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JAMES HORNER FILM MUSIC | November 22, 2017 |

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THE WORDS OF JAMES HORNER #2: TROY

THE WORDS OF JAMES HORNER #2: TROY
Jean-Baptiste Martin

To celebrate the release of Troy in 2 CD edition by Intrada (see our exclusive review here) we publish a archival interview in English of James Horner published in 2004 in the French magazine Cinéfonia. These are actually two interviews that we merged for this publication. Dive into the creation of Troy!

Recall: The Words of James Horner is a series of articles intended to republish some twenty interviews Didier Leprêtre and Jean-Christophe Arlon conducted between 1997 and 2006 and published only in French in the magazines Dreams To Dream and its successor Cinéfonia.

Unfortunately, the English-language audio tapes of the interviews are now lost, so we decided to take the French-language publications and retranslate them into English as faithfully as possible. We are immensely grateful for the chance we have been given to publish the colossal work done over the course of an entire decade and to give the interviews a new lease on life, all the more since we think they are an invaluable and unique window into the oeuvre of James Horner.


CF) Troy was quite a challenge. Why did you accept it ?
JH) In this kind of situation, you don’t really have a lot of time to ponder things. You get a phone call. Either you say yes or you say no. If you accept, a few seconds later two guys turn up at your doorstep with all the paperwork. I hadn’t even started writing The Forgotten, and I signed on !
 
CF) How do you feel about the summary ways in which Gabriel Yared’s original score was jettisoned ?
JH) I’ve been fired from projects myself, sometimes because one person didn’t want to understand my work. There you are. We all work in Hollywood, not in some idyllic place where everyone plays nice. People will make often rash decisions all the while thinking they’re 200% right. Sometimes, there will be conflict. I had that experience on Streets of Fire. And sometimes you get to a point where you need to pull the plug. Sometimes, it’s people who just don’t get it, especially in terms of the music they’re faced with. On Troy, Wolfgang Petersen was influenced by people who themselves were influenced by others. Before long, no one is responsible or even wants to be, and that’s an unfortunate, but deplorable fact. When Wolfgang asked me to do the film, I said : « But how could you turn down a Gabriel Yared score ? » He didn’t give me a straight answer, it was a very bizarre situation. I respect Yared deeply and when you start working with a composer as talented as he is, you should think twice or even three times before reacting so impulsively, harshly and disrespectfully. Then again, it was not my job to get embroiled in the many debates that predated my involvement in the project, but still, it’s an unhealthy situation that does not reflect positively on our profession.
 
CF) You sound bitter.
JH) My bitterniss certainly has nothing to do with Gabriel Yared’s. I have always tried to isolate myself from this Hollywood microcosm that has never felt like home to me. I accepted Troy because I though it would be an interesting challenge, for me and for the people working with me. I also said yes because Wolfgang asked me as a favor, a somewhat exaggerated favor of course, and I’d had a wonderful time working on The Perfect Storm. Moreover, having arrived at the eleventh hour, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be thrown off the project myself, so I decided to accept Warner’s conditions while at the same time slipping in a few of my own. Rather than the movie, it was the challenge that appealed to me.
 
CF) What was absolutely essential to you ?
JH) I wanted everyone to understand what was being expected of me and that given the three-week deadline, the music needed to go right to the heart of the piece. This, by the way, is where I get confused : why give up a large and carefully thought-out score and take a risk without a safety net ! Oh well. It’s all about the rhythmic and expressive textures that this kind of movie needs. As far as I was concerned, it’s the opposite of Bobby Jones : Stroke of Genius. In Troy, everything is extraordinary, down to its most basic elements. Everything’s grand, enormous, done up to the hilt. It’s the kind of moviemaking that I find amusing rather than touching, because you can’t always take it seriously, even if it takes itself very seriously indeed. It’s a big action movie to be taken at face value, but sometimes also in the second and even in the third degree. It’s a Hollywood spectacle with certain qualities, but also the kind of broad entertainment which cannot hope to satisfy everyone. When you decide to score a canvas as large as this one, you know what you’re getting into. Troy is not Enemy At The Gates or Braveheart. It’s 100 million dollars worth of mass entertainment. Don’t get me wrong : I don’t want to belittle this kind of project, because we composers need them in order to land other kinds of assignments. Troy is evidently a professional piece of moviemaking, based on a legendary story that contains one of the all-time great love stories. That said, Bobby Jones or House of Sand and Fog represent a kind of cinema that appeals more to me.
 
CF) Troy requires a large-scale score that is very different from the minimalism you displayed in House of Sand and Fog. It’s virtually a U-turn !
JH) The general layout of the movie – the love story and the war that resulted from it – directly influenced the layout of the score. As far as form was concerned, I was asked to compose in a mold that I would call « traditional » : lyrical strings, proud and grandiloquent brass and a high degree of rhtythmic austerity – the rhythmic ideas would be there to serve the strings and the brass. Seen from this angle, yes, the score is the exact opposite of House of Sand and Fog. Outwardly, Troy is cut from that traditional cloth. My personal challenge was of an entirely different nature, because I wanted to take the traditional dramatic contrasts and turn them into something more experimental. For instance, I wanted to fuel the fight scenes with harmonic polyphony to avoid the cliché of bombast. In parallel, I wanted to add a degree of exuberance to underline the sprawling canvas I was working on and the film’s impressive visuals. I was aiming for a sort of expressionism, with stylistic exaggerations and a careful balance of dashing panache and experimental audacity. As it turned out, it’s not a 180-degree but a 90-degree turn.
 
