“Location, location, location” – the one and only rule I know about real estate. I’m much more familiar with how music can define a setting, whether it is a steel office building or a moldering log cabin in the woods. The reverse is also true, as a setting can fit a type of music. One of my closest friends and I have both played instruments since we were very young – she, the harp, and I, the violin. Whenever I hear her play, I think of the house she used to live in, full of squashy, broken-in sofas and sunlight pouring in from large windows onto a sleeping cocker spaniel mix. While her instrument suited her own home, mine jibed with Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina, several hours away from my house. A friend gave me my first full-sized violin there, and the scenery of marsh grass and egrets reminds me of Vivaldi and of Rimsky’s “Russian Easter Festival Overture.”
British composer Nicholas Hooper also had location in mind when he wrote his Grammy-nominated score for the sixth installment in the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In fact, some people disliked the score’s reliance on setting. One critic complained that Hooper opted “for atmosphere over memorable melodies.” I’m guessing he’s not a real estate agent.
Half-Blood Prince was never one of my favorite movies. I won’t give a recap here because I find it pointless without explaining the preceding films, but I will say that this post will not contain major spoilers and may be understood even if you haven’t seen or read Harry Potter. The movie aside, I love the score despite its faults. Hooper was third to compose for the Harry Potter films, following John Williams and Patrick Doyle. Since their work had already built an overarching tone for the saga, Hooper faced the difficult task of making his music consistent with theirs while exercising his individual voice as well. His incorporation of classical guitar and other unconventional instruments into the score helped him succeed in this effort, lending a new, mournful undertone to many scenes. His attention to location throughout eleven-hour workdays inspired him and made this possible. “Location, location, location” must have been Hooper’s golden rule, with each location meaning something different to the scoring process. A great example of this is the piece “Harry and Hermione,” which plays (minor spoiler alert) in a scene after Ron (Rupert Grint) kisses a girl and makes Hermione (Emma Watson) jealous. You may watch the scene here. The music starts at 0:35.
The first “location” stands for the size of the space Hooper assigned “Harry and Hermione,” similar to the concept of artistic “real estate.” During writing workshops, my Creative Nonfiction teacher insists we spend time to think about the impact we want our words to have on a page. If my sentences ramble and I do not spend enough time on important scenes, than I have failed to see the potential of my artistic “real estate.” Similarly, Hooper had to decide if “Harry and Hermione” reflected the emotion he was trying to create. In an interview, he said, “A big scenic scene would inspire me to write on a large scale whereas an intimate scene between two characters may require only one or two instruments.” “Harry and Hermione” reflects that small-scale intimacy as it relies mostly on classical guitar and faint strings and is only later supported by quiet brass. Hooper did not spend time trying to complicate his music – he stuck to a small, simple theme that maximized his artistic “real estate.”
One more (likely oversimplified and unreliable) fact I know about real estate: age matters. An old house with a leaky air conditioner may be less marketable than some newer homes, but if a house is historic, it may be treated like a valuable antique instead. Hooper’s second “location” rule is that he gave his dues to his predecessors when appropriate. When working on Order of the Phoenix, the fifth Harry Potter film, he attempted to imitate John Williams’s musical style from the third movie. It made sense – Hogwarts is, after all, the same place our characters have found themselves in throughout the series, with similar sets and digital effects. However, Hooper soon found out that imitating Williams was impossible and sought out his own interpretation of the film’s visuals instead. He didn’t completely abandon Williams’s work, though. In Half-Blood Prince, the mournful, somewhat medieval tone in “Harry and Hermione” is reminiscent of Williams’s “A Window to the Past,” though they use different instruments. This reflection is appropriate because Harry and Hermione’s platonic relationship is present in all of the movies. He does not reflect Williams when new relationships come to light, such as (spoiler) Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ginny’s (Bonnie Wright) romance. Though the piece “When Ginny Kissed Harry” uses a similar classical guitar theme to “Harry and Hermione,” the latter draws itself closer to Williams through its use of chimes and traditional Harry Potter instrumentals.
The third and most obvious “location” in Hooper’s tool belt is just that: location. His songs must match the sets and the cinematography used to portray them. In the “Harry and Hermione” scene, the set is a mostly empty staircase with a few dead leaves blowing across the floor and limited light. His simple tune reflects the sparse nature of the space he has to work with. After the main portion of the scene takes place, one of my favorite transition shots in the whole movie (actually, in the entire series) leads the music to its climax. The camera moves outside Hogwarts castle and pans from where Harry and Hermione sit, to a turret in which Ron shares a kiss with his girlfriend, and finally, to Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) who stands alone and friendless on the balcony of the Astronomy Tower, to the rising sun over the school grounds. I appreciate this shot not only for its character progression (from love in friendship, to superficial attraction, to abandonment) but also for how it opens up the location of the scene. So far, the scene had been small and contained. Now it can stretch its legs, as Hooper indeed accomplishes with the music by emphasizing strings and ushering in some low brass to back the guitar.
So, maybe that critic was right. Perhaps Hooper did “opt for atmosphere” in his writing. But given how it both fits the style of the saga and defines a few chapters, I think he was wise to follow the strategies of real estate. And it paid off. After all, he was nominated for a Grammy.