Howard Shore: Back in the <em>Spotlight</em>
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January 07, 2016

Howard Shore: Back in the Spotlight

Howard Shore at an <em>Eastern Promises</em> scoring session in 2007<br>Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Howard Shore at an Eastern Promises scoring session in 2007
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Among those in the first rank of living film composers is Howard Shore, who has collected three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes and four Grammys. In his youth, Shore was a sax-playing sideman in the Canadian jazz-rock band Lighthouse, and later was the original music director and in-house composer for NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Since his initial foray into scoring for motion pictures in 1978, Shore has been composer for about 80 feature films, documentaries and TV movies. He casts a wide net in terms of genre – his scores range from comedies (Big and Analyze This) to action dramas (Eastern Promises, Silence of the Lambs) to epic fantasy (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and every style in between. His most current score is for Spotlight, the acclaimed dramatization of the uncovering of the far-reaching sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese at the beginning of the 2000s. Shore recently spoke with Playback about Spotlight and other aspects of his distinguished career. 


Was composing for Spotlight a departure from your previous scores?

I don’t really know if it is quite a departure. I’ve done a few films that used a chamber orchestra: Eastern Promises, Jimmy P, Rosewater, Spider. For Spotlight, it was a 10-piece chamber group.

Is it as much of a challenge to score for a chamber group as a large orchestra?

I don’t think it is any less challenging to write chamber music than it is to write symphonic music. The harmonies, the counterpoint, the structure of these pieces compositionally is the same. The difference is in how the parts are distributed, how the orchestration is achieved – in this case, it features very much the piano (and occasionally Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ) as well as harp, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, percussion, fiddle, accordion and two French horns.

Most of those are pop instruments, but the Spotlight score doesn’t sound much like a pop record.

I guess there are some aspects of pop in capturing the feel of the period, which is 2000 – 2001. The music tries to evoke the time and the location of Boston and the particular influence of this city on the story.

The emotional response to each scene varies.

I worked with director and screen writer Tom McCarthy on the scenes and the themes and motifs inherent in the story. It’s a great screenplay by Tom and Josh Singer. We talked about thematic ideas in [the cues] “Pressure of the Church,” the “City on the Hill.” Also themes of legacy journalism and investigative reporting, a kind of older style of journalism. The story takes place just pre-search engine when research was done in a more analog way. “Deference and Complicity” is a major piece of music that is heard throughout the film that plays to the influence of the Church and how it affects the city politically. There is a theme called “The Children.” “Pain and Anguish” expresses the tragic consequences of the abuse.

You visited a related theme in the movie Doubt, which deals with the suspicion of abuse by a priest.

It’s quite true. James Sizemore, who has worked with me for the past few years, reminded me a couple of times about Doubt.  The ensemble was also quite small for Doubt – 12 or 15 pieces. It also was very intimate, as this story is, as well.  There are some similarities.

For an assignment like this, did you immerse yourself in Boston and read the newspaper stories that inspired the film?

I always do a fair amount of research before I embark on the composition.  I like to see what effects this had culturally, at the time. I then went about writing a piece based on the ideas in the story – I am really interested in the words. So I work a lot based on my research and from the screenplay, maybe viewing the film once, taking away my impressions as an audience member would. And then I write compositionally to the themes. Once I feel confident that I have enough material, then I set about to score the film. That’s using the motifs and themes in the story and asking the questions, why they are there, what’s required in each scene, what’s the orchestration in specific scenes, what’s the depth of the recording. You then start to go onto more of a technical process in actually recording the score.    

You’ve enjoyed your greatest popular success with the Tolkien Lord of the Rings films. Do you seek a balance between working on epic films and smaller stories?

I do. Really, I ‘m looking for pieces that move me in different ways, stories that I can write from my heart and ways to express ideas in music. Different types of compositional ideas and different types of recording techniques that interest me. So, I think I’m always looking for the story – that’s always the fun part.

You’ve worked so much with the director David Cronenberg. Is that collaboration almost second nature to you?

I’ve worked on 15 films with David Cronenberg and we started working together in the late-1970s. It’s been a wonderful process working with someone that long – you’re always looking forward, never looking back. David has continued to push the envelope of what movies can be, and I’m constantly looking for new ways to express ideas in film with David.

In making a film a film like Eastern Promises, how deeply did you delve into the Russian underworld that is such an element of the story?

Eastern Promises was written for the great violin soloist Nicola Benedetti.  I wrote the piece for her and chamber orchestra. I did include some fairly exotic colors in that score. The cimbalom, santoor, and balalaika were used to capture the feel of that underground criminal world.  

Can your scores exist as something to listen to without the film?

They certainly can. But there’s something that happens with the connection of the story to the music. A lot of live-projection concerts are being done with live orchestra and I’ve been doing concerts of The Lord of the Rings scores – all three parts of the trilogy. The music has also been played in concert. The music of a film is connected to the imagery –  something happens in a magic way that becomes something different and really interesting – I love that in watching these concerts.  When I first saw it live to projection, I was very moved, I felt I was seeing my music for the first time and hearing the film for the first time. The connection between them is very strong in a live performance. The Fellowship of the Ring has over 200 musicians on stage. The energy created in the concert hall with that many players, singers and children singing is really quite powerful, and you experience the film in a whole new way. It’s very exciting. 

You’ve also composed quite a few concert works apart from film scores. Is that more challenging for you or just a different muscle you are exercising?

It is. The detail, counterpoint and harmonic language are different. I’ve recently completed a piano concerto for Lang Lang, and a cello concerto for Sophie Shao, the New York cellist. The opera, The Fly, premiered in Paris a few years ago. I’m working on a classical guitar concerto for Miloš Karadaglić. That is one of my current projects. So I’ll work on films while I’m working on concert pieces, working on them in parallel. I find that going from one to the other helps to refresh the brain.

I imagine you never stop thinking musically, no matter what you’re doing.

My interest has always been music. Film was a way to be with other musicians, to be with great orchestras and in the recording studio. It has been really interesting for me to work on these stories. My background is in theater and in music. I’ve been composing music since I was 10, always writing music for chamber group and orchestra. Opera was something I wanted to write for a long time. I was just looking for a new means of expression.

When you were a very young composer, did you ever think you’d be creating music for films seen by millions of people around the world?

I was just looking for opportunities in music. And I loved technology – so music and the technology of film – a perfect combination.


Howard Shore on the web:

Spotlight is in theaters now. Find out more at