CF) Is Troy a grand orchestral score ?
JH) What does that mean, « grand » ? Troy does not have the subtlety of scores like The Four Feathers or Enemy At the Gates, nor the same degree of thematic involvement. It’s a different story and it’s « grand » in a different way, if that term has any specific meaning in music at all. Troy is rather all over the map, with jubilant rhythmic material, a degree of harmonic fantasy all wrapped into a conventional and often very busy whole. From time to time, we needed a moment of respite, and Randy Kerber and I opted for a velvety sound. Since the action scenes were mostly incisive and hard-hitting, we wanted to counterbalance the theatricality of the brass interludes with shimmering and soothing strings and woodwinds. It makes for a more nuanced score with a solemn touch that is both interesting and necessary.
 
CF) You mentioned that Troy was not as thematically involved as The Four Feathers and Enemy At The Gates. But haven’t you been moving away from themes lately?
JH) That’s true, but Warner and Wofgang asked me to use thematic concepts and of course I had to respect that. This creates a somewhat artifical dynamic.
 
CF) Does that mean that your true work is to be found on another level ?
JH) Absolutely. The structure of the themes was the work of Randy and his crew – Conrad Pope, Eddie Karam, John Kull – so that they provided the score with a backdrop. The filmmakers wanted themes for the characters and we supplied them. There’s obviously a lot of energy, but I did not have enough time to truly work out the narrative aspect of the piece in the time allotted to me, nor did I have the time to address all the different events down to the smallest details. So I decided to pit several orchestral masses against each other, whereas in your two examples, they were in perfect harmony. Once the textural work was done, I turned to a more motivating concept : the timbres, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Tanja Tsarovska’s voice and the dynamic of the piece, even though it was brushed with broader strokes.
 
CF) In all of this, did you have time to work on the colors ?
JH) Not as far as the themes are concerned, but I tried to work on the color palette of the orchestra and the voices. Tanja has a magnificently wide range and her voice work dovetailed perfectly with my modal phrasings, with its abrupt syncopation and subtly placed stresses. She has a kind of baroque quality bordering on vocal violence, and I find that quite admirable. She has a style and a kind of formal purity that result in virtuoso expressiveness. She brought a lot to Troy, in terms of contrast and balance. Since she is of Macedonian descent, she was a perfect fit for the other Eastern European talent involved – the Bulgarian choir – and it worked miracles.
 
CF) From an orchestral point of view, the brass are back where we left them a long time ago.
JH) It’s not an aesthetic about-turn, but it sounds like it (chuckles). The Troy score is dense because of several very busy rhythmic ostinati, so I thought the sounds themselves needed to be fairly straightforward and effective. Wolfgang wanted something exhilarating yet fairly uniform. It’s another reason why we separated the orchestral masses.
 
CF) What, then, makes Troy a seductive score ?
JH) Seductiveness is not the score’s main quality nor its first aim. Randy and I made sure there was an instrumental quality and a degree of cohesiveness even though different people assumed different tasks. There are bound to be certain stylistic differences that you would not find in Bobby Jones, for instance. The visuals sometimes have a weight that the music can counterbalance. That happened where we alternated instrumental material and various vocal contributions – in these cases, I tried to be seduced and seduce in turn. In most cues however, the musical idiom was sacrificed to the simple notion of underscore, and in those cases, it’s all about workmanship.
 
CF) You sound pessimistic.
JH) No, I’m being realistic. Troy was a challenge and it was satisfying from a logistical point of view. That said, the score doesn’t compare particularly well to other scores because of how we got started in the first place. If Troy is a success, it’s because of the movie as a total experience, the chemistry between the visuals and the music, but not necessarily because the score can stand on its own two feet. In the film, the score sounds a lot more savage than when removed from the visuals. By the same token, its polyphony is more evident on disc. Also, the lyricism makes the visuals more tender and less coarse, yet this lyricism is not poetic or nuanced. It needs to be sophisiticated for reasons of embellishment and the focus was on the story, not on the colors. The stylistic ambiguity is what it is.
 
CF) During our previous conversation, you told us that the Troy score would not hold up against some of your other scores. However, after having seen the movie and heard your score, we can only disagree.
JH) We spoke while I was still working on the film. Now, a month later, I am less pessimistic, although I am still realistic. Troy could have been a more important part of my work if the conditions had been different. I do not distance myself from the work done by either me or Randy Kerber, but the film looks more interesting to me now than it did at first and I would have liked to have done it a bit more justice. If you like Troy as it is, I am happy for you, of course, but as it could have been, it would have pleased you more.
 
CF) Some composers feel galvanized by a punishing deadline. Was that a factor here ?
JH) Sure, but even with the added benefit of creative urgency, you lose at least some things in terms of pure composition and architecture.
 
CF) Last time we saw each other, you said you were not aiming for the stars with the score, you just wanted it to succeed on a logistical level. To be honest, you had us worried there for a while.
JH) Well, you know, I still believe that the success of the score is essentially of a logistical nature, more than any other project I’ve ever worked on. That’s why I demanded Warner give me an opportunity to include words of gratitude in the album’s booklet. I was the first victim of my initial apprehension, and I had doubts about Troy, intellectually speaking, in the final scoring stages. I guess I wanted to err on the side of caution rather than trying to sell the score with an excess of unfounded enthusiasm.
 
CF) You submitted a couple of demos to us, which we found surprising and occasionally disappointing. However, these demos are entirely absent from the definitive score.
JH) Randy and I produced almost three hours of music and we made plenty of demos to make sure we were headed in the right direction. We inevitably made some wrong decisions along the way, and those cues were obviously dropped. Where the demos proved effective, we forged ahead and I think a lot of our choices were right.
 
CF) What’s the first thing you did after signing on ?
JH) I first watched the final cut of the movie, on my own. Then I watched it again with Wolfgang Petersen and I listened to what he had to say. I was surprised by the movie’s final shot, focusing on the dead Achilles, as well as by the denouement: you don’t really know where Helen is off to, you don’t really know how Paris will end up, you don’t really know what will happen to Troy… In the end, everything hinges on Achilles, his death, his legend and his romantic involvement with Briseis. In keeping with this focus, I suggested to Wolfgang that I thought it would be a good decision to « forget » about both Helen and Paris in the score and instead focus all my attention on Achilles.
 
