Howard Shore

Composing with a very wide palette

Published in Cinesonic - The World Of Sound In Film - AFTRS Publishing, Sydney © 1999
Transcribed & edited by Philip Brophy from the talk delivered at the conference in 1998
Reprinted in Celluloid Symphonies: Texts and Contexts in Film Music History - edited by Julie Hubbert, University of California Press, 2011
Crash © 1996


A widely accomplished composer and orchestrator, Howard Shore has composed the music for 7 films directed by David Cronenberg, many of which are ground-breaking explorations in contemporary film scoring. Fusing Bernard Herrmann's modernist, economical approach to the leit motiv with an awareness of studio recording techniques, Shore has defined a uniquely atonal style of psychological inquiry. His themes - apparently simplistic, never obtrusive - do not merely express emotion, but rather capture the often dark resonance that hums deep with a character's psyche.

Philip Brophy

Howard Shore in Conversation

How did you get into composing for films?

It was something I thought about while I had different careers. I had a rock 'n roll career when I was young and I was on the road for years. Then I did television in Canada and eventually the United States where I did Saturday Night Live. As I was doing that I thought television was really not something I was going to stick with. I had also done some music for theatre and had developed ideas about writing pieces. I wrote them in my head but didn't have an avenue for them, so I thought film scoring might be a good way but to express some of my musical ideas: like, for example, the idea for the score to Crash with the electric guitars, harps, prepared piano and so on. If I had an idea like that, I didn't know how I could get to perform it, so I looked at films to do that. That's how I got into scoring music, through this sort of experimental level. The early David Cronenberg films like The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome are all pretty experimental. I thought of movies as being film scores. That's what I was interested in, so that's how I got into composing.

Could you say something about your musical influences for Crash?

I was certainly aware of the composer Toru Takemitsu who did a lot of work with sound and electronics as well as composed music. That influenced me a lot in the sixties when I started listening to on one hand rock 'n' roll and on the other a lot of avant garde material, so a bit by accident I started listening to electronic music. He might have had an influence on me to write something like Crash because he was doing it many years ago.

How do you and David Cronenberg work together? When do you come in on one of his projects?

David and I work pretty close together. He sends me a script as soon as he writes it. In fact, I may well be the first or second person who gets his writing after he has completed it, and from that point we start our dialogue about the film. His most recent film eXistenZ is an original science fiction script. After he sent me the script we talked about many things besides music and making movies, from casting onwards. Once the shooting starts I always visit the set. eXistenZ was shot in Toronto so I went up there for a day or two to get the feel of it. We have some more talks about the movie, but not so much about the music. That comes a little later on.

After he finishes shooting he does his director's cut and that is where the process resulting from our early dialogue starts. I will look at David's director's cut and then we start formulating what we might do. About a month later we do a spotting session where we get inside the movie and talk about it scene by scene, and how we might use the music in the scenes. When I started composing music for David's movies in the late seventies, it was like guerilla movie-making because of their low budgets. We didn't know what it was like to have money to make movies, so we just did what we could and created the work that we could within the budgets that we had.

Later we actually had money when we made our first studio-financed picture, The Fly. It was a big symphonic/operatic type score and we went to London to record the London Philharmonic. After that we did a lot of orchestral scores: Dead Ringers, M Butterfly, Naked Lunch -- all done with the London Philharmonic, and all fairly expensive recordings. Not expensive for films in general, but for once we had sizeable budgets to do what we wanted with orchestras.

When we got to Crash we were back to the earlier ways of working. The smaller non-orchestral ensemble was built out of necessity, because this time we couldn't afford the London Philharmonic. Once you go outside the realm of both the orchestra and electronics -- but still want to do something acoustically in preference to using synthesizers and the like -- you find some interesting solutions.

For Crash, I found it was better to go with numbers, so instead of using one guitar I used six guitars and so on. The original piece was written for three harps, which still remains the backdrop to the whole piece, and each pair of guitars functions like the amplification of the harp parts, transposed up an octave. All the 'electronics' -- the amplified sounds of the guitars, the delay units through which they are playing -- are applied to the guitars alone. The guitars then perform a 'harp sound'. When I recorded the harps in the studio, I amplified them along with the guitars. So this was a piece that was created in the studio using acoustic instruments like harps, whereas the orchestral scores for David's films previous to that were all done live. Crash is like Scanners and Videodrome, and eXistenZ follows along similar lines.

How do you conceive the relationship between image and sound when you are composing music for a film?

