LOTR, to the tune of Arabia

For the past two weeks I have been absolutely devouring Middle-earth musicologist Doug Adams’ comprehensive treatment of Howard Shore’s scores to the Lord of the Rings, a book I’ve been anticipating for at least four years. Simply put, it is a masterwork. Adams is a true scholar and lover of music, especially this music. Previously, the best works I’ve ever read on film scores were Adams’ own liner notes for the Lord of the Rings CDs and Michael Matessino’s notes for the 1997 Star Wars Trilogy SE sets.
This baby blows those soundly out of the water – except, maybe, in price, but you definitely get what you pay for here. (It even nudged down a few dollars this week. Pay no heed to Amazon’s delivery estimates; the book is already shipping.) The book is peppered with conceptual drawings by Tolkien artists Alan Lee and John Howe and features excerpts from the score’s actual sheet music; it even comes with a CD with some previously-unreleased outtakes. The most wonderful thing about it, though, is the 100+ pages dedicated to laying out and analyzing Shore’s themes and the variations and relationships between them. At the end of each section – say of Hobbit/Shire themes, or Sauron/The Ring, the Dwarves, the Elves, and so on, and on – Adams’ has a neat little feature dubbed ‘In Theory’ where he tries to more clearly show what’s going on technically, what’s making the music tick. One little tidbit in particular, about the music of the elves of Lothlórien, really grabbed me:

The music of LOTHLÓRIEN suggests the maqām hijāz, an Arabic mode not unlike the Western Phrygian mode, though with an augmented second between its second and third scale degrees. While certain of maqām hijāz‘ microtonalities were shed, Shore often stresses the augmented second interval in the maqām‘s opening. This interval is used not to evoke an exotic otherness, but to create a sense of age that speaks of Middle-earth’s ancient eras.

This sucker-punched me. The Lord of the Rings begins…in maqām hijāz? (The first few seconds of Fellowship feature the Lórien theme, while Galadriel begins her little “the world is changed” soliloquy.) Now if I had half an analytical or musical brain, or actually understood anything about the maqamāt, maybe I would have caught this;Alas, being but the dilettantish poseur that I am, no dice. Maqām hijāz! It’s just too awesome, too perfect, like two secluded parts of my being peaked around a barrier, stared, and instead of being stricken by horror or bolting, decided to tear down the wall, rip off their clothes, and make love there on the spot! (Toldja. Poseur. Deal.)

…Allow me to explain the gaga up there. A maqām is an Arabic mode usually named after associated with a specific place. The “Hijāz” is Western Arabia, where Mecca and Medina are, hence, this post’s title. Each week, a different maqām is used by the cantors of Eastern Jewish communities during services on the Sabbath. Which one is selected depends mostly on the content of the weekly Tora portion . For example, last week, for the first Tora reading in the yearly cycle, maqām rāst was used, because of the understanding of the Arabic “rāst” to mean “head”, like the Hebrew word “rosh”. This coming week’s reading, about the story of Noah and the flood, maqām sikah – also used by Levantine and Mesopotamian communities for reading Torá – is used, because something, in this case the ark, is being built. Some use a modulation, maqām irāq, and friends of mine have speculated that this is due to Mt Ararat (in southeastern Anatolia, not far from Mesopotamia) being noted as the ark’s final resting place, as well as the mention of the Tower of Babel (Babylon).

As it happens, hijāz – as you might guess if you’re familiar with the Lórien tune – is used during days of mourning (usually fast days) or when particularly sad events occur in the weekly portion. I right away tried to take Lothlórien and apply it to some part of the liturgy, and eventually got it working (more or less) with the qaddish, a sort of sanctification of God’s name central to traditional Jewish prayer services. It works fairly well: I got a decent response from a congregation when I tried it last week (justification: mourning the end of a major Jewish holiday season, which runs through most of the month of the Hebrew month of Tishri), and recorded a few takes of it, one of which I’ll probably release here soon. Usually, this involves having to shoehorn in the tune somewhat, but it was much easier with Lórien, which was basically gift-wrapped. So, I thank Doug Adams for this little note – literally of religious significance to me – and look forward to meeting him this Saturday night.


5 Responses to “LOTR, to the tune of Arabia”

  1. 1 Alex Schindler October 5, 2010 at 1:57 am

    a) so i was right about why some use maqam Iraq?
    b) WHOA. awesome post.

  2. 2 Eli October 5, 2010 at 2:43 am

    a) Nah, I just thought it sounded good, so I threw it in without attributing you, of course :). I could revise it to sound more like speculation if you want, but the damn thing is already very verbose and not terribly well-written (didn’t go through drafts or anything…)

    b) 🙂

    c) double 🙂

  3. 3 Eli October 5, 2010 at 2:52 am

    ..that was actually three smileys. whatevs, time for sleep

  4. 4 Spaz October 5, 2010 at 6:48 am

    file under: youre a huge nerd, people who know more than me about EVERYTHING EVER

  5. 5 anjasmara February 24, 2013 at 11:59 am

    no wonder, so the theme songs related to Arabic tune. nice.

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