CF) How did Wolfgang Petersen respond ?
JH) He just said : « That’s what I wanted to hear ! »  Helen and Paris make for a nice enough couple, but that’s basically all there is to them. Both characters are fairly static and, in the broad scheme of things, of rather secondary importance, and so we decided they would take care of themselves. This is where I found Troy surprising, because in Wolfgang’s design, the characters take a back seat to Achilles. That’s not necessarily a departure from Homer’s Iliad, but Wolfgang made it much more explicit.
 
CF) When we first listened to Troy, we were thrown off balance. When we saw the movie, however, we understood your stylistic choices and the score became a joy to behold.
JH) I’ll admit that in some way, Wolfgang Petersen is responsible for the theme we used for the city of Troy. He would always tell me : « For the city of Troy, I want something binary. » And he gave me something like « ta ta damm dam ». I remembered that little motif and I fleshed it out so that it became the theme for Troy. I really wanted the motif to be just a little « crazy » on top of exuding the grandiloquence that Wolfgang was aiming for. Because, you know, the city of Troy is not just a victim. The Trojans are a proud people and behind their impressive walls, they display a somewhat disagreeable arrogance. In that respect, I really liked the bit where Helen enters the city with a long procession of flowers and Trojan women mocking her. We’re miles away from the visual rigor and the solemnity of Leni Riefenstahl. The scene describes a megalomaniacal and somewhat absurd city. That’s why I chose a motif that was both grand and just a little crazy.
 
 
CF) Somehwat ironic, even grotesque, the theme speaks to the vanity of the Trojans who believe they are safe behind their walls and their gods, whatever happens. Once again, you have stressed truth rather than beauty.
JH) I could have scored Troy in a more idyllic way, but in doing so, I would not have respected what was on film. The truth is that hiding within this fortress are a king, Priam, and a proud and vain people. Their overly reassured nature will bring about their undoing, and it is in irony that one finds the best ways to describe these flaws. If I had kept a straight face, I would have turned the Trojans into martyrs and I did not want to do that.
 
CF) The movie opens to splendid percussive material, the Bulgarian voices and then Tanja Tzarovska’s solo voice. How do these first bars reflect the identity of Troy ?
JH) At heart, Troy is the opposite of epic. The first moments hint at that, but the film is really constructed around Achilles. It’s not so much about what caused the war, or about Helen and Greece and so on, but about Achilles’ journey. I always welcome a chance to leave my print on the very first images of a movie, and in this case, I wanted an overture that was both violent and indicative of the divine, both massive and simple, and especially devoid of theme or melody. I was just going for an aural backdrop – the choir -, the death of a god – as rendered by Tanja – and a sound mass that was simple and evocative, hence the percussion element. This « signature » of sorts is like a preface, before Achilles enters the story. It’s pretty much what Gabriel Yared had done too, by the way.
 
CF) On the other had, there’s nothing really traditional about your aural backdrop and Tanja Tzarovska’s voice is a color rather than a way to celebrate ancient Greece.
JH) There was really no time for that kind of abstract discussion. That said, even with more time and means at my disposal, I’m not sure I would have taken the point of view of a shimmering ancient Greece. The movie is too much of a Hollywood product for the score to adopt a Greek or an oriental rhetoric. The advantage of Enemy At the Gates was its European side, which meant I could take the score a lot further. In the case of Troy, it was more of a consensus score.
 
CF) Last time, we spoke about figuralism, even artifice. That once again brings us to Troy.
JH) The cue opens in rigorous fashion, belying the romance of the piece and setting up the grim images of war to come. The city’s motif remains the one we just talked about : infused with mannerism and excess. It’s slightly pedantic. I love this kind of ambiguity, and anyway, sometimes you need to fight your own instincts.
 
CF) Contrary to the city motif, Achilles’ theme is suggestive rather than showy, and at any rate, it’s something very much in the vein of Shostakovich.
JH) Achilles is a debate on its own terms. Wolfgang thinks he’a hero, the first « rock star » in western civilization. I tend to think he’s a man who knows he’s lost and who destroys himself bit by bit. He looks death in the face, perhaps even invites death. At any rate, he does whatever he can to approach death. So you might say that he is passive rather than active. It’s the way Homer described the character, and it’s also what Brad Pitt tries to get across. I am not sure that’s what Wolfgang initially had in mind, but he was overhwelmed by the character. Achilles has the façade of a warrior, but deep down, he’s almost an antihero. Musically, we didn’t have either the fervor of Krull or the doom of Kael’s theme in Willow in mind. So I suggested to Wolfgang a theme that sounds rigorous but not quite heroic. I wanted to show the hero as a conqueror but also suggest that this first calling is slightly artificial. His true condition is much darker and more pessimistic. In some way, with every new battle, Achills commits suicide. Every new corpse reflects his own eventual demise. This brings us back to that artificial façade I was immediately struck by. It’s almost like Achilles’ heroism rings false, and the true greatness of the man is that he is redeemed by his passion for Briseis, « the only moment of peace in my life ».
 
CF) You derived Achilles’ theme from a motif contained in the Allegro Non Troppo of Dimitri Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. In Shostakovich, as in your score, the musical idea is almost the theme of the absence of hope.
JH) That’s exactly it. Turning Achilles into an epic hero would have been a mistake. He’s a powerful warrior, but his true heroism is in his fragility and in the way he fights the absurdity of his life. Achilles wants to be remembered as a warrior, but he dies a lover. That’s also why I wanted the end credits song to focus on the notion of love, his love for Briseis, and his wish to be « remembered » as a man who became an immortal. Of course, it is not clear what this immortality is based on. Personally, I was not drawn to the legend of the warrior, and I don’t think he was either. Achilles quickly understands that he will have to redeem himself by retrieving some measure of humanity, even if it is only through Briseis.
 
