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Windtalkers Analysis

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 reduction"?

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 Horner.

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.
 
 
 

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