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Horner, the Mystic?

by Kjell Neckebroeck

The film music of James Horner. Agreed, it's a debate that has been going on for a very long time -- one that perhaps you grew tired of and buried a long time ago. Or perhaps the many arguments everyone has ever used in, oh my, the past fifteen years and truckloads of FSM mail bags still haven't silenced that little voice inside you, telling you time and again that none of the arguments conclusively settles the issue for you. The question you're asking yourself, of course, is this: if Horner is the fraud everyone makes him out to be, and using damn good arguments too, how come you're still buying his albums and enjoying his music? On a more general level, you're asking yourself: how can a serious composer steal from everyone in sight, including himself, and still expect to maintain a level of artistic integrity? How can Horner be a rip-off and still move listeners to tears? If Horner's music doesn't do anything for you (anymore), then this article is not for you, and you should rightfully move on to what really matters to you. However, for anyone feeling like me, here are some ideas that, while probably far too personal to settle the question for you, may still help you find your own answers.

The objective of this article is twofold. First, I wish to point out that the very foundation of much of the criticism directed to Horner is itself shaky. This will allow fans to view their favorite composer as being blessed with no less artistic integrity than any other composer. Second, I wish to take a closer look at the most common accusation, that of Horner's alleged penchant for self-plagiarism. While I fully agree that Horner frequently recycles previous ideas (both his own and other composers'), I strongly object to the short-sightedness of this accusation and will attempt to show that there is a larger picture to be taken into account. This will prove that Horner's place on the film music scene is unique, and that his voice is a strikingly original one.

As one of the earliest collaborators with Horner fanzine DREAMS TO DREAM...S, I have been a Horner fan of the very first hour. I am telling you this for two reasons. One: I want you to know where my sensibilities and convictions lie. I believe it takes away a lot of doubt and uncertainty if you know which side a voice in as sharply polarized a debate as this belongs to. I have been a fan of Horner's music even before the CD was invented, and believe that his music, the past few years, has gone into a direction that makes it more interesting than ever. But more about that later. Two: as mentioned earlier, my opinions are strictly personal, linked to my own understanding of what film music can and should do. As such, my writings are very much open to discussion. I would honestly be worried if you agreed with everything I'm about to write. Really.

Back to the initial question then: does James Horner have any artistic integrity? I believe that for this question to be answered, we should first define a bit more sharply the contours of our problem. What can film music honestly be expected to do? Or, to put it differently, what should it do -- I hope we can still agree that movies are an art form, and artists should not aspire to create anything that doesn't reflect their greatest efforts and their greatest talents. I think music applied to film lends itself first and foremost to creating an emotion, very often as an undercurrent working on a subconscious level. (As all good film music should always lead the scene in a new direction, it invariably manipulates our perception of it. The trick, of course, is to do it right.) For me, good film music is always of an emotional nature. Now, I can hear you thinking: as Horner is essentially an emotionalist -- even FSM's editors aknowledged that in a lavish article a while ago -- it is only logical that I should like Horner's music. You're right, of course, and I'll do you one better: some of my earliest film music LPs were by Horner (I am only 28), and I don't even know to what degree Horner's music itself has shaped my opinion of film music. I honestly can't say which came first: my perception of film music or my appreciation of Horner's music. But whatever its origin, this is my opinion, and I think I could do worse.