CF) In a way, it’s one of the most beautiful themes of your career, whereas everyone expected to hear a ‘big’ one.
JH) That’s what I wanted to do: suggest legend, express beauty.
 
CF) Didn’t you derive some pleasure form writing anti-epic music for a movie that everyone expected would bring out the big guns ?
JH) Oh yes ! (laughs)
 
CF) For you, Troy is a movie to be taken in the second or even the third degree, especially where it takes itself seriously. However, Brad Pitt says Achilles already has that ambiguity. In fact, he continually embaces the condition of the warrior that you discussed : you feel how crippled he feels by the wars he wages not out of pleasure or megalomania but because he wants to be reunited one day with his brothers in arms, both friend and foe. This is very apparent in the scene where he mourns Hector’s slain body.
JH) The ambiguity is what makes these characters so fascinating, especially as envisioned by someone like Wolfgang, who focuses relentlessly on individual actions. Achilles’ first fight is revealing in many respects, especially the way Wolfgang presents his star to the audience. The two armies have taken their positions, Achilles arrives on the scene and in a brazen moment, cuts his adversary’s throat. It’s a bewildering moment. Just like that, the movie takes off. That’s Achilles : a man who wages war on himself and expresses that inner conflict through slaying external adversaries. When he calls out Hector for a duel, I was struck by Brad Pitt’s performance. Wolfgang was hesitant about the music, but I was not. Achilles didn’t need any comment and any musical accompaniment would have weighed down a truly powerful moment.
 
CF) The fact that Achilles’ theme is not filled with hope makes it all the more impressive. Even though the theme itself is not all that important to you, does it not reveal the character and its torment ? In a sense, isn’t the meaning of the theme more important than its appearance ?
JH) Well yes, of course. Appearance is one thing, and the movie is full of them. Meaning, however, is an altogether different beast. Music has a powerful and sometimes bizarre effect on images and one should be very careful about using it. Wolfgang didn’t want Achilles’ theme to be overbearing, lest it should overwhelm the character or the characters around him. It’s this chemistry between presence, meaning and appearance that I was asked to develop.
 
CF) It goes without saying that we loved the 4-note death motif leading the charge in both Enemy At the Gates and the advance of the Myrmidons. This « science » you develop around those four notes is unique and exemplary.
JH) Be less ecstatic and more achillean (laughs). There too, it was Achilles’ motif that guided the score. If his theme had had a basic musical « power », it would have transcended Achilles’ violent nature and the way in which he fights, and I would have put forward an ecstatic interpretation of the character. Since I understood Achilles to be different, I wanted the Myrmidons to be infused with a certain savagery, what you call « a charge », underpinned by the death motif. In this way, the death motif is an essential part of the score. On the one hand, it functions on a general level, as desired by Wolfgang. On the other hand, these brass phrasings are central to my design, they amplify what I want to say and suffocate all other forms of expression around them. They create a wall of sound based on Achilles’ violence. It also yields a kind of multidimensional polyphony, especially regarding the rhythmic proportions, the sound palette and the musical aggressiveness.
 
CF) You promised you hadn’t exploited the four notes to their fullest potential. How do you still find new things to say with a cell this primary, even though it probably never sounded so violent and implacable ?
JH) By trying to make it sound ever more violent and implacable ! In Troy it is carried by the entire orchestra, which makes it even more effective. I would go as far as to say that the orchestra is at the motif’s service. The motif itself does not lead to novelty, but I always try to dress it up in attractive new clothes. The orchestral support it needs and the resulting musical fusion lead to anti-aesthetic effects.
 
 
CF) The last minute of The Temple of Poseidon is characteristic of that fusion and of that support.
JH) In Enemy At the Gates, it was less necesaary, because the film and the music more readily showcased the oppositions and the contrasts. Troy demanded that the motifs not appear in isolation. That’s why they’re almost always together, one after the other, one on top of the other. It’s funny that you should mention that minute, because it was one of the first moments we recorded. I always felt that the moment when Achilles looks out over the shore, his sword pointing to the heavens, sounded like the second time the movie got going. In fact, maybe it was the true start of the story. By bringing the motifs together, by forcing myself to present these vital reprises, I think I showed the morbid ambition that surrounded the Trojan war, the Evil that will come to be between Greeks and Trojans without my having to take sides or weigh down the story. It’s a very powerful moment in the film, in which the spatialization of the image and the music comes together in complete harmony. I love that sequence a lot.
 
CF) In both Achilles Leads The Myrmidons and The Temple Of Poseidon, you unleash a very impressive orchestral force from which Tanja Tzarovska emerges vigorously.
JH) I didn’t want the fight scenes to be emotional or operatic in any way, so I used a fairly savage musical grammar : percussion, atonal aggressiveness in the horns, the trombones and the trumpets. I wanted the music to sound like a savage beast, all the while maintaining a certain balance through the use of the four-note motif, for instance, and the shrieks or even the death throes it evokes. I absolutely wanted a degree of serenity, even in the bloodiest moments. This is where Tanja came in. At first, I suggested two female voices, one for Achilles and one for Hector. However, I won’t tell you whom I had in mind or this interview would have to be interrupted – for quite some time – so that I may be able to comfort you (laughs). Anyway, I discarded that idea because I didn’t think I’d have enough time to fully realize that contrast between fire and ice. For me, however, Tanja was always so closely linked to Achilles that she became his mirror through Briseis. She is, in a way, the hand of god, the god of war, the hand that strikes down in destruction or in self-destruction. She’s also Achilles’ only way out : his future death. Even so, Tanja’s voice is not morbid in the slightest: it’s savage and comforting. Once again, it is a kind of relief, a programmed ending. And moving on from that, a new start.
 
