By Kjell Neckebroeck
It's the evening of December 21, 1955: Marion Keach has gathered 15
followers on a hill just outside Salt Lake City. They are waiting for a
UFO from the planet Sananda to land and whisk them away, thus saving them
from the catastrophic flood that is about to engulf the earth. All of this
is going to happen according to signals Keach picked up during an Ouija
board session. At 4.45 in the morning, the UFO has still not arrived, however.
In a surprising turn of events, Keach receives a signal from God, who says
that the faith displayed by her followers has so moved him that he has
decided to spare the planet. Keach's authority remains intact and her following
continues to grow.
What has happened here is two-fold: a kind of guru and his/her unconditional
following is confronted with a case of what has come to be called "cognitive
dissonance": the prophecy or miraculous promise that has ignited the believers'
faith is clearly shown to be untrue. However, rather than being swayed
by the irrefutable evidence invalidating the prophecy, the guru reinterprets
it and paradoxically expands his or her following. This reinterpretation
is called "dissonance reduction."
Wait, keep reading! The notions of cognitive dissonance and dissonance
reduction are developed in Festinger's book When Prophecy Fails
(first published in 1956). Could the same be true of James Horner and the
hordes of fans who adore and worship every note that flows from his pen?
Seduced by an early succession of innovative efforts (during much of the'80s),
the fans have seen Horner go on to milk the same ideas over and over again,
thus throwing his fanbase into a case of huge cognitive dissonance. At
this point, how can this popular favorite be seen as anything else than
a skilled fraud? However, rather than making amends by trying to reinvent
himself, hasn't Horner started reinterpreting his promise by telling the
world that his persistent knack for recycling old ideas is, in fact, a
deliberate, conscious and artistically valid choice, for didn't Monet endlessly
rework his canvases before settling on his world-famous Les Nympheas
(the massive waterlily painting)? And didn't many classical composers carry
over ideas from one opus to the next? Would this, then, be Horner's "dissonance
About five months ago, FSM was kind enough to publish a piece
of mine entitled "Horner the mystic?" (Film Score Daily, December
2001). I would like to take the theoretical notions I developed back then
and apply them to Horner's recent Windtalkers score. These are the
basic assertions I made: 1) Horner's knack for recycling, while evident
and undeniably true, does not diminish his artistic integrity, and what's
more, it draws attention away from what really matters in (his) film music;
2) the fundamentally innovative aspect of Horner's work is the symphonic
approach he has recently come to take in film scoring. While some film
composers have more or less consciously made attempts at this in the past,
none have done so as deliberately, persistently and consistently as James
A standard symphony -- I had to look this up, cause, again, I'm a musical
illiterate -- contains roughly four movements: a buoyant Allegro (sometimes
preceded by a contemplative Largo), followed by a soft Adagio or Andante
(sweet or bitter), then a jesting and ironic Menuet, and finally a rousing
Finale. Of course, the nature of these four movements is far too specific
for this traditional symphonic model to be carried over intact to any given
motion picture. Rather, the structural notion of self-contained movements
is the defining element of a symphony. With this in mind, let's see how
Horner has constructed his Windtalkers score (RCA 09026-63876-2).
First off is the eight-minute "Navajo Dawn," which after a brief introduction
settles down to a somber, contemplative development of a strain of Gayane's
Adagio -- this is pretty much your introductory Largo. After a number of
cues presenting the score's other thematic building blocks, the action
kicks in with the wildly patriotic "Taking The Beachhead," the first part
of which makes for a pretty convincing Allegro. "First Blood" and especially
"The Night Before" settle down for a quiet and sad interlude, a typical
Adagio. Finally, after a quartet of intense action cues (which again contain
significantly different movements), the main theme swells into a short
but glorious Finale, followed by a lengthy Coda ("Calling to the Wind").
If this sounds a bit too far-fetched, you will agree at the very least
that Horner develops his thematic material over the course of several lengthy
cues which qualify as self-contained movements, bound together by a strong
narrative arc. As in The Perfect Storm, Enemy at the Gates and Iris,
musical architecture is the key word here.
More amazingly, the individual movements (or cues) of the album are
lengthy enough to allow careful internal development, proving that this
composer is trying to map things down to the smallest unit. "Navajo Dawn,"
for instance, has more than the usual beginning, middle and end sections,
it is a fully developed, coherent and musically meaningful listening experience
all onto its own. The cue starts with tentative ethnic Indian chanting.
On top of this vocal element, a soft string line is threaded which develops
into an important two-note motif and immediately afterwards into the plaintive
melody that commented on the list of perished sailors that The Perfect
Storm opened with. I have not seen Windtalkers yet, so I can
only presume Horner uses this melody as a soft elegy for the victims of
war. It will become an important subtheme throughout the score, and in
just the introductory section of the album's opening cue, it is handed
down from brass to strings and back to brass, coming full circle as only
a symphonic movement does. After this prelude, the orchestra swells into
a statement of Horner's (or whoever else's) infamous four-note doom motif.
It appears in a slightly expanded version here (two notes are added) and
is used only as a bridging device -- I wouldn't be surprised if it coincided
exactly with the film's title appearing on the screen. Shortly after this
musical bridge, Horner introduces a strain from Gayane's Adagio, which
he goes on to develop in an unprecedented way. For a while, the composer
splits up the string section of the orchestra in low and high strings and
develops the theme through contrasting statements by both sections. Then,
in a masterful stroke, the two string sections start playing in unison
as Horner develops the theme into an oppressive funeral march. After this
lengthy movement has reached its climax, the music comes to an abrupt halt.
