Boredom beckons whenever xenophobic unionists express brute criticism of five-time Academy winning Braveheart but make no criticism of its music. If anything moves the spirit more than anything else it’s music. (There’s a link to music end of the essay.)
A brace of Academy awards must rankle – a lot! – almost as much as it mass popularity and regular appearances on television reruns, but do they realise how much James Horner’s film score alone moves the emotions?
The untimely death of composer James Horner is a great loss to good music lovers, and the film industry. Like Italy’s Ennio Morricone he had a distinct style easily identified, and could apply it to almost any idiom.
Like the best of film composers he was classically trained beginning his professional career as a concert composer and conductor. And again, like many another classically trained composer, Miklós Rózsa, for example, his concert compositions got lost in the far greater popularity of his film music.
Though American born, (from Austria-Hungry Jewish parents) he studied piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music. His music degree comes his studentship at USC – University of Southern California – a great place to be a student if keen on film, the place a busy haven of film lectures and activity, some buildings funded by and named after America’s most outstanding filmmakers, its film course second to none.
To be honest I didn’t notice his arrival in the industry until late in his career. His first film credit was a Roger Corman starter, ‘Battle Beyond the Stars.‘ A Corman start supposes you work for your lunch and nothing more. Nor am I a fan of Star Trek’s camp formulaic trash though he scored two of the films. I believe Horner got that contract because the studio couldn’t afford the original composer, Jerry Goldsmith, but by the time a third Trek movie was on the slate they couldn’t afford Horner either. 48 Hours and Cocoon passed me by. So did Field of Dreams, though I found the fantasy of the plot strangely affecting.
It wasn’t until Aliens appeared and then Glory that I took note of a new talent. I took notice because I thought I was listening to a pupil of Prokofiev, so many passages are reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and Alexander Nevsky. Later, I learned Horner was roundly castigated for lifting whole passages and modifying them to the right side of litigation. In the trade it’s called ‘borrowing music.’ In the Nineties, presumably more confident of his own skills, Horner became the ‘go to’ composer for Amblin’s (Spielberg’s company) children’s films, but it was Titanic that elevated Horner to the top echelons of movie composition. For my part, only the song remains in the memory, ‘My Heart Will Go On. (And on, and on, and on, and …)
Horner won the Oscar for Best Dramatic Score for Titanic, and for Céline Dion’s signature song. Unfortunately, he describes his collaboration with James Cameron, the film’s director, as a nightmare. The monstrous scale of that film plus changes in script, has to have imposed extra pressures on a composer as scenes are altered or dumped on the editing floor. “The script was essentially an intense love story. Cameron demanded I score without violins to avoid anything schmaltzy. In the end I defied him and used violins.”
Friends all the same
Artistic differences and disappointments notwithstanding, Horner got a second call from Cameron for Avatar.
“The sound world that I created for ‘Avatar’ had to be very different, really, than anything I ever created before. There is also three hours of music. I had to find a sound world that covered so much territory; it had to cover both the human side of the story and the indigenous side of the story and the tremendous, epic battles that take place as well as the love story that is at the core of the film. It wasn’t simply a matter of using existing instruments; I had to create new instruments, a whole library of instruments and sounds. I also found indigenous instruments, such as the gamelan, and digitized them and changed them slightly. I used a lot of voice and digitized that to create a sound world for myself, a palette of colours so that I was able to create worlds that satisfied [James Cameron] and his need for this new world to sound appropriate as a place that you had never been to. It had to be different and alien yet at same time have a warm quality.”
One has to think that Cameron took on Horner for Avatar because its theme is similar to Braveheart’s – a nation dominated by outsiders, colonialists who want its resources.
By sheer coincidence, Braveheart arrived in our cinemas at the same time as a resurgence of confidence in Scotland’s future expressed itself in political activism. For Braveheart Horner turned to ‘modulation’ and gave us a wonderful mixture of authentic Scots music suffused with its Irish origins. By this point in his career, his expertise cast in solid bronze, Horner utilises his considerable technique to raise our expectations with great subtlety. Watching the ‘Freedom’ speech, for example, it feels incredibly natural and satisfying, his music is laid very carefully underneath. We watch the scene expecting our patriotism to be inspired, and having our expectations met we feel imbued with confidence in the rightness of Scotland’s justified case for independence regained.
In the ‘defiance of tyranny” section the modulation is a change from one key to another, Horner ending with a perfect cadence, and then introduces new material in the minor mode. After the line “Run and you’ll live. At least a while.” William Wallace (Mel Gibson) has reached the hearts of his troops – and us, the real audience – and captured their attention, but when you analyse the speech you discover how short it is, almost attenuated to the point of terse, proving its Horner’s theme that really lifts our hearts and spirits.
Horner was a master of the mood shift.
As for Horner, born here who can tell what his sensitivity to indigenous music might have accomplished, perhaps a truly worthy Scottish national composer.
Before his death Horner scored two more films, Southpaw, and 33. Southpaw is in cinemas at the time of this essay, but not mainstream chains.
Composing music for films is very much a hit or miss affair. For an early documentary on the Italians in Orkney I commissioned two local lads who showed marked promise. Try as hard as they could they never got close to the Italian idiom, no matter how many passages from Verdi, Puccini, or Rossini I forced them to listen to. On another occasion, a film about an unemployed youth gang in Edinburgh, I chose the Royal Shakespeare Company’s music director, Guy Woolfenden, to compose the score. He had three good films to his credit. (We had collaborated on a highly successful stage musical on the General Strike set in the House of Commons.) He used a full orchestra. A year later Trainspotting, shot as if a pop video, used snatches from existing rock music and was the better for it.
On the other hand, for a drama shot in Dublin, I insisted on a local talent new to film composing. This delicate, nervous, white face lass met me and explained how she could handle the brief. I have 45 minutes of mostly unpublished music composed by a young Enya, the first to commission her. You win some, some you lose, some get their big break.
When a film’s images fade in the mind we remember the words and the music. But it’s the music that rekindles the emotional experience.
Patriotic Music To Swoon By: Braveheart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHTkmN8A1T4