'Lord of the Rings' Composer Howard Shore on Scoring 80 Movies: "I Often Felt Like Frodo"

Howard Shore - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

Howard Shore - H 2014

Shore, set to receive the 2014 Maestro Award at the Billboard/THR Film and TV Music Conference, looks back at his long career, from playing sax in a Canadian rock band to scoring Oscar-winning films for Scorsese and Cronenberg

This story first appears in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Before Howard Shore, 68, scored more than 80 movies — winning three Oscars, three Golden Globes and four Grammys in the process — the composer spent his formative years playing sax in Canadian rock band Lighthouse and logging some 1,000 gigs from 1969 to 1972. "We opened for Jimi Hendrix, toured with Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, played the [bigger than Woodstock] Isle of Wight. Elton John opened for us in Philadelphia," recalls Shore, who will be honored for his wide-ranging body of work with the Maestro Award at the Billboard/The Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference on Nov. 5 at Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif. "You felt a bit like Zelig in all those backstage areas."

In truth, even back then Shore, a native of Toronto, was a showbiz veteran. At 13, he had put on summer-camp shows with his 15-year-old friend Lorne Michaels, who hired him in 1975 for $500 per show to help create Saturday Night Live as its music director (among the pop culture moments Shore influenced: He named The Blues Brothers). "On the summer hiatus, I would score movies for David Cronenberg," says Shore. "We grew up together making movies — 15 so far."

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Shore's summer job led to a career making music for movies that have tallied box office receipts of more than $6 billion, including Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and Hugo as well as the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. His scores cover quite a waterfront, from the esoteric (Ed Wood, Crash) to the most mass-market (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) with one constant: It's the auteur who dictates his style. "With David, you feel the work is happening inside someone's head, so the music is somewhere at the periphery of the image onscreen," says Shore. "He likes ambiguity, the idea that you don't have to explain everything, that the audience can have their own experience."

Shore can manage the polar opposite, too, as he explains of his work on Lord of the Rings. "You didn't want ambiguity, you wanted clarity," he says. "It's the most complex fantasy world ever." Shore, who writes operas (The Fly) as well as scores, turned to Wagner's leitmotifs to keep things straight. "Trying to weave your way through this world, I often felt like Frodo with the ring — this great responsibility. It was like [director] Peter Jackson was walking in front of me with a light. Sometimes he'd get tired and I'd have the light. It took three years and nine months, one step at a time."

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As for what Shore is listening to these days, it's mainly 17th and 18th century music, but he doesn't dismiss the pulse of pop music, either. "I hear everything," he muses. "I've been writing music every day since I was 10. There's so much that I want to do."

Nov. 5, 11:45 a.m. Story updated.