What then are the limitations of film music as a science? Or of music (and any art) as a science, for that matter? Firstly, film music is as young as the art of film itself, and I believe serious people (far more serious than me, because I can't even read notes) have never unambiguously tried to determine if and how music and film music are different, and whether the same principles can at all be applied to both. As a musical illiterate, I would say that it's a whole different bowl of fish. Take musical structure, for one: freed from the constraints of a movie, a composer can construct his music exactly as he likes. The same freedom of choice goes for orchestration, tone, musical idiom and so on and so forth. Deprived, for the most part, of any kind of autonomy, the film score must instead follow a different agenda -- and it should be judged accordingly. This has huge repercussions on, say, what is required of themes and motifs. If film music should create an emotion, just how important is the way it achieves that objective? If a film composer works on movies that have a similar emotional or thematic framework, do you feel he is allowed to treat them in a similar way? When Horner is scoring monkeys in PROJECT X and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, do you believe he has a right to tie them together by using the same theme? Secondly, and this is a matter of a more philosophical nature (again, feel free to think I'm going over the edge here), is it possible to rationalize at all about music, whether it be for the concert hall or for the movies? As an art form, is the essence of all great music not to be found in a realm that transcends our capabilities to rationalize, quantify, measure, compare and communicate in words? Isn't it true that really great music speaks to you only if you close your eyes and surrender yourself entirely to its magic? To put it differently, is music, as indeed all art, not in essence a matter of mysticism? Let me remind you that mysticism is derived from the Greek verb "myein," meaning "to close the eyes." Only then do I call music great when it asks me to forget all about objectivity and let it gently cast its magic spell on me. Isn't that what really keeps us listening to the music we like: the fact that it speaks to us, and that listening to it enriches us as a human being. Art as a science will only take you so far before it asks you to throw it all overboard and let it become something of an inner journey. Only when they are played do musical notes come to life, much in the same way a movie script cannot fully realize its potential until it's up there on the screen. Think that's soppy? It's also true.

You might argue that art viewed as mysticism precludes any kind of rational discussion and makes any kind of serious writing on music impossible. Personally, I tend to agree. Talking as we do about film music is useful, in that it allows us to give other people an idea of what to expect, or to discuss briefly themes and other building stones, perhaps even to mention some technical details for the musically trained. But does that really convey what you think the music is really about, how it makes you feel, what it means to you as a person? It's probably stating the obvious that each person experiences a given piece of music in his own and unique way. This opens the way to mysticism, and that's what really makes a listening experience worth your effort.

It follows then, that if a film composer moves us to that extent, there can be no doubt that he is doing his job as an artist. Judge for yourself if Horner's music, even for the duration of a single bar or a few notes, succeeds at striking an emotional chord inside you. If not, then the question mark in the title of this article is for you - remember what I wrote about mysticism as being of an essentially individual nature. But this I do believe: artistic integrity in film music is nothing else than emotional integrity. Therefore, our central question should be: does James Horner have emotional integrity?

While I often read people criticising James Horner's penchant for (self-)plagiarism, I very rarely find this criticism is leveled at his dramatic or emotional instincts. I once again refer to FSM's article saying that there is no element in a movie Horner responds to as vividly and immediately as emotions. I also refer to a passing remark in FSM's mail bag from a person - sorry, I don't remember who you are - saying that even during its most intense moments of action, the score to A PERFECT STORM never loses its pervasive sense of sadness. If I were Horner, that would be just about the nicest thing anyone could say about my work. The fact is, while people have felt Horner's response to a movie's emotional core can be excessive, therefore sentimental, therefore inappropriately manipulative, very few have gone as far as to criticise the very validity of the dramatic foundations of Horner's film music. Once again on a personal level: since Horner's music moves me in the deepest possible way, I very rarely feel inappropriately manipulated. Nevertheless, let me mention a few critical remarks for honesty's sake. Case in point: LEGENDS OF THE FALL. Before seeing the movie, I wrote a glowing review of the score in SOUNDTRACK magazine. (To this day, I have a deep love for the album.) As it turned out, however, Ed Zwick's movie never hits the right tone, overreliant as it is on postcard-pretty slow-motion photography of long-haired Brad Pitt riding on horseback over the mountains, you know, that kind of cheap stuff. Instead of radically toning down the silly proceedings, Horner's operatic score ended up making everything that more laughable. Top of the bill: Brad Pitt's ludicrous final stand-off with a bear, for which Horner pulls out the most heartbreaking statement of the main theme. Final verdict: great music, bad film music. I made a vow never again to review a score before seeing the film. Another example: DEEP IMPACT, where I felt emotionally manipulated in more than one scene. When Leo's (Elijah Wood) big decision moment arrives, the music cries out with strings, needlessly overemphasizing a moment that was filmed emphatically in the first place. In this case, however, it was the filmmakers who were cheating. The cue remains suitably in the background for most of its duration, but when it comments more prominently on the key moment, the sound mixer turned the music up so much that the moment was irreparably drowned in it. Then there's the bit where the Messiah's crew make their fateful decision towards the end of the picture and say goodbeye to their beloved ones on earth. The scene has mushiness written all over it, but this time, as evidenced by the album, Horner had found a way around it, opting for a subdued horn section instead of the predictable mushy strings. In their infinite wisdom, however, the filmmakers felt differently and replaced that particular section of the cue by what sounds like a 100-piece string ensemble. True, the score shamelessly tried to jerk tears from the audience, but it wasn't Horner's call. And no matter how derivative in its building stones, BICENTENNIAL MAN still manages to stir my emotions (because it does so in subtle ways, with lots of solo instrumentation). The movie, however, is simplistic nonsense which tries to be emotional but is really nothing more than trite, and the score sinks like a ton of bricks.