It's a fairly intuitive thing, and not too intellectual. When you look at a scene in a movie, there is a visceral feeling you have, particularly with Cronenberg. I sometimes watch the movie once and get so inspired musically and creatively that I just go and write a piece based on what I have seen. Naked Lunch was certainly like that, and with quite a few of David's movies, my process starts as soon as I have seen the movie.

From that point, a whole chain of events is set in motion which are not so much about sound, but more about notes. Ideas for scores originate compositionally for me: it's not about what the sound is, but about what the notes are and how should they relate to the movie. Crash was written as a long piece that I analyzed after I wrote it, so as to make it work in the film. This is opposed to the method of looking at a scene and wondering 'what does this scene need?' and then writing 40-50 minutes of music to organize the movie. There were certain pieces which were moved around because I would hear them differently in the studio from how I wrote them, or where I thought they should go. The opening section, which is used for the titles, was originally written for a scene where they recreate the Jayne Mansfield crash. But then once I heard it performed and recorded, I thought it would be really good for the opening of the movie, and another version of it was used for the Mansfield crash.

So, to answer your question about the sound-image relationship, I perceive it as a gathering process: you see the image, ideas start to flow, and you should not restrict them in any way. I just let it all flow and then, on a more analytical level, I try to figure out what the ideas are. David writes in the same way, with a very wide palette where everything is possible. We keep narrowing it down, editing it until we end up with the score of the movie. Actually, movies are about editing, which is generally a reduction process. You have a lot of film that's slowly made into a ninety minute piece, and the score is reduced in the same way. Having said that, I should point out that not all movies are the same. I've done movies in Hollywood where it is a very different process. You look at it from maybe a more traditional way, and you think about how to use music in this scene or that scene, and the director may not be as experienced as David Cronenberg, so you are dealing with different types of things in different movies. Cronenberg has an extremely creative sensibility which is the best situation that you could have as a composer. I am lucky to have worked on so many of his movies.

Does Cronenberg hand over the control of the music to you or is some sort of collaboration involved?

He does the same thing with me that he does with actors, cinematographer, production people, and so on -- most of whom he has known and worked with for over twenty years. He just says 'that's your area, you do that'. Most of the scores I've written have gone straight into the movie, and sometimes he will say to me afterwards 'you know, I didn't really understand why you did that at the time'. He will sometimes edit a little bit, like a director or a good editor will do.

In Dead Ringers I think he changed four bars of the entire score. In Videodrome he did not change a note. It was funny because I recorded that score without him being present at most of the sessions. I gave it to him and he put it in the movie, and I knew he felt that it was strange -- even for him. Another director would have asked me to think about changing it, but not David. To his complete credit he just put all the music in. He is a very intuitive filmmaker; he likes to play with film making, and he likes to edit that way as well. I have seen him edit scenes and take out a whole reel of a movie -- he can be extreme like that -- and then he might put part of the reel back again. In Naked Lunch, I had written two pieces for one scene and we could not decide between the two, so we just mixed the two pieces together and we were happy with them. That was the spirit of Burroughs with Naked Lunch: you could do a lot of things like that.

I'd like to know what kinds of music you listen to in your own space and time? What are your preferences?

My wife thinks I'm not listening to music anymore. It's hard to listen because there is so much music coming at you all the time and I do not really understand it. I am the kind of person who does not want to listen to music in a restaurant because I don't really understand why I'm supposed to be listening to that. I'm constantly telling people to turn the music off in cabs and airplanes. I don't understand why you have to have music when you land on an airplane. So, I'm incredibly conscious of music all the time and I'm a quick study: I can hear something once and I get it. I don't need to hear it over and over again. I don't like 'oldies' radio stations because I've heard it once, I've lived it, I don't need it. So I find myself mostly listening to new contemporary music because I'm interested in what people are creating with new music. I've studied a lot of nineteenth, twentieth century music, so I'm particularly interested in what's going on now: Christopher Rouse, John Adams, and so on. I want to know what people are creating now.

I'm interested in the relationship between sound design and your work. How do you view that in relation to the music you write?

That's a good question. Often it depends on the relationship the composer has with the sound designer. Skip Lievsay -- who has done a lot of very good work with Scorsese, the Coens, and so on -- worked with me on Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. We first started working together on a documentary by Diane Keaton called Heaven, and there we devised a method whereby we actually built the score. I had a sixteen track machine and we dubbed the score and the sound design on the same sixteen tracks. That was the ideal way of working. So when we got to The Silence of the Lambs we did exactly the same thing, and quite often I would take my score to the studio on my sixteen track tape, and Skip would bring his twenty-four track tape and we would lock them together and listen to them both and start eliminating things. He'd say 'I don't need that because you're doing that' and I'd say 'I see what you're doing now, so I won't even play my cue there' and so on.