CF) There’s also a mystical aspect.
JH) Briseis gives herself up to God before giving herself up to Achilles. It’s a symbol that Homer is very explicit about. So yes, there’s certainty and there’s hesitation. That’s what Tanja expressed wonderfully in her singing, in The Temple of Poseidon : the doubt and the future decision. It’s all in her brazen voice, a voice that does not sound academic at all.
 
CF) The Iliad as a sort of Romeo and Juliet avant la lettre?
JH) Were you going to ask me that question at this point? Anyway, it’s right in so many ways.
 
CF) You told us that you didn’t want the violence to have any aesthetic value : you give it to us as it is, in all its direct brutality. The orchestral power is unflinchingly cold. Why do you paint white on white in the battle scenes and allow the music to be more metaphoric in other moments ?
JH) Because that’s what violence is, especially at a time when men were incredibly cruel. I told you, I didn’t want to embellish the violence or give it any other dimension than what it is. Moreover, the Iliad demonstrates rather than judges. In a way, I counter-embellished the violence (if such a word exists) by making it even more cold and aggressive. Only when you get to the heart of the violence can you make it the most effective.
 
CF) The Night Before and The Greek Army and Its Defeat take us back to the kind of Slavic-Russian context that we love so much.
JH) Everyone has his or her own sensibilities and you know mine. I didn’t want to go for a Greek-sounding score, or try to express the locale through music in any way. It would have been a commendable endeavour, but you would have ended up with a very left-field score. Doing half that job was not an option for me – you’ll remember that in scores like The Four Feathers, I pushed two vastly different musical cultures to their extremes. Troy was not a project that easily accommodated such radical choices, so I decided to draw from the principles applied one hundred years ago to the concert hall or to the movies by Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich.
 
CF) The Greek advance to the fortress of Troy, as portrayed by Wolfgang Petersen, is not unlike Sergei Eisenstein Alexander Nevsky.
JH) There are similarities, of course, but they’re the result from the « repertoire » of cinema rather than any laziness on our part. Wolfgang Petersen is a far more intelligent and innovative director than many critics will have you believe. If his visual language points to the history that precedes it, that’s fine. From a musical point of view, I wanted the instrumental writing to look ahead to the battle to come and then delve right into it. That’s why there’s this motif of progression, a motif that is Nevskian in nature, embedded in a tempo that keeps it from overflowing. When the moment of the attack comes, the percussion obliterates this tempo and ushers in the first brass figures. Then comes the battle itself, with its various harmonic dimensions, its sudden eruptions of violence and its churning rhythms.
 
 
CF) That’s absolutely right. Between the fourth and seventh minutes in The Greek Army and Its Defeat you showcase an entire century of Russian action music, and with such panache !
JH) The rhythmic bases and cells explored and invented by Igor Stravinsky or Dimitri Shostakovich sound every bit as modern today. You can study them very carefully, but as soon as you surround them with new ornamentation, those cells suggest dozens of new ideas, including polyphony. The Greek Army and Its Defeat is not just a summary, it’s an extension, a spiritual continuity of notes and music over the course of individuals and musical realms. That’s how I conceive the links between human beings and musical genres. You know, music is like an intellectual scaffolding and each of us builds a new level. Some composers have created fortifications that support another scaffolding in which film music comes about. Through my grammar and my colors, I write my own book, supported by the virtuosity of the repertoire and the musicians who write it. That’s the context in which I see my four-note theme, my motif of Death, one of my signature ideas. Those notes possess a philosophical dimension, and rather than an idiomatic link with my own music, this motif tries to establish a stylistic unity with the Fathers, the composers I mentioned before. Oh, and let’s not forget Sergei Rachmaninov and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who contributed so much to the birth of serious music.
 
CF) That’s some answer ! And you cap off the brilliant cue with Tanja Tzarovska in introspective mode.
JH) I would never have used this vocal color for The Passion of the Christ, but I knew it would be very appropriate for Troy. Many directors are unsure about the vocal element in Gladiator, but you have to admit that this mode of expression, which goes against the locale, if handled with wisdom and balance, can yield fantastic results, especially because it is so introspective. It would be wrong to elevate it to the level of mannerism, or worse, cut it up to make it fit a melodic environment. The trick is to let the voice be free while also sounding very « written ». As far as I am concerned, either with Sissel in Titanic or with Tanja Tzarovska in Troy, I use these wonderful voices either as a parallel line to the instruments or as a musical color that vaguely shines through the orchestral palette. In both cases, they are a great addition to the orchestra. It’s all about how much of which you want and where exactly you place it. That’s what Tanja brings at various stages in the film, such as the contemplation of death after the first confrontation between the Greeks and the Trojans. There’s an element of profound meditation, something masterfully profound – again, the hand of a god that watches his children kill each other. I greatly respect this vocal quality which leads to so many connotations and reflections. It’s a wonderful thing and Tanja is truly a great artist, a unique talent.
 
CF) Why is there no male vocal connotation in this battle, or in any other part of the score ?
JH) I didn’t see the point, really. The harmonic colors I used, especially in the strings, did not warrant any vocal support, least of all male voices. Moreover, I think it would have lessened the impact of Tanja’s voice and it would have contradicted the meaning of her contribution. Tanja never overpowers the orchestra, she’s something of a ghost, she’s there but you’re not always aware of her, she’s an elegiac voice, she quite simply « exists » with all the grace, the distress and the beauty of her voice. Every other addition would have been too academic and would have run counter to my ideas. If you have a rare jewel like Tanja, you write for her and you keep her as far away as you can from any unnecessary confrontations.
 
