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40 years into his career, Howard Shore is still making some of Hollywood's best scores

The Canadian composer discusses his latest project, director François Girard's The Song of Names.

The Canadian composer discusses his latest project, director François Girard's The Song of Names

Howard Shore's newest score is for Canadian director François Girard's film, The Song of Names, about a Polish violin prodigy living in the aftermath of World War II. (Getty Images, Elevation Pictures; graphic by CBC)

Howard Shore has become a go-to film composer for some of Hollywood's biggest directors: Peter Jackson (the Lord of the Rings franchise), Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York, The Departed) and David Cronenberg (The Fly, Videodrome), just to name a few. But while his name has become synonymous with these filmmakers, Shore isn't afraid to take on new projects from fresh collaborators. In fact, his latest project pairs him with someone he's never worked with before: renowned French-Canadian director François Girard. 

Together, they created the sonic world for The Song of Names, out Dec. 25, a film that is built entirely upon a musical world. An adaptation of a Norman Lebrecht novel, the film tells the story of a Polish violin prodigy named Dovidl who goes missing the night of his much-anticipated first public performance. Set in a sombre, post-World War II Europe, music is a means of survival, a way to process trauma and a form of tribute to those who died. 

For Shore, who grew up around some of the cantorial music that is explored in the film, taking on a project of this size required more than just a single score: he also had to arrange the music that was played by the characters on-screen. The results are not only accurate to the period and geography, but also incredibly moving, the music telling a story of its own that powerfully parallels the journey of its protagonists. 

Ahead of the film's release, CBC Music sat down with Shore to discuss The Song of Names, how film scoring has evolved in the 40-plus years he's been in the industry and why he continues to write music every day. 


You're best known for your long-running working relationships with directors like David Cronenberg, Peter Jackson and Martin Scorsese, but The Song of Names marks the first time you've worked with François Girard. What goes into the decision-making process for you when it comes to new collaborators?

It was easy with François. I knew his films like 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould — I love that film. And of course The Red Violin. So when we were put together on the phone, we just took off. There was so much to discuss and we connected right away. Then I worked with him for over two years on the film so the relationship really grew into a good friendship.

Music plays such an integral part in The Song of Names. Did that require you to be more involved in the filmmaking process than usual?

Yes, I had to work on all the pieces onscreen before the score and that took quite a while. We went through each scene in a lot of detail. The violin concerto at the end of the film that [Clive Owen's character] plays before the Song of Names number is Bruch's concerto, but we listened to Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Dvořák…. We were going through a range of pieces to try and find the right one to express the time period and to be historically accurate so I spent a lot of time with François just on the pieces that are onscreen and then, of course, the score took months.

Was this a period of music you were familiar with?

Yes, but music is so vast. I've been studying it all my life. It was one of the things I liked about working on films was that it took you on journeys. So for this film I could go back in time to the cantorial tradition of prayer and that was really interesting to me. That sound was part of my upbringing. So it was like going back in time for me, personally.

Is it true that you write music every day?

Yes. 

Do you ever experience writer's block? If so, how do you deal with that?

Music is really going on all the time. I'm thinking about music all the time. The composition isn't really happening unless the pencil is actually on the page and that happens quite often. It's just something that I've learned to do since I was a youngster. I studied clarinet and my teacher was Morris Weinzweig, who was John Weinzweig's brother. John was one of the most famous Canadian contemporary composers. Morris taught me to write counterpoint harmony when I was 10 years old and once I started, I studied a lot of different woodwind instruments and then I just kept the pencil going. The woodwinds, I put down; the pencils, I continued. 

I feel like the two main ways of writing a score are character- or theme-driven, or creating something more ambiguous and open to interpretation. Is there one that you prefer more?

No, they're really storytelling techniques. In Lord of the Rings, I used themes and leitmotifs because the story was so complex that it was a way to create clarity in the storytelling. But with other films, particularly some of David Cronenberg's films, we don't like to clarify so much. We like to create a sense of ambiguity and let the audience discover the story and the film on their own. So it really depends on the story you're trying to tell.

Speaking of Cronenberg, this year marks the 40th anniversary of The Brood. What do you remember about that experience? It was very early on in your career. 

It was the second score I did, but the first one with David. It was in the late '70s and the score was 21 strings, recorded in, I think, two sessions in six hours. It was kind of guerilla filmmaking. We did things rather quickly. We didn't have a lot of budget to work with so we had to do things very efficiently. I was at a point in my writing where I really wanted to work with orchestras so it was one of my first projects where I actually could write for a string group like that. 

Last year, Cronenberg said he might be done making movies. Do you think that's true?

I hope not. 

Have you had any conversations with him about any upcoming projects?

Yes, we have. Well, we'll see. You don't really retire from directing, I don't think. 

Right, just like how you can never really retire from writing music.

Right. It's just so much a part of my day that I have to write for the day just to even feel like there's a structure to it.

In your 40-plus years in film scoring, have you noticed any changes or evolutions in your field of work?

There's been many changes in the sense that, if you're in another room and there's a film from the '70s playing in the other room, you know the sound of that when you hear it. You go, 'Ah, the '70s.' You can hear the '80s, the '90s. The sound of recording has changed over the years and how music is used in film is very different. I would say every six months to a year, there's a new feeling in music for film and new things are being created that are of interest.

How would you describe the sound of the 2000s and 2010s then?

I don't know. It's very diverse, really, because you have composers now from all over the world. I think with the explosion of communication and the internet, you have people writing music all over the world. So it's opened up the expanse of ideas. And actually, when I started in film, I was interested in music from other countries: Toru Takemitsu in Japan, Georges Delerue in France, Nino Rota in Italy. I was listening to their music and trying to understand how music was used to tell stories in different parts of the world so I think we're now seeing an explosion of ideas from all over the world. 

I spoke to Jordan Peele's go-to composer, Michael Abels, earlier this year about how hard it can be as a new composer to get into the film industry. Do you have any advice for someone trying to break in?

My advice is always find your peers, find your group, find a director that you like. You just need to find that one person and that can start you. I worked in repertory theatre for years and that's a good way to start because theatre usually requires music and you can be the music person. That's a good way to meet other actors or editors or directors. 

What was the last film score you were blown away by?

I was interested in the sound of Chernobyl, actually. Some of the really experimental things are being done in TV series right now, which I think is really interesting. 

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