Before we even got into the dubbing session (where we decide on what sounds will be used for the final mix) we had everything figured out. And in a way, that's an ideal position. As a composer, you do not want to be at a dubbing session with the sound designer and the director hearing the sound design with the music at the same time. Quite often the sound design might be 40, 50, 60 tracks. How can a director listen to 60 tracks and listen to the music at the same time, plus try to understand how all of it fits together? It can lead to disaster. So I recommend a unity between the composer and the sound designer wherein they can figure out what they are going to do. Sometimes it's not always possible due to distance and time, and now the schedules of movies are incredibly tighter. But there are situations in which the relationship between the composer and the sound designer works out very well. In Crash there is a scene which takes place inside a carwash. I constructed a musique concrete piece with the sound designer. I took his sounds and built a piece around his carwash sounds.

How much music or how many scores would you be working on at the moment?

I'm writing a piece now for piano and orchestra, and I'm writing a few film scores, so I'd say maybe three at the moment. Besides the fact that you are a film composer, let us say you were a composer and you woke up every day and you said 'I'm a composer and I have to write music' -- which is what people did for hundreds of years. They wrote a lot of music, so why would you not write three or four or five pieces a year, whether they were film pieces or for concerts? I think that is probably what you would do if you were writing music full time. Anybody who wrote orchestral pieces in the 20th century also wrote chamber works, pieces for solo piano or flute, and so on. If you look at the works of someone like Takemitsu, he wrote 94 film scores in his life. He also created a body of concert work that matches almost anything that has been created in this century. He was not tired; that was simply what he did, what he thought about all day. Ornette Coleman is the same. If you look at the amount of music that he has created, it is amazing -- but then again, that is what he does every day. He writes music every day.

You have obviously enjoyed a special working relationship with David Cronenberg, but you have worked with many other directors. Do you find it more difficult to work with them, are some jobs more bread and butter work, or do you enjoy working on any project that shows up?

Yes, I have worked with many different directors, but nothing quite matches the relationship I have with Cronenberg. That work constitutes some great, fantastic years. Composers like to work with directors who do not get too involved in the music, and whom they can really trust. Tim Burton was wonderful to work with on Ed Wood. He just loved anything I did. During the recording sessions, I would want to give it another take and he would say 'no, we got it, it's great'. Composers like to work with directors who have good ears and who know how to use film music without being afraid of it.

Could you say something about the differences or restrictions between concert music and film scores?

I have written forty-five movie scores and I started to do it because, as I mentioned earlier, it was an outlet for the things that I wanted to do. I was in front of an orchestra three or four times a year, and it gave me a lot of experience and knowledge about the orchestra and about recording which you would not obtain otherwise. Now I am applying that experience to longer pieces. They are not so different from the film music that I write, but it's a way to expand on that experience. I'm not locked into a timing or a scene; I can create my pieces with more freedom, and I can develop things a little longer than I would be able to do with a movie. I'm essentially using all the techniques than I learned from doing movie scores: studio techniques, conducting, all the writing and orchestrating. All of which I have learned from movie scores and which I'm now applying to pieces that are much more personal.

Is it hard to find the opportunity to perform those concert pieces?

Writing film music is a commission, but the pieces that I am writing now are purely for record. I do not really need the orchestra, nor am I writing purely orchestral pieces. I am not trying to go totally into the world of contemporary classical music; I am just writing for record which is really what I have been doing all along because all my soundtracks have been released on CD.

I did a retrospective concert in Seville, Spain, a couple of years ago. It went for two and a half-hours and was with the Seville Symphony and their choir. It involved quite a lot of music that went back about eighteen years, and after I did that concert I thought there's some pretty good music here. I considered the various pieces, thinking I could have done something really great with this idea; this was a great piece for orchestra; this was a wonderful string quartet; and so on. I could see what I was doing but I was just treating it as commissioned film music. So what I would like to do now is record my music, because recordings are a pure form. In the twentieth century, the music world is essentially compose, record and perform. Composing and recording are intertwined. The retrospective piece written for Seville was not a piece written for a concert: it was written as a set of film scores after which I figured out a way to perform it live. I am using this same idea of intertwining composing and recording.

Did the location recordings of a particular film affect the final outcome of your compositions?

Well, with the example I mentioned from Crash, the location recording became the piece. I thought of it like sampling: I would sample certain sounds and compose with them. For the score to Crash I sampled maybe 25% of it after I had recorded it and manipulated it in the studio -- you can hear it all on the CD. So with the last few movies I did like Copland and The Game I used a similar process.

