Interview with the Ottawa Citizen

Lord of the Rings’ composer Howard Shore to debut his newest work in Ottawa on May 1

LYNN SAXBERG Updated: April 26, 2019

NAC Orchestra with Miloš Karadaglić
Conducted by Alexander Shelley
When & where: 8 p.m. May 1-2, Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
Tickets: $35 and up, available at NAC box office, and

When two young guns of the classical world — the NAC Orchestra’s Alexander Shelley, 39, and Montenegro’s superstar classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, 36 — decided to collaborate on a new piece of music, they went to none other than Howard Shore, the celebrated Canadian-born composer best known for writing the transcendent score to the Lord of the Rings film series. His new work for orchestra and guitar, entitled The Forest, will have its world premiere in Ottawa next week. In this interview, edited for length, the 72-year-old composer talks about the new music, his old-school creative process and why he didn’t go to Woodstock.

Q: How did this commission happen? 

A: It came about through Miloš and his working with Alexander Shelley. They called me together and proposed this idea. I was delighted to compose a new piece for Miloš, who’s a brilliant guitarist, and working with Alexander and the NAC Orchestra has always been a real interest for me.

Q: You have worked with the orchestra before. Is this your first time working with Alexander Shelley?

A: Yes, I didn’t know Alexander but I knew of his work. The combination of Miloš and Alexander was too enticing. It was a great offer to compose a new piece for him. 

Q: What is the starting point for this type of composition?

A: I like to write specifically for the performer. I saw a solo performance by Miloš in New York. That was the beginning, then I spent time with him in London. I just enjoyed his company. He’s a brilliant artist, a great young man. We shared information, and really a lot of it is love of that instrument. The classical guitar is just such a beautiful instrument to work with. I love the romanticism of it, and also the emotion that Miloš brings to it. He inspired me to write this piece.

Q: Tell me about your writing process.

A: This is the third concerto I’ve written. I wrote one for Lang Lang, the pianist, and a cello concerto for Sophie Shao and so I stayed in fairly traditional form for this concerto. It takes me about a year to write a piece like this. I’m fairly disciplined. I just work at it day by day. Construct the piece, construct the architecture of it. That’s really the process. It’s just an ongoing day-to-day composition, and then the orchestration process. 

Q: You have not done much conducting in recent years. Are you heading into retirement mode?

A: No, actually I’m more busy than ever. I’m working on a piece for the virtuoso violinist Ray Chen, and a few months ago, I wrote a Latin mass for a church in Lucerne, Switzerland. I’m quite busy doing commissions. I’m also working on a couple of different films, one with François Girard called The Song of Names. We’re getting ready to record that in Montreal at the end of May. I haven’t really focused so much on conducting. I’ve been putting the energy into composing. 

Q: Do you miss the spotlight?

A: I do a bit. I’ve done a little bit here and there but I’m more than happy to spend my time with my pencil and the composition. It’s very fulfilling to me. 

Q: A pencil? Are there not computer programs to do that work these days?

A: I know there are but I’m very old school in that regard. I still write with pencil and paper. All the composing is done by hand, and then I do the large scores in ink. I don’t use computers to compose, it just isn’t something that I was trained how to do. I also like the graphic nature of the hand to the page, the control you can have with just the pencil and paper without any machinery involved. I love that. 

Q: Let’s talk a bit about your background. What was your first instrument?

A: I studied the clarinet. I’m a woodwind player. Then I studied the flute. Then I studied piano, cello, trumpet. I did learn different instruments just to learn how to work with them, how to write with them. Part of that training was learning how to play, but never really in a professional way. It gave me good background into writing for those instruments. 

Q: You were also a member of Lighthouse in that band’s heyday. What was that like?

A: I was there for the very beginning years, from 1969 for four years to ‘72. We travelled vastly, all over the world. I think I did 1,000 one-nighters and eight studio albums. It was an interesting experience. 

Q: But the band didn’t play Woodstock. How come? 

A: We missed Woodstock because our manager at the time took another gig that paid a little more. So we were in New Jersey while everybody was celebrating Woodstock. A crazy story, right? We played a lot of festivals over the years, and it was just another festival and then it turned into Woodstock. We weren’t there but we were in spirit. 

Q: You’ve been to Ottawa a few times in the last few years to pick up an Order of Canada and a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. Do honours like that hold significance for you?

A: Very much. I’m very proud of my Canadian heritage. I just love the country, love being there and if there’s any opportunity to participate, the whole family is interested. My grandson always wants to come to Ottawa. He just turned 16 and he loves to travel and experience different cultures. He’s very interested in Canadian culture right now. 

Q: Circling back to the new piece, it’s called The Forest. Is there an environmental message?

A: No, I call it The Forest because I write in the forest so essentially everything I write, I call The Forest. Everything is coming from the forest. Other than that, it’s a purely lyrical piece with a beautiful instrument played by a phenomenal guitarist. It’s really a love letter to the instrument. 

Q:  Your home is in the woods?

A: Yes, I live in an old oak woods in New York (state). I’ve been writing there for years. When I was writing Lord of the Rings, I was living in this forest. Tolkien writes a lot from his love of nature, everything green and good. I wrote for years from The Lord of the Rings books, and it was all done from this woodland. I just immersed myself in nature, and as I did, the music improved, the garden improved and everything sort of grew.