Hold On! Gimme A Sec

The first note in the Lord of the Rings score has an ancient history

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“Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring opens with a monologue. Galadriel, the Elven queen, details the history of Middle-earth, the dangers of mythmaking, and the things that should not have been forgotten, but were.

The film also begins with a sound.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.

An ominous drone can be heard just before a choir sings “Footsteps of Doom” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional language of Sindarin and Cate Blanchett begins her narration. A monochord, played by the late multi-instrumentalist and composer Sonia Slany, produces the dissonant rumble. This obscure instrument sets the emotional tone for the trilogy, as well as the literal tone for the nearly 11 hours of music that follow, in the first measure of Howard Shore’s score.

The monochord has been used for tuning, science, and healing for thousands of years. And, like the One Ring, it represents long-forgotten knowledge from the past that is nearly but not quite, lost. The instrument’s age and history make it a good fit for Peter Jackson’s Fellowship, but the first scene almost looked — and sounded — completely different.

The prologue sequence proved to be a difficult nut to crack, according to musicologist Doug Adams, author of The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films, who was chosen by Shore to document the soundtrack’s creation. Shore composed original music for a number of different openings that the filmmakers developed early on. With no narration and more traditional composition, Adams describes one opening that drew viewers into the story right away (akin to the first track of the condensed soundtrack released in 2001 alongside Fellowship). When the armies of men and elves first marched against Mordor, another iteration, which can be heard on The Rarities Archive, a companion CD to Adams’s book, prominently featured the “Realm of Gondor” theme. In fact, the leitmotif was intended to be “all over the place” in Fellowship before being reworked into the main theme of Return of the King.

When the filmmakers finally decided on the narrated prologue that audiences have come to know and love, they considered a number of actors to voice the prologue. Adams recalls Ian McKellen and Elijah Wood auditioning for the role of Saruman, as well as thought about Christopher Lee reading the text as Saruman. As Galadriel, Blanchett eventually took center stage, bringing with her new music

According to Adams, Shore’s overarching goal was to create a score that sounded like it “was discovered, rather than written,” and the first track played a key role in forming that sonic narrative. He agreed to score The Lord of the Rings films in part because of his personal connection to the story (he was a member of the jazz-rock fusion band Lighthouse in the 1960s and 1970s and read The Lord of the Rings on the tour bus), but he was also drawn to the project because of its scope. The fully realized cultures, languages, and lore spurred Shore’s desire to craft a soundtrack that not only “commented on the story,” but also felt diegetic, Adams says — “like music that the characters could have heard in their own world,” reflecting different eras, regions, and cultures of Middle-earth.

Shore sought out ancient sounds and instruments from all over the world to achieve the “element of antiquity,” including the Indian sarangi, the Iranian ney, the hurdy-gurdy, and the monochord. The Lothlórien Elves were accompanied by a more traditional orchestral arrangement of arpeggiated figures, low strings, and chimes, while the Rivendell Elves were accompanied by a more conventional orchestral arrangement of arpeggiated figures, low strings, and chimes. Shore departed from traditional Western instrumentation in order to capture the mystique of the Woodland Elves, one of the Middle-oldest earth’s cultures.

In The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films, Shore is quoted as saying, “Rivendell is about learning and knowledge, but this is different.” “The music of Lothlórien stretches into sustained, arrhythmic shapes that sound neither dangerous nor comforting, but rather create a sense of unanswered anticipation.” When Galadriel was chosen to narrate the prologue, the music of Lothlórien was woven in, including the monochord, Galadriel’s signature sound.

Shore was drawn to the instrument because of its age. Monochord literally means “one string,” and aside from the thumping of a drum, the noise made by a vibrating string is “about as ancient a musical sound as we have,” according to Dr. Rich Walter, Curator of the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). The monochord was first invented around 300 BCE, with prehistoric origins. It consisted of one wire stretched out across a hollow wooden body. The original version was intended to be used as an experimental tool for studying tuning and harmonic principles rather than for making music.

While it’s unclear who invented the monochord, evidence suggests it was created by the Greek mathematician Euclid. Pythagoras, on the other hand, is often credited with reinventing the instrument to study the relationship between string length ratios and musical intervals. He developed mystical concepts like the music of the spheres — the theory that each planet in our solar system emits its own unique celestial hum based on its orbit — as well as core tenets of music theory as a result of his studies. Guido of Arezzo, the Italian monk and music scholar who invented modern staff notation, used the monochord in the mid-medieval period.

Woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells, a glass harmonica, a monochord, and organ pipes, from Theorica musicae by Franchino Gaffurio, 1492
Woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells, a glass harmonica, a monochord, and organ pipes, from Theorica musicae by Franchino Gaffurio, 1492
Image: Public Domain

Countless other philosophers and mathematicians used the apparatus to try to figure out what the universe, numbers, and sound were all about. “The monochord represents a kind of origin storey for Western music,” says Dr. William O’Hara, Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Gettysburg College.