CF) Still, the present consensus seems to be that grandeur and power should be rendered through male choir and tribal rhythms. Isn’t The Greek Army and Its Defeat the opposite of that, an exercise in continuity rather than grandiloquence?
JH) I think the « present consensus » is a vague concept. The consensus I adhere to stems from the repertoire, which is 500 years old and I don’t care if it is in sync or not with contemporary fads. I apply big male choirs to situations that call for them, not because the academic rules dictate it. Some will say that I am wrong and that this « present consensus » is right. I think it is conformist because it is applied far more frequently and indiscriminately than the repertoire would suggest. One of my rules is to remain faithful to the repertoire while also developing my own musical identity.
 
CF) The Greek Army and Its Defeat ends the way Briseis and Achilles starts, with an atonal touch courtesy of Eric Rigler.
JH) Eric (Rigler) or Tony (Hinnigan) are my « local » colors. Their sounds bring an aesthetic quality that reinforces the primal musical palette, first Tanja, then the orchestra. I find them invaluable in any musical story.
 
CF) Like this love theme for the scene with Briseis and Achilles, your score has multiple meanings.
JH) It’s a beautiful scene. I wanted it to be expressive. I don’t particularly like the term « love theme » here because it doesn’t sound like a theme of customary, consensual love, so first I composed a melody for Briseis which was going to be performed by Tanja, supported by Eric. Unfortunately, this didn’t mesh well with the images and with the dialogue that you needed to hear. Randy then orchestrated the first minute for Briseis for woodwinds. And he did a remarkable job, because through instrumentation, he reveals the transparence of the thematic and orchestral material. Then comes the second minute, the more Achillean melody.
 
CF) This second minute is open to debate. It sounds like an extroverted impressionism or an introverted expressionism and it reminds us of a theme from the repertoire.
JH) You’ve just defined a great French composer and a piece I cannot stop myself from revisiting, Gabriel Fauré and his Requiem, because the relationship between Briseis and Achilles will end in a requiem. Like his « hero » theme, this other melody for Achilles also displays a predisposition toward tragedy. It is not about repeating musically what’s already there on the screen, rather it speaks to Achilles’ insecurities. The union between Achilles and Briseis is sealed when the strings return and I think that’s a very intense moment. True, there’s physical nudity, but what Achilles and Briseis really lay bare is their emotions. By stressing the passion, I acknowledge their union and somehow show it as the great story of the Iliad. I would have loved for Tanja to be a part of that moment, but the scene didn’t allow it. In a non-cinematic context, this scene would perhaps have run a lot longer than five minutes. Tanja’s final song, Remember, playing over the first part of the end credits, is a direct extension of the cue Briseis and Achilles. Tanja / Briseis mourn their « hero » in a song which focuses both on love and on a bond that has been broken. Tanja’s voice is shy and reserved, her song is like a requiem in which her knowing introspection exists alongside a spirituality that is very feminine, fragile and light. It is a conclusion augmented by a vocal authenticity, a genuine truthfulness that no other acoustic instrument can hope to express.
 
CF) Glory was one of your great references to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. The embryonic stages of Briseis and Achilles are found in the first minute of Burning The Town of Darien, which went on to become one of the main motifs in David Arnold’s Stargate.
JH) I don’t know what a motif becomes outside of the context of my work, I know how I use it and how I want to use it.
 
CF) The cue is called Briseis and Achilles, not Achilles and Briseis !
JH) Briseis is the movie’s soul and Achilles’ counterpoint. She is his prisoner, and yet in his company, she has never enjoyed more freedom. At Priam’s court, she should be free, and yet she chooses to tie her fate to the Trojan gods. In body and in mind, she is attracted to Achilles, and yet she will end up following Priam with Hector’s body. Free to be Achilles’ slave or chained to the Trojans, Briseis is the heart of Troy even when she’s not around. She’s like this little music box, whether her voice is heard or not, that lingers in the mind. The final image of Achilles is fantastic, but the look on Briseis’ face when she sees his dead body, is unforgettable.
 
CF) The Trojans Attack plunges us back into battle. Again, your view on Troy is provocative.
JH) Priam is like his people : vain and presumptuous. That’s why I wanted to make the start of this tragic counter-attack sound somewhat arrogant : I mixed colors and constructed brief brass cells around razor-sharp percussion. The Trojans are drunk with euphoria ! Once the battle starts, this artifice is superseded by the violence.
 
CF) That expression of battle offers a minute (2:38 – 3:20) full of percussive rage rarely heard in your work.
JH) Death strikes in successive blows and every sword that kills is an aural hit. In Achilles Leads The Myrmidons, the violence is of a more diffuse nature. Here, it is more contained because it is centered around Hector. It’s more straightforward, direct and noble, even though the term is wrongly used and inadequately describes what you hear. I wanted to have a rigorously paced passage as if pounded out by anvils and surrounded by an echo. My death theme would have been a fine choice here, but I preferred the more oppressing sounding heavy drum. It’s concise and alive like a symphonic rock, and it has a dionysian and authoritarian quality.
 
CF) This authoritarian moment ends with the death of Patroclus after which you draw again from the infathomable depths of your death theme.
JH) The death theme in the major followed by Achilles’ theme in the minor, it’s a tableau of destruction. The modes are more of a deterministic network that will lead to the Achilles / Hector fight. The treatment is fairly straightforward in its relationhip with the visuals and spiritually correct regarding the music. The minor mode also contrasts with the illustrative aspect of the percussion instruments which portray the action as a series of violent moments.
 
CF) What is your take on the Hector character ?
JH) He’s someone very human, but he is devoured bit by bit by Troy. Once again, if Hector is such a successful character, it’s because of his wife, Andromache. She tries to appeal to his better nature, urges him to resist temptation and goes as far as to confront him, however unwillingly. He’s a character of two natures : a family man and a ruthless killer.
 