These examples show that admiration should not be blind, certainly in the case of film music, which has to overcome so many pitfalls, either the ones that pose a threat to the composer's (honest) intentions, or pitfalls that a composer should have been able to overcome (but perhaps wasn't allowed to by an incompetent director). Film music as a cinematographic tool is a very tricky thing, but not even the largest number of false steps should be allowed to destroy the composer's honest intentions, or if you will, his integrity.

All of the above has, I hope, achieved my first objective: that fans can live with the criticism surrounding Horner and still enjoy his music as the work of a man endowed with exceptional talent and emotional, therefore artistic integrity.

However, as I mentioned in the introduction, there is also the issue of the alleged self-plagiarism to be dealt with. Fully conscious of my shortcomings as a musically-trained critic, I nevertheless object to the opinion that Horner's frequent recycling of previous ideas is an outrage and a shame. It is my belief that Horner is both pretty original and that he has since long transcended that criticism anyway. I will present three arguments, of which only the last two really count. First, the accusation of self-plagiarism is partially invalidated by the realization that all composers have, at one time in their careers, drawn upon the(ir) past - at the very worst, Horner recycles a lot more often than his peers. People defending Horner have since long used this argument - I have chosen to repeat it here only for completeness' sake. What's more important though, is that an effort should be made to understand how James Horner approaches his craft. As FSM's editors indicated in their aforementioned article, this composer's first worry is to find the the emotional heart of a movie and translate it into an aural landscape that is initially abstract and made up only of musical colours. In this respect, Horner composes much the same way a painter paints. His first objective is to "subtexturally delineate an other-world, to musically conjure an alternate reality - believable and reassuring. He is less interested in conventional innovation than he is [obsessed] with finding the appropriate texture - repetition is fine if it has a purpose. He has a palette of color of which he is fond - and those primaries are mixed and matched - blended and shaped to fit." (Nick Redman, liner notes, PROJECT X - Varese club release). Getting the colors and the drama right is and always has been Horner's first concern. Thematic material, while key to nearly all of his scores, comes later and is essentially of secondary importance. Now, while I am open to criticism, I believe it should always try to be valid. The accusation of self-plagiarism does not do justice to Horner the composer, whose primary concerns rest on an altogether different level.

The third and last argument is merely an invitation to sit back for a moment and take a look at Horner's combined oeuvre so far. In key scores like WRATH OF KHAN, BRAINSTORM, COCOON, 48 HOURS and SNEAKERS (to name just a few), Horner supplied himself with the seeds he went on to plant in other efforts. This composer does not reinvent his craft on every new assignment. Rather, his career is a constant flow of ideas that are first introduced and then gradually developed over the course of a number of subsequent scores, in which they are allowed to come to fruition. Once an idea / motif / element of "connective tissue" has been sufficienty explored, it disappears into the background. It may pop up again occasionally (the infamous four-note motif a notable exception), but more often makes way for new ideas and approaches, which again go through the same process. If you view Horner's music from a distance, you will find that it does indeed evolve, it's just that this composer has decided it is not necessary to reinvent himself six times a year.