After a musically motivated silence, it picks up again with a somber coda
for brass and low strings. From the initial vocal motif to the oppressive
coda, we've come a long way, and lots of interesting things have happened.
This is the way I urge you to listen to the rest of the score. True,
most of the themes are repeats from earlier work (except for the main theme,
though), but the ways in which Horner develops them make for both an intellectually
challenging and emotionally rewarding listening experience.
And the repeats aren't all that arbitrary either. The ethnic chanting
motif, for instance, not only links up Windtalkers with Thunderheart
from a thematic point of view; on a purely musical level, it also serves
as a structural marker, letting the listener know "where" he is. Indeed,
the chanting motif exclusively appears in two highly conspicuous places:
at the very beginning of the film, and at the very end of it, when it starts
the end title suite. The musical idea has two functions: it successfully
sets the locale of the film and it bookends the symphony Horner wants this
album to be. Incidentally, it plays the same role as the ethereal choir
motif that started many of Horner's fantasy-related scores -- Willow,
Pagemaster, Mighty Joe Young. I remember reading lots of infuriated
comments on that one. Repetition? Yes. Gratuitous? Most certainly not.
Many of Horner's repetitions play a functional part in the musical fabric
and weave similarly-themed films together into a grand tapestry. There's
Gayane's Adagio, which Horner has used to comment on the insanity of war
in Aliens, Patriot Games and, albeit very briefly, in Enemy at
the Gates. A similar remark goes for the four-note doom motif. If I'm
right, Horner's decision to use it prominently over the title credit in
both Enemy at the Gates and Windtalkers is a carefully deliberated
and dramatically valid one. And if for the most fleeting of moments, Windtalkers'
action music sounds like Aliens, maybe it's because the composer
wants us to realize that both are essentially war movies (Cameron, as you
know, intended Aliens as a metaphor for the Vietnam war.)
To comment on the symphonic nature of the Windtalkers album is
one thing -- to describe its emotional depth is another. Whether or not
this album will touch you depends in no small part on the preconceived
opinion, or lack thereof, you bring to bear on it. At some point or other,
though, any serious discussion of James Horner's film music will become
impossible unless an effort is made to go beyond the stereotypical accusation
of plagiarism and rip-offs. True, it is an issue that deserves to be debated,
but it very clearly isn't the only element at play here. I hope to have
proven that in the preceding paragraphs. However, the real strength of
Horner's film scores, to me at least, lies in their uncanning ability to
emote. There's a sadness to the music, an elusive melancholy quality that
manages to floor me time and again. And the impact is achieved in increasingly
subtle ways. Windtalkers does feature lots of blaring brass, but
one of the most striking military motifs is written for incredibly soft
strings -- it's the two-note motif I mentioned before, which appears most
prominently during the first minutes of "Calling to the Wind." Many of
the album's most dramatic effects are achieved by subtle solo playing,
particularly in "The Night Before" and the album's lengthy coda, where
the orchestration thins down to a few barely related ideas, mostly wandering
ghosts in a barren musical landscape. It's a fine example of the kind of
subtle mysticism I so often find in Horner's work. Also, Horner's albums
are necessarily lengthy, because a symphony needs time to develop. Horner
barely ever rushes into things anymore. Instead, his music takes its time
to get under your skin before letting it rip. The lengthy build-up is a
crucial phase, though it allows Horner to establish the foundation on which
all the subsequent drama and action will be built. In "Take A New Assignment"
for instance, the main theme is still only a variation of itself when it
is introduced by the trumpet. It appears in its definitive form when performed
by the flute and, after a break, it swells into a large orchestral statement.
What a welcome change from many of today's movies, which try to hit hard
right away but forget to make us care about the characters first. Horner's
themes are his characters, and we've come to care about them long before
anything dramatic happens.
So, this is what it all boils down to. Am I happy with the way Horner
milks his ideas? Well, yes and no. Repetitions are a definite asset if
they are connotative or if they manage to link up elements which run like
connecting threads through Horner's oeuvre and their respective films.
Lest we forget, film composers sometimes score similar movies, and Horner's
quite unique ability to turn this downside into an artistic plus bears
testament to his talent both as a musician and as a dramatist. Other repetitions,
after careful deliberation, are arbitrary and seem like a cheap way for
Horner to quickly devise the thematic and melodic building stones of the
new assignment. (What did that theme from Glory have to do with
The Pagemaster?) Two: do I think Horner still has something to say
in today's film (music) business? The answer here is a resounding "yes."
Never to the best of my knowledge has the narrative arc of a film score
been so meticulously constructed and never have the musical cornerstones
been presented and developed in such a musically meaningful way as in Horner's
recent scores. And film music albums have rarely been so symphonic and
such a coherent listen. If you are willing to delve deeper than the superficial
first contact, I am sure you will find that the Windtalkers album
is, in fact, an intellectually stimulating and hugely rewarding listening
experience in its own right.
And finally, do I think James Horner is the next prophet and a god to
be worshipped? Well of course not! Like any film composer, Horner is a
tunesmith at the service of a business which does not easily sustain lofty
considerations. A film composer may pursue the highest artistic ambitions,
but at the end of the day it's other people who call the shots. (Even top
scorer John Williams has recently reaped the bitter fruits of this inescapable
truth.) If, in spite of being a salaried employee, such a tunesmith still
succeeds in touching a sensitive chord inside us, we should be grateful
for it, but keep ourselves from blowing things out of proportions. Every
once in a while, film music manages to lift our spirits and stir some pretty
deep emotions. That's by far the best thing this business has to offer,
and it sure as hell doesn't do so all the time.