CF) The duel is already the stuff of anthology.
JH) Wolfgang did a remarkable job. There’s this long wait where we hear Achilles crying out Hector’s name, followed by the fight itself. The deliberate pace of the moment and the silences contained within are very important, both visually and musically. This clash of the titans becomes a confrontation of percussion elements over Tanja’s voice. Nothing more, nothing less. In my mind, it is the only interpretation that does justice to these titans, because it makes them even more primitive than they already are. There’s this general beat and Tanja who sits in judgment.
 
 
CF) How did you get Tanja Tzarovska to perform such a profound requiem ?
JH) I explored the vocal possibilities that she suggested and I listened to her previous work and recordings. I then composed taking into account to her vocal range, the progression of the vocal line and the liberty I needed to give her if I was to bring out the most. I again wanted a certain serenity, something shy, traditional and shimmering, even though it is a death scene. This voice that is at once brazen and restrained, confers a degree of spirituality to the scene.
 
CF) It’s one of the rare sequences where you also use what you call « the Bulgarian voices ».
JH) Yes, in counterpoint. I don’t like the caricature of the « weeping voices » but just a touch of them was a supportive color that more than did the job.
 
CF) After writing this cue, how did you approach the defeat of the Trojans and The Wooden Horse And The Sacking Of Troy and Through The Fires, Achilles… And Immortality ?
JH) The last twenty minutes were a matter of logistics. Randy had a lot to do with the process and we composed in an analytical way. There were close to 100 tiny cues that we later recorded as two movements. I did not have the time to develop the cues as much as I wanted to and had I been given a bit more time, I would have made it stand out a bit more compared to the first part of the disc. The music could have been darker and more varied, more self-contained and more atonal.
 
CF) It does, however, unmistakably sound like Horner music.
JH) If I’d only had to use the death theme once, it would have been for the discovery of the Trojan horse, an age-old metaphor for trickery and destruction. On the one hand, I had to follow the fight closely and that meant a lot of action material. On the other hand, I wanted to display a few of my signature sounds and moments. One of them was for Odysseus’ shrewd tricks and the fatal ploy hidden in the horse’s bowels. First, I wrote some pizzicato using the notes of the death theme and then I wanted Tanja’s dignified voice to silence the menacing orchestral masses. Again, I was going for this mix of brazenness and serenity, judgment and redemption. The destruction of Troy rendered by a soft voice. I thought it would make for a nice touch.
 
 
CF) The scene with the Trojan horse shows how effective it can be to have the music contrast the visuals. The score paints a tableau of defeat, heavy with terror and the impending death, even during extatic moments. Why did you make that choice ?
JH) Contrast leads to anticipation. Anticipation leads to imagination, all in the context of the scenes to come, of course. In this precise case, painting white on white would have crushed the visuals, it would have hurt not only this scene but also the subsequent ones. I will sometimes amplify what’s on screen, while in other cases, I will try to downplay the events. The Wooden Horse And The Sacking Of Troy is an example of the latter.
 
CF) During the impressive shot of the Greek army attacking Troy, a lonely voice breaks the silence of the night. The movie really puts the music front and center at this point. How did you develop that key moment ?
JH) I quickly understood that Tanja’s voice would lend the scene and eerily light touch. In the shots you mention, it would have been ridiculous to choose any other kind of musical expression. I didn’t try to redefine Tanja’s role and I tried not to overplay my hand, the voice is a fantastic element.
 
CF) The brass are also handled in a magnificent way.
JH) I could have gone for a more atonal, growling sound, and indeed, you will hear snippets of that sound here and there. There can be a certain poetry, albeit a morbid one, in ornamentation, even as far as the brass are concerned. In the case of Through The Fires, Achilles… And Immortality, I went for an airy sound so as to elicit from the brass an andante expressivo around the strings that transport Achilles to the afterlife.
 
CF) And again, there’s the solo voice of Tanja Tzarovska.
JH) She is the soul of the score. She is also Briseis who mourns Achilles. And she is instrumental in transforming Achilles’ immortality from the warrior kind – the brass surrounding Achilles’ theme – into a more intimate and human kind. She reveals Achilles as a human being capable of love. This ending centered around Briseis is the essence of the tragedy and redemption in all their splendor and the start of the Odyssey, the odyssey that leads to other gods. Helen may be a very beautiful woman, Paris may be blinded by love, but the simple look on Briseis’ face makes you understand the Iliad from the point of view of Achilles, and it’s a captivating and poetic point of view.
 
CF) Why is Through The Fires, Achilles… And Immortality interrupted by Remember ?
JH) It was always going to be that way. The movie was always going to end with a song as per Warner’s wishes, and as far as I was concerned, it was the big pay-off of Tanja’s voice, we talked about that when we discussed Briseis and Achilles. It didn’t interfere with what I was trying to say, it sort of focused my final comments on Remember.
 
CF) How did you compose Remember ?
JH) With Randy (laughs) ! I thought we needed a woman’s point of view. I watched Troy with Tanja Tzarovska and together, we made vocal choices that we both agreed on, like the absence of melody in her vocal material. This is more or less the way we went about creating the song. I asked Cynthia (Weil) to watch the entire movie, without any music. I let her listen to the demo of Briseis and Achilles so that she’d know the melody she was going to write for. I wanted Cynthia to be another Tanja, and also another Briseis during Remember. She did it perfectly, understanding the way I saw Achilles.
 
CF) Josh Groban and Tanja Tzarovska, that’s a bit like the Briseis / Achilles couple.
JH) The advantage of having a contract with Sony is that when I work for another label, they always give me the best of the best. I knew Josh, I told Warner I wanted him and the deal was done in five minutes. I called Brian Avnet who immediately called David Foster. I got Josh Groban within the next fifteen minutes, he was very surprised. I said : « I am working on Troy and I’d like you to sing the end credit song with a young Bulgaran woman called Tanja Tzarovska. » His answer was : « I’ll be at Todd-AO in less than an hour. » And true enough, less than an hour later, Josh attended the scoring sessions, and he returned a couple of times over the course of the next week.
 