The time period in which alchemists relied on the monochord to uncover mysteries about the universe was a prologue to modern music theory and the invention of instruments like the harpsichord, much like Galadriel’s introduction to Middle-earth. The monochord has taken on mythic status among contemporary musicians and scholars, according to O’Hara, who sees it as a symbol of perfect sound and “ancient, lost musical knowledge.”

The traditional one-stringed instrument is now primarily used for demonstrations. “Almost universally,” according to O’Hara, “contemporary monochordists use many-stringed instruments,” such as the 50-stringed monochord played by Slany for Howard’s Lord of the Rings score. The sound of the many-stringed version, with strings all tuned to the same pitch (which Walter suggests should be called a “polychord”), is described in Adams’ book as a “faint metallic slithering,” similar to the noise made by the Indian tanpura, which can also be heard in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

When you play a few strings on the monochord, the rest of the strings move as well, according to O’Hara, a phenomenon known as “sympathetic vibration.” However, due to human error, small differences between wires cause resonant oscillations, creating a unique sonic landscape. Two or more sounds that are nearly identical but not exactly identical, whether caused by gongs, bells, or strings, are “more vibrant, more exciting, and more alive” than if they were exactly the same, Walter muses. “That’s when strange things happen.”

Sonia Slany standing by her monochord
Sonia Slany standing by her monochord
Photo: Courtesy of Paul Clarvis

When you play a few strings on the monochord, the rest of the strings move as well, according to O’Hara, a phenomenon known as “sympathetic vibration.” However, due to human error, small differences between wires cause resonant oscillations, creating a unique sonic landscape. Two or more sounds that are nearly identical but not exactly identical, whether caused by gongs, bells, or strings, are “more vibrant, more exciting, and more alive” than if they were exactly the same, Walter muses. “That’s when strange things happen.”

Slany also played the monochord in both musical and therapeutic settings, and it turned out to be the ideal match. Slany had read J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy years before lending her monochord to the films’ soundtrack, according to her husband, Paul Clarvis, an accomplished musician himself, and felt the storey “evoked a very calm sound world.” Slany, who died in January after a long illness, was a “real blessing” for the movies, according to Adams.

The Independent interviewed Slany in 2000 about her monochord, a sound-bed variation created in the 1980s by German-Swiss music therapist Dr. Joachim Marz. The instrument, which consists of a seven-foot-by-four-foot wooden table with a barrel-shaped belly underneath lined by 50 wires, was one of only four monochords in England at the time of the interview.

It looks like something “straight out of Middle-earth,” as O’Hara put it. Slany commissioned the instrument to be built after studying sound therapy in her early twenties, according to Clarvis. A person would lie on the wooden board during therapy sessions, absorbing the sound bath while she plucked and strummed the strings below. A microphone stood in for the person during recording sessions for The Fellowship of the Rings’ opening track, as Slany played F natural and C natural.

Slany, along with the other musicians who played unusual instruments, typically recorded separately from the main orchestra, according to Andrew Barclay, principal percussionist for the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), who has been in the ensemble for over 25 years and performed for the Rings recordings. This was due to a lack of booth space, as well as the need for audio separation. Instruments like the monochord can be unreliable; they may not produce the sound that the composer expects, or they may be difficult to hear above the rest of the orchestra. Rings, according to Barclay, was and continues to be LPO’s “biggest undertaking” by far, taking several years to complete and containing a plethora of niche instruments.

Despite the fact that Slany didn’t use her monochord very often for soundtrack recordings, you’ve probably heard her violin playing before. Clarvis shared the following excerpt from her funeral service, which summarised her career highlights: She toured and recorded with the Cranberries, Bjork, and Radiohead, among others. Her solos can be heard in The Hunger Games trilogy and the last few James Bond films. During the 2012 London Olympic Games, she even performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. Clarvis, like many violinists, had a “complicated relationship with her instrument,” as he puts it. “Not so with the monochord,” she said, referring to her personal instrument.

The opening thunder of Fellowship’s soundtrack reveals her affinity for the instrument. The monochord appears to be simple to play: all of the strings are tuned to one or two notes, so there are no chords to worry about, and they can simply be strummed haphazardly to produce a hypnotic wash of noise. But, as Walter wisely observes, “there is no such thing as a simple instrument that cannot be played extremely well.” Slany was incredible at playing the monochord. And, above all, its droning and mystique succeeded in setting the emotional pace for a film about forgotten history. The hazy humming of the monochord Shore found a sound to evoke things that were, things that are, and things that have not yet come to pass in the land of Middle-earth.

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