I actually stopped recording in a full orchestral context because I had done so much of it. After fifteen years I felt I had reached a point where I had done as much as I could in a live situation. Of course, there is certain joy in just having an orchestra there and conducting it: you do a take and it is finished. It is a wonderful thing. But the technique I have been using since Crash is to record part of the orchestra. I think of it like a big sound gathering session. I will then go in and spend six or seven hours working with different sections of the orchestra and then take it back to the studio and do quite a lot of post-production work on the recordings. At least a quarter of Crash was created after the initial recording.

A lot has been made recently about how over half of the best-selling albums in the States are movie soundtracks. Do you think this is a good time for film soundtracks generally?

It is a good time for composers because it's less difficult to get a performance of one's music due to what has happened with the popularity of film music in general, and, say, Titanic in particular. James Horner obviously benefited from the movie and the score, but I think it has had an effect on the whole business of film music.

This is okay because even if you are not doing something on such a mass and popular level, the success of film music filters out. The record companies are now interested in film composers. As an experienced composer in that field, if I want to do a piece, there is some interest. If you were in the recording business I think you would probably want me to keep on doing something because it's perceived that people are interested in film music. Whether it's true or not, I don't know, but the interest from record labels is currently there.

Can you outline the collaboration between yourself and Ornette Coleman for Naked Lunch?

Ornette Coleman made a recording with Robert Palmer in the sixties in Joujouka, Morocco called Midnight Sunrise. He went up into the mountains in Morocco outside of Tangiers and recorded with a group of about 18-20 musicians known as the Master Musicians of Joujouka, who are now very popular and make their own records. Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones also did a record with them around the same time. So, when we started to do Naked Lunch, David and I thought of using some jazz. I scoured the book for jazz references and there was very little in it. Burroughs talked about 'cocaine bebop', but there was not too much that you could really latch onto. So I asked David to ask Burroughs what did he listen to, and it turned out that he had conventional taste. He liked Stan Kenton and Getz. So I said to David, 'Well, I don't know, Stan Getz in Naked Lunch is not going to do'.

But I kept thinking jazz. What can we use? So I thought it has to be bebop: it comes from the fifties -- the birth of bebop -- so that would be Charlie Parker. It has to be Parker, what else can it be? So I got a set of recordings made by Benedetti: a famous Italian fan of the music who had a wire tape recorder in the late 40's and who would frequent the jazz clubs in New York and stick his mic in front of Parker whenever he played. In fact, he would just stick the mic in front of him and whenever anybody else played he would stop recording to save tape! The tapes are now available on a CD called The Benedetti Tapes and they are fantastic recordings of Parker playing in clubs. But because of the nature of the recordings you do not hear much else besides Parker's playing on this mono wire tape recording.

So I started playing around with those tapes. I wrote material around the Parker pieces which themselves are very fast, with his notes all moving very quickly. My material ended up being these quite slow tango tempos which, when played behind the fast Parker solos, sounded interesting. But I kept trying to figure out what would be a fusion or a mix of jazz bebop and Moroccan music. The only thing I could think of was Ornette Coleman's Midnight Sunrise, so I played it to David and he said 'That's the Interzone National Anthem'.

So then I thought about taking the Parker solos from my multi-track sketches and replacing it with Ornette Coleman. I knew Ornette from when I booked him on Saturday Night Live. I was very young at the time -- a real fan of Ornette, actually -- and he said to me that week 'I want to produce your show band' (that is, the band that played on the show each week). I was honored, but couldn't believe it. It didn't make sense to me, so I didn't think much of it. Fifteen years went by, and I called Ornette in Amsterdam, and it was like we had just talked yesterday. I told him I was doing this movie, Naked Lunch, and asked him if he wanted to play the Parker stuff, because I knew that he really knew the Parker material. Charlie Parker was Ornette's muse: it was the Parker music that got him into music; it was when he heard Parker that he had his mother get him an alto from a pawnshop in Texas. He said that the first day he played that alto, he sounded exactly like the way he plays now. He said it was tactile, and if you watch and listen to Ornette, you can see it really is, the way he holds it and the way his hands move.

So, I said 'Are you interested in doing this?' He said 'Yeah'. I said 'Okay I'm going to write the score, let's meet in London a week before the recording; I'll start to give you some music and I'll tell you what I'm doing'. We met in London, and after many meetings back and forth in hotel rooms, I asked him 'Do you want to re-record these Parker tunes?' He said 'Let me think about it.' The next day he called me and said 'Mmm, no, I don't think so. They're too good. I could never do them better than that.' But he can play them which is something that hardly anybody knows. He played those Charlie Parker solos for me at my hotel room note-perfect. He said 'Instead, I'll write some bebop tunes.' And he did, and those are the tunes that are in the movie and on the record.