This approach has an interesting side-effect, which Horner may or may not be aware of. Throughout his career, he has been building up an oeuvre that reveals a remarkable level of consistency and utter cohesion. On a purely musical level, themes and motifs are no longer just individual tools for individual projects. Instead, they are becoming impressive building stones of an oeuvre that spans years and decades. Add up all the times he has used Gayaneh's eerie strings, and you will hear Horner telling you how empty and derailed mankind can be. Add up all the uses of the four-note motif, and you'll learn that Horner has found a nearly perfect way to portray evil. Add up all the times he has ever used every recurrent element in his oeuvre, and you will find that they are all connected by a great vision of dramatic storytelling. The fact that Horner has never wavered in this approach, reveals a stunning single-mindedness, which is quite an achievement in itself. But that his oeuvre is slowly spreading its wings in the world of movies, where nothing is constant but the succession of whims, fancies and hypes, is quite simply incredible. Consciously or unconsciously, James Horner has been binding his oeuvre together, and this results in a musical arc that makes him absolutely unique in his field. Of all Hollywood composers past and present, perhaps no one has made film music that works so perfectly on two levels. As film scores, it impeccably serves individual movies' needs; as a combined oeuvre, it is a musical statement of towering and monumental proportions.

The remarks above translate clearly into the new direction his scores have taken since the mid-nineties: the symphonic long form. Again, I quote Nick Redman from the same source: "The narrative is the thing. More than ever, particularly in his recent work, [Horner] is obsessed with long contiguous pieces that dovetail with their respective movie's structural peaks. He builds everything out through meticulous design - culminating in a long finale that summarizes all that has gone before." I refer to Intrada's Douglass Fake as he comments on PERFECT STORM and ENEMY AT THE GATES, calling them carefully structured, much like the movements of a symphony. In this respect, The River Crossing To Stalingrad from ENEMY AT THE GATES, covering the movie's opening fifteen minutes, is a veritable story in itself. Horner takes us on an epic adventure, identifying its structural highlights, bridging the transitional moments and creating an impressive arc that he takes great pains to finish in a satisfying way. In this particular case, the piece starts out with a fragile string motif and quietly but rigorously returns to it more than a quarter of an hour later. When listened to in conjunction with the visuals, it creates a sense of resolution that turns the sequence into a little movie-within-the-movie. An astonishing accomplishment, I think it proves unequivocally that James Horner is currently near the very top of his game. The nine-minute opening from A PERFECT STORM, COURAGE UNDER FIRE's massive Al Bathra-cue, the lengthy launch scene in APOLLO 13, the combined execution and coda cues from BRAVEHEART. How many composers can pull that off, or how many have done it on such a regular basis recently? And would it be wrong to call that... original ?

Like no composer before him, James Horner has found a way to reconcile the specific requirements of film scoring with serious music composition of epic and symphonic scope. He has found a unique voice, one that serves movies flawlessly and in a grand fashion, and at the same time is so instantly recognizable that every new project becomes a "Horner movie." However, if you really want to unveil the secrets of his magic, you'll have to close your eyes and appreciate James Horner for the great mystic I have always found him to be.

But that's just my opinion.