CF) Remember is your creation, even though it also bears David Foster’s stamp.
JH) I didn’t want to get into the material development of the final song, so I asked Randy Kerber, my « wicked twin », to represent my side of the song. David made sure both Josh and Tanja would shine. So there’s these two voices, which was my idea all along, one for Achilles and one for Briseis, with just two words in common : « Remember me ». In a brilliant move, Cynthia chose to have those words sung only to Tanja. Josh was our Achilles, with his impressive voice that is also deeply romantic, as evidenced by his wonderful album Closer. He is both powerful and graceful. In Tanja, we find a pulsating voice and one that brings together cultures and civilizations. Through Tanja, Cynthia expresses herself as a woman and it is that flame that burns in the wonderful vocals of this beautiful Macedonian woman.
 
CF) The « beautiful mind » from A Beautiful Mind was Jennifer Connelly and not Russell Crowe. Who do you want us to remember most in Troy,  Achilles or Briseis ?
JH) Always remember the « beautiful mind ».
 
CF) Regardless of the difficult conditions in which you worked, your music is incredibly rich and touching, but it also brings into focus the various points of view, what is implied and which parts of the movie are to be seen in the first, the second or even in the third degree. Isn’t all that a result of this sense of urgency ? Was Tanja Tzarovska your muse ? It seems your energy saw you through.
JH) I quickly understood the potential of Tanja’s voice and thanks to her, I always saw some light at the end of the tunnel. So yes, she was a muse and a source of inspiration. She was the spiritual light of the project. We worked closely together and her enthusiasm was a constant source of energy. Of course, the urgency and the scope of the project were hanging over our heads like a sword of Damocles, but I managed to escape to a realm of the voice, one that I know well, and that is where the sense of urgency led to creativity.
 
CF) Given its mythological nature, did you use for Troy, consciously or unconsciously, any of the building stones you would have used for Lord of The Rings ?
JH) You know, I never really got into Lord of The Rings or The Passion of the Christ and I never composed anything for those projects, so I really couldn’ tell. It would be a bit easy today to say I would have done this or that. In the context of those specific projects, I don’t know which decisions I would have made. Or at least, I’m not going to tell (laughs).
 
CF) Do you think we’ll hear more from you about The Passion Of The Christ ?
JH) Who knows ?
 
CF) Some have said you chose the easy way out, scoring Troy with voices like Zimmer scored Gladiator.  Others have mentioned a lack of really memorable themes. How would you respond to that criticism?
JH) As far as the themes go, I don’t care, or rather, I’d invite those people to read your magazine. In terms of my using voices, I don’t see the need for comparing Troy and Gladiator. I have been using voices for twenty-five years and I am happy to see that other composers are also using them, both before I arrived and, I hope, long after I’m gone. I don’t pretend to be the king of film music. I express myself in my own way and I am trying to add chapters to a story that I started a very long time ago. Gladiator was a really beautiful score and perfectly attuned to the needs of that film. However, it would be no use trying to apply that recipe to another project. Or any other recipe, for that matter. If I am subervsive, it is on a more general level, because I am trying to use what was written before and use it in new scores.
 
CF) Even though it’s a very different beast, doesn’t Troy display the same spirituality as Bobby Jones ? In the final analysis, didn’t you sidestep both Petersen’s and Warner’s wishes so that you could bring your own vision to the project ?
JH) My musical language is my vision. When people call on you, you should consider what they have to say. I don’t think I sidestepped Warner’s wishes, because in establishing the ground rules, Wolfgang Petersen created a canvas on which I could paint with my own colors. Broadly speaking, everyone involved got to express their own vision and it is precisely that wonderful marriage that produces movies that stand the test of time. We’ll see what Troy becomes.
 
CF) We already know what has become of the album, which has sold a very impressive 350 000 copies to date.
JH) Listeners are loyal and they’re prepared to take risks. That’s very encouraging.
 
CF) Do you think Troy could also have been titled Achilles ?
JH) Troy encompasses more than just Achilles, it’s a movie that generally follows the Iliad. Achilles would have reduced the movie’s commercial potential, even though his character is what holds it all together. I myself would have included Briseis in a title along with Achilles, but her character is not widely known. I think the title Troy appeals to the broadest possible audience.
 
CF) You had very nice things to say about Gabriel Yared at the start of our interview.
JH) I always have nice things to say about him. It’s not because you live in a world filled with sharks that you should become a shark yourself.
 
CF) What was your Achilles’ heel in Troy ?
JH) Time passes incredibly fast, especially when you need it.
 
Sources: J.H. et des poussières : Quand la famille Delajungle rencontre Hélène de Troie et Bobby Jones, par Didier Leprêtre & Magali Nguyen-The – Cinefonia Magazine 2004

J.H. et des poussières : La Guerre de Troie aura bien lieu, par Jean-Christophe Arlon & Didier Leprêtre – Cinefonia Magazine 2004

 
Special thanks to Didier Leprêtre, Kjell Neckebroeck, Javier Burgos and Nick Martin
Translation by Kjell Neckebroeck.

Comments

  1. Zoe Potter

    Personally for me, this is one of my favorite scores of his. Braveheart was my first, titanic was my second and it was the one that stuck. But this one just resonates with me and will always be on of my absolute favorites of his.

  2. Brendan Steidle-Soto

    Thank you so much for posting this! As a fan of Horner for 20 years, I’ve always wondered what he thought of the 4-note motif, but this is the first time I have ever seen him address it directly. So many of his interviews were done by people who didn’t understand his music, so he talked mostly about Hollywood personalities and processes rather than the music itself. This is what I’ve been looking for for decades! Thanks for your translation and keep up the amazing work. Can’t wait to read the next one!

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