Thursday, June 28, 2012

On Thematic Scoring

While sharing musical themes associated with villains in a group of fellow film music fans earlier today, I put forward the piece Grond – The Hammer Of The Underworld from Howard Shore’s magnificent score for Return Of The King. It isn’t one of the most well-known tracks from the set, but happens to be a personal favourite of mine owing to the tremendous power and remarkable thematic core it retains for duration of a little over two minutes. Right after a fearsome amalgamation of the Gondor and Sauron themes in vicious struggle, obviously representing the clash between their representatives, the latter joins forces with the Uruk-hai 5-beat pattern as the orc armies of Sauron and Saruman crash the sinister battering ram, Grond, into the gates of Minas Tirith. Low brass and high strings hold on a single, tense note as Gandalf addresses the terrified but resolute soldiers behind the city walls as they stand their ground, watching the terrifying spectacle of the battering ram’s snarling wolf-head poking in through the ever-expanding hole in the gate.

“You are the soldiers of Gondor. No matter what comes through that gate, you will stand your ground!”

Horns and trumpets blare in unison as Grond is slowly withdrawn only to be smashed a fourth time into the gates, breaking them open this time. Two pairs of vicious trolls barge into the city, followed by the rest of the enemy’s forces and start brutally laying waste to Gondor’s ranks. A single, desperate rendition of Gondor’s theme sounds on low horns as they futilely launch a volley of arrows at the relentlessly attacking orcs, but is left incomplete and overcome by the diabolical Sauron’s theme as their foes press deeper and deeper into Minas Tirith.

Of course, these are just my views. For the real picture, I suggest reading Doug Adam’s amazing annotated scores for these films. Nobody could understand or analyze them better.

For me, such thematic complexity and buildup is what separates a great score from a serviceable one. John Williams is especially famous for working around with themes, motifs and leitmotifs in truly unique ways. Hans Zimmer took the noble theme for Mufasa and turned it into a no-holds-barred battle anthem as Simba battles his father’s killer atop the Pride Rock in The Lion King. Michael Giacchino turned the cute, swingin’ version of Muntz’ theme (Up) in Up With The Titles into a ferocious, villainous version in battle with Ellie’s theme during the latter half of the score. More recently, I loved how Alexandre Desplat rearranged John Williams’ classic Hedwig’s theme for the final film in the Harry Potter series. A bold, elongated version on trombone plays over a dramatic string ostinato as Harry confronts Lord Voldemort atop a tower – I could barely recognize it until it was pointed out by someone else.

There are several more examples for the same, and I think each of them is something truly worth appreciation. This precision and care in thematic scoring never ceases to fascinate and enthrall me, and is something that ought to be greatly encouraged and promoted in order to improve the quality of both film and music, in my opinion.

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