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Comments (3):Log in or register to post your own comments
I just finished reading this article for the first time while listening to "Futile Escape" from Aliens.
I have to agree with the author on basically every point. I own nearly every James Horner work ever made available on record, CD and digital and have studied his music, just as the writer has, to the degree in which I see the evolution of motifs, ideas and themes in Horner's music.
For instance, To Gillian on her 37th Birthday features the birth of the fabulous "Rose's Theme" from Titanic. I truly believe, as I even heard Hans Zimmer say once in an interview, that if a composer creates a melody or symphonic palette, they typically like to revisit and improve upon it in other film projects. The desire to fine-tune and perfect themes and colors comes naturally.
I, myself, write music for my own enjoyment (and to hopefully compose for TV or Film one day) and I have a tendency to believe that nearly all, if not all composers are extreme perfectionists. Composers constantly see opportunities for their music, whether they want to or not. A day or two will pass by and I will discover myself humming a piece I was working on approximately a month ago. This revisiting of ideas, as James Horner seems to do, doesn't necessarily mean he is being lazy or just doesn't care, I believe he is truly trying to create the best musical product possible, even if it means a previous work may bleed through. He may also be so in love with a color or idea that he just cannot give it up and continues to present it in continuing scores, until he is satisfied with the end result.
Take the musical idea from The Four Feathers, for example. This theme has cropped up in Avatar, The Karate Kid and more recently, For Greater Glory. In my opinion, he may have thought The Four Feathers did not give him enough opportunity to explore his idea, though he does give it a fair shake (13 minutes to be exact) in the end credits piece "A Coward No Longer". Several years later, he receives the gargantuan project for Avatar. He starts to play some themes on the piano, rediscovers his idea from The Four Feathers, combines it with a little of the heart of "Rose's Theme" and now he has produced yet another one of his evolved themes.
A last minute assignment, The Karate Kid comes along a few years later, possibly without even realizing it, he molds the theme again into something "new", creating the sweeping theme heard in stunning cues such as "From Master to Student to Master" and "Final Contest".
In the film For Greater Glory, Horner digs around his arsenal of ideas and once again comes up with another incarnation of The Four Feathers theme. This time, almost a carbon copy of the original thematic idea. As the article's author mentions, I believe Horner works somewhat like a silent film organ/piano player. Horner has certain motifs, ideas, colors, chord progressions and even themes that he attributes to certain ideals, locales, subject matters and characters, so he uses them when the appropriate occasion arises.
The common thread that I draw from the Four Feathers theme is that every film the theme has been featured in was an underdog story. The Four Feathers, Avatar, The Karate Kid and For Greater Glory all start with a character that by the end of the film, are nearly unrecognizable because of the physical, emotional and spiritual journeys they have taken.
The Four Feathers focuses around a character that was a coward, yet in the end he redeems himself after an incredibly difficult journey to self discovery and realizing his character flaws.
Avatar is about a disabled man that is unwanted, except for his similar DNA to his deceased brother. In the end, he ends up becoming one with an alien people and falling in love after having assisted in the salvation of their planet.
The Karate Kid is about a child that is extremely unhappy about having to move from Detroit to China. He is mistreated and nearly brutally beaten by his peers, until he finds an unlikely friend and mentor who leads him to a martial arts tournament victory, by the end of the film.
For Greater Glory is about a man that takes it upon himself to lead a nation against religious persecution, when in the beginning, he doesn't believe they should fight back.
Every one of these films follows an underdog through the realization of their greater potential; conquering fears, character flaws and physical obstacles to become the victor, in the end.
In summary, I believe that the Four Feathers theme could very well see another incarnation in the future, depending on whether Horner has the opportunity to complete another film assignment that centers on a story involving the thematic material mentioned above.

Howdy, scorecrave.

I don't have a great deal of stuff from Horner. I think my collection of his works consists of ST:WOK, Titanic, Braveheart, the original Zorro, Apollo 13 and that's it I believe.

Braveheart tops that list. He got that one absolutely right. The Sons Of Scotland theme is, perhaps, my favourite piece of his. Anyway, thematically the whole score just works for me. It's a pitch perfect effort and I'll always enjoy listening to it. Mystic Horner indeed.

And one more thing. If you look on YouTube for the 'Orbiter' space flight sim derived mini-movies and tributes to Apollo, you will find Horner's theme to Apollo 13 applied just about universally as accompaniment. Soft spot or what! :D

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