He did them with a trio at my suggestion. I didn't want piano or any electronic or electrical instruments, so he did it with a French bassist, Barre Phillips, and Denardo Coleman played drums. I booked the London Philharmonic and we recorded Ornette live. I had Denardo in a soundproof booth. Ornette taught Denardo how to play -- he's an amazing jazz drummer. Ornette would be giving really slow, beautiful tempos to the orchestra, and Denardo would be in the booth going crazy, just burning, playing double triple time. I fed a line of Denardo's drumming to Ornette on headphones, because he plays to the drums, as any jazz player would. If he played with the orchestra you would hear very slow melody lines, but I had to have him play the fast beat. He responded to Denardo's playing and matched his own playing to the tonality of the orchestra.

What happens if you come across a scene where your gut feelings tell you that no music is required, but the director insists on some being there? How do you creatively deal with that type of situation?

It is a real struggle. When you are trying to score a scene that you do not think needs music, it has to be a struggle. There are so many different situations in front of you when you are composing music for a film, and so many different ways to approach them. If you have a director who insists there should be music in a scene, it's best to try and write music for the scene. Then later you might be able to successfully suggest that the scene does not need that music. All in all, you have to go along with what is asked of you.

I learned quite early on in spotting sessions with directors that it is best just to listen to what they say and try to sort it out later, because if you try telling him or her that music is not needed in a particular scene, you might have picked a scene with which they have a problem due to performance or writing. In fact it seems that whenever a director has a complaint they ponder: 'maybe music could help it here?'

Could you tell us about the music you did for Ed Wood? What instruments did you use and how did you create the score?

Ed Wood was a fifties project and a real labor of love for Tim Burton. So I wanted to recreate music from the era, to retain that flavor, and I decided to use instrumentation typical of the jazz exotica of the period. I thought that a theremin simply had to be incorporated, but I needed a classically trained theremin player who could read the parts I had written. It transpired that the only trained theremin player was Lydia Kavina -- the great niece of Leon Theremin who invented the instrument. But she lived in Moscow. I told Tim this, and he agreed to get her into a studio to record the session. I certainly loved him for that. One of the great things about working in Hollywood is that you could come up with something that wild and it was okay. I got used to it, you know.

So the production people arranged visas, because it is not that easy to get a player from Moscow to come to London, where we were doing the recording sessions. Anyway, we had started the recording sessions and Lydia still had not arrived, so I had hired Cynthia Miller to cover for her, who played the ondes martinot. Now the ondes martenot is a keyboard instrument with a ribbon strip which you press with your fingers. It can be made to sound like a theremin, but has a cleaner more refined sound.

So Cynthia did three sessions before Lydia arrived. I figured that if Lydia did not show up I would at least have the ondes martenot on the score. But I kept assuring Tim that Lydia was coming, that she was going to make it, and I even kept showing him pictures of the theremins. But I showed him pictures of original models and the version RCA made in the forties, huge things with dials and rings. He was amazed with all the designs, because he loves those sort of things. Finally, through a series of motor cycle couriers across East Germany, Disney managed to get her to London. So Lydia showed up for the last session in the studio, alone with just a knapsack. Tim looked at her and he was obviously thinking 'Where's the theremin?' and Lydia says 'Here it is'. She takes it out of her knapsack. One of her uncles had made it for her. It was a very fifties-looking thing, like a cross between a radio receiver and a hot plate! Tim looked at it, then he looked at me and I thought 'Oh, God' -- and then after a second he said 'That's cool!'

So she did a day of recording with the orchestra live, and then we went to a studio on the outskirts of London and recorded a lot of solo material with Lydia. We loved her; she was wonderful. And she could really play -- she is a virtuoso and maybe one of the best theremin players in the world. She tours and writes her own pieces for theremin and orchestra.

One other thing about Ed Wood. It is essentially a Latin score and it has a very big percussion section. There are nine percussionists on the score -- and they are all very square. To me it is the most wonderful part of the score because that squareness is truly the 'Ed Wood' part it. I used a very small orchestra to try to capture the sound of film music you would have heard from those Universal Studio orchestras from the 50's. I really tried to replicate that Universal sound by organizing the orchestra in a very special way and even micing it in a very special way.

The music of the fifties in America is so interesting to me. The convergence of Cuban music with American Jazz. The great creations of Bernard Hermann. My score is dedicated to one of the masters of that period, Henry Mancini. In all respects I realize that this was a great opportunity to express my ideas about this particularly wonderful period of music and film-making.

Text © Howard Shore & Philip Brophy 1999.