A version of this story about director the music of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine
Led Zeppelin famously invoked J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series in several hit songs (“Ramble On” and “Misty Mountain Hop” among them), and if you’re looking for the right composer to reimagine Middle-earth for a multiyear Amazon Prime series adaptation, you go right to the ultimate rock-and-roll composer: Bear McCreary.
But don’t let the long dark hair and drummer vibe fool you, as McCreary can craft a dramatic, haunting score for just about any genre there is. “Sci-fi, fantasy, horror, period pieces, these are all things that inspire me and get me out of bed,” says McCreary with a noticeable jolt of energy. “And “The Lord of the Rings” is the godfather of so much of that.”
A longtime fan of Tolkien and the prior adaptations, McCreary prepared for this massive undertaking by chatting with another individual he greatly admired from this landscape, the Oscar-winning “Rings” composer Howard Shore (who scored the Peter Jackson trio of films and whose work can also be heard in the series)—who proved incredibly supportive, and knew the biggest challenge was to bring this story to an entirely new generation that could stand alone musically from the Jackson oeuvre.
“It’s an error to assume that most people watching “Rings of Power” have seen the Peter Jackson films,” McCreary says. “So, part of my job is to make sure that you understand this on a visceral level and understand what’s happening, and if you understand the lore, I’ve got you, I’m supporting you.”
Much like the series, the score is far-reaching and ambitious, ranging from choral to romantic to rousing, often the viewer’s guide into the show’s fervent emotional core. McCreary even goes so far as to call it “potentially schizophrenic.” He explains this theory: “There are four or five complete music languages that are like their own show in and of themselves, for instance the Harfoots sound completely different than the Orcs, from the Elves, and so on. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it could be a complete mess. But it’s my voice that unifies all that—my instincts, my tastes, my melodies. At the end of the day, it all boils down to melodies that you can play with one finger on the piano, and that they’re all distinct.”
And McCreary was given carte blanche by the series’ creators to use as many influences as he saw fit to create this aural space, but not without a little convincing on his part. “I was inspired by the production design that had a kind of Mesopotamian, ancient Greek look,” says McCreary, admitting that the mélange of tuneful styles could have been potentially confusing. “And I said, ‘let’s bring in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern colors, Armenian duduk, Turkish tambur…this is outside the realm of what we heard in the Peter Jackson films. There was some hesitation, because it’s not overtly a Mediterranean society, it is a Middle-earth. But Tolkien drew as much from myths of Atlantis and Camelot as he did anything else. I assured them that it would work.”
And work it did, as McCreary’s contributions are among the most praised elements of the Amazon series, and the soundtrack album, clocking at two hours and 40 minutes, offers fans ample opportunity to bask in it. (“And that’s the short one,” jokes McCreary.) So, what’s next for the tremendously busy composer, besides another season of “Rings of Power” of course (Amazon hopes to have five seasons total.)? A musical, perhaps? “Look man, you’re reading the tea leaves correctly,” McCreary says with a smile. “Musicals, non-narrative music, these are all things you’re going to be hearing about in the near future, it’s just not announced yet. I love doing different things, I’m just wired that way.”