The dilemma that “Pieces of a Woman” posed for composer Howard Shore was how emotional to make the music in a story about the most wrenching and devastating experience in a couple’s life.
“We had many discussions about this exact topic,” Shore says, referring to himself and Kornél Mundruczó, who directed the movie, now streaming on Netflix. “We talked about giving the film a very classical sound. It could have been a piece written for the stage or the concert hall. By taking that approach musically, it has its own independence to the narrative — it enhances it in a way that classical pieces from hundreds of years ago might have a similar effect.”
The score was written “like a concerto,” Shore explains, with piano and strings at the fore, with the oboe and celeste (or bell piano) also featured. “It’s not commenting on the action. It’s more emotional, more intimate, more internal.”
Mundruczó was inspired, in part, by Shore’s own piano concerto, titled “Ruin and Memory,” which was premiered at the Beijing Music Festival in 2010 by famed Chinese pianist Lang Lang as part of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frédéric Chopin. Fragments from the haunting second movement appear in the film, although in a new recording.
However, most of the music in “Pieces of a Woman” is original and specific. Shore wrote two main themes: one of “grief,” the other for “the lost child,” he says. Much of the score revolves around Martha (Vanessa Kirby), delicately reflecting her inner turmoil. Yet Shore’s grief theme is not sad, he notes: “It’s really a theme of hope. You hear it in scenes where she’s contemplating her life and trying to figure out how to live alongside the loss.”
There is darker material, often associated with Martha’s volatile husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), the composer reports, and some electronic textures carefully mixed into the live-orchestra recordings.
The biggest challenge was the much-talked-about first half-hour, as Martha goes into labor and midwife Eva (Molly Parker) arrives. “We would try things, put them in the film, discuss them, then take them out and try a different approach,” Shore says. “Eventually we concluded with a piece that takes you through the actual birth of the baby. It’s an optimistic piece for quite a while.”
The entire collaboration happened remotely, post-pandemic, with the New York-based Shore communicating with the director, who was editing in Budapest; and his pianists, conductor and orchestra recording at Teldex, Shore’s favorite studio in Germany. “They had, in Berlin, figured out a way to do these recordings with masks and protocols and distancing,” says the composer. “I’ve done many recordings at Teldex, and I’m very happy working there.”
Shore particularly enjoyed the collaboration with Mundruczó because of the helmer’s background directing theater and opera in Europe. “His spotting [choosing where music is needed and what it should express] was really elegant. How he was using music, how he thought about it, how he used thematic ideas, were quite well done.”
Shore, who has three Oscars for his “Lord of the Rings” music, sent the film to Martin Scorsese (with whom he has done five films including “Hugo,” which also earned the composer an Oscar nom). “Marty liked it so much,” says Shore, “he became executive producer.”
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