The Music of Middle-Earth: An Interview with Christopher Nightingale

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Christopher Nightingale is the orchestrator and musical supervisor of The Lord of the Rings, the person responsible for the music of Middle-earth. He worked with the composers – A.R. Rahman and Värttinä over the course of two years and the music would not be there without him. Chris is one of theatre's most experienced and highly regarded masters of his craft, with past credits that include some of West End London's best plays and musicals, despite his never having imagined a career for himself in either theatre or music.

"I didn't set out to pursue a career in music" explains Nightingale. In fact I studied sciences. I did have a musical background - and I went to Cambridge on an organ scholarship – but I took a degree in Natural Sciences. However, it was at Cambridge that I discovered how much I loved the theatre when I became involved with the Footlights, the amateur theatre club at the university. The truth is that I spent a good deal of the time I should have spent with my science books playing the piano with the Footlights, instead."

Actually, Chris Nightingale did far more than just play the piano. He was musical director of the Footlights for three years – and the Footlights was (and is) far more than an "amateur theatre club"; it has provided Britain's professional theatre with some of its brightest talent for more than 120 years.

"Going into the theatre wasn't a conscious choice, but when the opportunity came along, it felt like the right thing to do. After university, I messed around for a bit, playing piano here and there, skiing… and then Richard Brown, who's working with me now on The Lord of the Rings, gave me a job playing piano at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And here I still am, sitting at a piano in a theatre, almost 20 years later."

But even 20 years of theatre experience wasn't quite enough to prepare Chris fully for the proposal he would receive from producer Kevin Wallace.

"I had worked with Kevin before but when he first approached me to ask what I thought of the idea of a stage production of Tolkien's books, possibly a musical, my first reaction - and I think it was our director, Matthew Warchus's as well - was 'You've got to be kidding! The idea is crazy!'

"I found it difficult to imagine The Lord of the Rings as a stage production - the work is so vast - how would you put a thousand pages of text into a theatre? But I found it impossible to imagine it as a musical. How could you find a route in - musically – that could do this work justice, and avoid cliché and cuteness? Frodo singing about how heavy the ring is and how he just can't go on? It seemed to me like a very bad idea.

"Then I looked back at the books. I had forgotten how filled with music they are. Music - both literally and as metaphor - is central to the tale. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien's introduction to his imaginary universe, Middle-earth is called into being in song, and each new act of creation - of Elves, Men, Dwarves - is a new theme in a divine symphony. Evil is introduced into the world as a discordant theme that disrupts the harmony. Musically, perhaps the whole project wasn't such a bad idea, after all. I began to realise that you couldn't actually tell this story without music.

"But what would the music be? It was going to have to be something quite unusual. We certainly weren't going to manage it within the bounds of a conventional 'musical' – it couldn't sound like any Broadway or West End show any of us had ever seen before – and I was grateful to realise that that's not what Kevin Wallace ever had in mind.

"We talked it over and came to an agreement on where to start. Evil - the dark stuff - seemed for us the key to the music of Middle-earth. How do you express this darkness musically? What we wanted most of all was to avoid the obvious - the clichéd stings and chills of horror films. We didn't want something 'scary', but something brooding and visceral - something more Brothers Grimm than Hollywood.

"The breakthrough for us came in a stage production called The Black Rider, by Tom Waits. The interesting title is pure coincidence - believe it or not it has nothing to do with the Black Riders of The Lord of the Rings. Waits' song is from an opera he wrote with the novelist William Burroughs in the early '90s. It wasn't that we wanted to adopt and use The Black Rider, or imitate it, or commission Tom Waits to compose something similar for our score (although we did briefly kick that idea around), but there was a dark and chaotic quality to the piece that clearly revealed how what we wanted to do could be done. Here were tangible ways into music unlike anything we'd heard before on a musical theatre stage.

"We'd been talking about an 'ethnic' sound for the music of Middle-earth, but with no particular ethnicity in mind. In fact, what we felt we had to do was create a unique voice for the show - voices actually - that might represent the wide range of cultures, species… the geographic size of the book. Tolkien had given us a clean palette to colour with our own imaginations. With this in mind, what had first seemed a scary and very bad idea suddenly began to look like an extremely good and exciting one. We were being given the opportunity to invent our own world. "

In the end, the "dark" music Chris Nightingale and Matthew Warchus sought as a starting point almost fell into their laps. It came with a recording, from Finland, of a group called Värttinä.

"We knew that J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, had been fascinated and much influenced by The Kalevala, the epic of ancient Finnish legend and mythology, but that really had nothing to do with the choice of Värttinä. That the group is Finnish, that its songs and music are influenced by the same folklore and mythology that influenced Tolkien is just a happy coincidence. I'd never heard of them until John Havu gave me a record and said, 'You've got to listen to this'.

"Who knows what it is that makes you say 'yes, that's it'? But that's what we all felt when we heard that record. When Matthew, Kevin and I first heard Värttinä, we knew that they were right for The Lord of the Rings. Their approach to the sound of the 'dark' was just what we were looking for."

To balance that music on the other end of the spectrum, the LOTR team turned to the Indian composer A.R. Rahman. Chris Nightingale had worked closely with Rahman as musical supervisor for the London production of Bombay Dreams.

"Yes, I'd been working with A.R. in London, and that experience made me aware of what he is capable of. A brilliant composer, but also a wonderful chameleon, capable of taking on many colours - of absorbing and transforming any music, any style and giving it his own, unique signature.

"In Värttinä and A.R. Rahman we had the two extremes of our musical spectrum: They are earth and air.

"But imagine the scenario… putting together two sets of composers from two different cultures on opposite sides of the world. I don't think anything like this has ever been done before. The challenge was tough. For both Rahman and Värttinä, taking on a project like this was an incredibly brave thing to do, professionally. But it's where those two contrasting styles meet and collide that things really get interesting!"

In the centre, at that very point of collision, stands Chris Nightingale. As musical supervisor and orchestrator, it's his job to referee the clash, smooth over any rough edges, create a synthesis and make all the pieces fit together.

"Sometimes I'm like a referee, and at other times I need to be glue. My job is to ensure that the fabric of the score is seamless, that there are no disjoins, that it's all cohesive and consistent.

"I spent a lot of time in Finland with Värttinä and a lot of time in India with A.R. Rahman – long before any work began in Toronto – talking over the show, exchanging ideas. I'd bring things from Värttinä to A.R., and from A.R. back to Värttinä… and take ideas from all of them back to London, to Matthew and to Rob Howell, the designer. A wonderful thing about this experience is the way all elements of the show have influenced the development of each other as they've evolved; Rob Howell will hear something in the music that affects his ideas about the set and costume design; the composers will see something in Rob's drawings that gives them a new idea about the music; everything has grown together, building a whole and complete new world. In the finished score, I hope there will be no song you can point to and say 'that's by A.R. Rahman,' or 'that's by Värttinä.' You may hear a melody originally written by Rahman, but to which Värttinä has applied its own, unique interpretation, and vice-versa. In the end, these two very distinctive composers have come together to share a vision of the oneness – and complexity – of this imaginary world that their music has brought into reality."

Performances will begin February 2, 2006 at the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre. For more information, visit www.lotr.com.

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