehearse a section he is able to judge whether the music sounds correct and whether it fits exactly. Often we are asked to make a 4-beat bar into a 3-beat bar and later a 4-beat bar into a 5-beat bar to compensate. Impressively he is also able to make immediate decisions about whether the instruments sound right or whether we have to make adjustments such as cutting out a few cello or violin bars.

We get ready. The number of the 'take' is announced, and we are off. We soon discover it is vital to take notice of the metronome marks on the parts as there are often sudden mood swings with associated tempo changes. When the 'black riders' appear, the music is suddenly faster, rhythmic and frightening. Susanna Riddell (my cello desk mate) and I soon discover that we can go up to the control room in the breaks to watch the film and listen to the music. Coffee breaks are forgotten as we get immersed in the film. Computer imaging technology has been used to 'shrink' the six-foot actors playing hobbits and dwarfs.

7 September 2001 This is day four and we work from 9 am to 4 pm as Watford is being used for a disco in the evening! The music stands, instruments, microphones and wires all have to be removed for the evening and then put out again the next afternoon at 2 pm.

8 September 2001 We manage to start on time. In the control room there is an amazing array of switches. We go up there to listen to the playback and hear a noble cello passage to accompany Gandalf. It is nice to be chosen to represent the good! Then we move on to deeply scary music.

10 September 2001 We are at Watford from 11 am to 6 pm, before dashing to check in at Stansted Airport one and a half hours later. It does not help that another car smashes into me on the journey and I have to report it to Hertford Police Station. We are off to Bucharest for two nights with concerts as part of the Enescu Festival. We arrive at 3 am. To save time we are met off the aeroplane and able to avoid going into the terminal building. We give in our passports as we get off the plane, lug the instruments straight onto buses and set off for the hotel with flashing lights and a police escort. Sitting in the front of the bus and driving through red traffic lights is quite exciting.

11 September 2001 After the rehearsal, we receive the devastating news about the terrorist strike in New York. We somehow get through Bruckner's Symphony 3 that night and Dvorák's Symphony 8 the next. Then the police turn out again to help us to the airport and we return to England at 4 am on the 13th.

13 September 2001 At 2 pm we are back at Watford and still devastated about the news. Howard lived for ten years in a neighbourhood ten blocks from the World Trade Center and sent his daughter to school nearby.

14 September 2001 We stand in silence for several minutes at 11 am and later the whole orchestra signs a card to show its solidarity. We are all rather subdued but Howard, although obviously deeply upset, manages a quiet and wry smile now and then.

17 September 2001 We are on the river Anduin, sailing along with a lovely cello phrase. A choir of about 60 joins us on several occasions. Sometimes they are booked to record in the evening from 9 pm to midnight after we have gone home.We spend a long time on each section and often re-record the same section a week later, perhaps when Howard has new inspiration about an extra percussion effect such as the sound of chains! Rachel Gledhill wears thick gardening gloves and hits the strings of the piano in a rhythmic pattern, sometimes jangling the chains on the floor at the same time. Next there is a detailed discussion about the 'bodhrans' (Irish drums) and how many players are available to play and at what pitch. Can 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 are long discussions about which tycho drums to use. Howard has a very clear idea in his head of the sound that he wants to achieve.

20 September 2001 We have transferred to Air Studios, Hampstead. In an attempt to get the correct drum sound it is suggested that the drum could be heated with the hand drier in the 'Ladies' to tighten the skin. The violas have no metronome clicks in their headphones at one take, but they still manage to play in time. Howard asks: 'How did you manage it?' 'We watched you', came the reply. 'Novel!' said Howard, obviously rather chuffed.

It takes a bit of time to match the Watford sound. We are working from 3 pm to 10 pm instead of from 2 pm to 9 pm and Howard finally admits to a moment of tiredness and then realises we are working an hour later.

26 September 2001 We have moved to Abbey Road Studio. Howard tells us there is music all the way through the film, except for four minutes. As we are working, the music is being sent down the internet and mixed with the film track. When we go to listen to the playback of the Prologue we joke that we would like to stay there for three hours and see all the film. The Orchestra's enthusiasm and level of commitment to the film is evident.

30 September 2001 Howard tells us we have recorded 8-10 minutes a day. We spend the day doing 'pick-ups', matching the sound from one recording to another. After two hours we have only recorded 31 bars. On this day there is an Irish band. Another day there were some Indian instruments (sarangi and ney flute) and a monochord, a wooden instrument with a rectangular flat top and 50 strings underneath, which took ages to tune. It is used by healers as therapy. One lies on it while it vibrates. Apparently everybody has their own particular chord which helps them to relax. Howard assures us that 'conductors live a long time because of all the vibrations they get from the orchestra'.

Howard never lost his 'cool' with us. There was a feeling of deep trust all the way through. Sometimes 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...'