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JAMES HORNER FILM MUSIC | November 22, 2018 |

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STANDOUT SET PIECES #8: BUILDING TENSION

STANDOUT SET PIECES #8: BUILDING TENSION
Kjell Neckebroeck

James Horner always focused on story and especially character. Famously (within the Horner community at least), he once stated in the context of his two Star Trek scores that it was always about Spock and Kirk and that “the action would take care of itself”. It should come as no surprise that this focus on characters and their humanity has been the obvious guideline for a series of articles such as this. I have always selected music cues I believe James Horner would have wanted to see discussed. For this episode, however, the reader’s attention is directed toward three cues which made it to their respective CD albums, sure enough, but which would not exactly be the first cues you’d expect any kind of analysis of the Horner canon to begin with. The cues discussed below belong to what is commonly referred to as “functional music”, underscore in perhaps a somewhat narrow sense of the term – some might be inclined to call it “filler music”. At any rate, tension-building, which is what interests us here, leads to the kind of score cues that even composers themselves would call “technical” and “workmanlike” rather than having the potential for genuine artistic inspiration and expression. Despite expectations to the contrary, even this side of James Horner’s film music has more than a few surprises in store.

Every tension-building cue confronts the film composer with a set of very specific decisions. Taking into account the first three items of the list below is a matter of necessity if a cue is going to be basically sufficient. However, all great film music goes beyond the call of duty and introduces elements which, while not strictly necessary, end up adding something to the scene that wasn’t there yet.
1) When to start and when to stop? While spotting determines the effectiveness of every cue to at least some extent, the issue becomes vital in the case of tension-building cues. How much of the tension can be allowed to build up before the music starts? At which point does the tension have to be released?
2) How to create the correct dynamic? At which point is it necessary to accelerate or to slow down? Which moments should the composer acknowledge with a “hit” (a musical accent) and which ones should he ignore?
3) When does it become necessary to thicken the sound palette and when to thin the orchestrations down?
4) To what extent does the composer work on orchestration beyond its capacity for mere tension-building? As we will see, James Horner often makes interesting decisions that go beyond the call of duty.
5) Is there an opportunity for a tonal shift, either subtle or explicit? Changing the tone of a scene favors variation and is an element of pacing in and of itself.
6) How can themes and motifs be used in surprising and revealing ways during tension-building cues?
 
As always, the timings mentioned reflect the music as it appears in the film, not on the soundtrack album.
 
Too Many Secrets from Sneakers: the magic of technology and its disintegration
 
1992 was a typically busy year for James Horner, yet Sneakers stands out of the bunch as the most original and, crucially, the one in which the composer planted countless seeds that would come to fruition in subsequent scores. One of these seeds is the attempt to express mathematics and, more generally, science, through music – the resulting ideas would be developed in the musically related main title sequences of Bicentennial Man (1999) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), while the lengthy and climactic Playtronics Break In would determine the shape of a significant amount of action music to come.
However, I have always been utterly fascinated by Too Many Secrets, perhaps the most enigmatic and discreetly successful cue of the entire score.
True, it’s underscore. It plays under a lot of dialogue, and whenever the composer trades in a whisper for a shout under dialogue, his contribution is bound to end up in the aural depths of the film’s composite soundtrack. Apart from one or two such moments, Horner does an admirable job of weaving his score through the dialogue and the sound effects. (In one case, the score actually assumes the role of a sound effect.) The cue’s architecture is very clever, and it’s all about tone, from deceptive lightness to utter chaos. Horner splits the six-minute cue up into three distinct parts, followed by a short aftermath.
 
 
a) Part 1 (40:28 – 42:34): a deceptive lightness of tone
Bishop (Robert Redford), Mother (Dan Aykroyd), Crease (Sidney Poitier) and Liz (Mary McDonnell) are gathered around a table playing Scrabble. Quite appropriately, the cue starts on a shot of Bishop leaning forward in puzzlement. The Sneakers have just stolen a mysterious notebook and the atmosphere is light. However, Bishop realizes that the name “Setec Astronomy” is a bit too random for comfort. This is when the score enters, stressing the first dynamic event within a dramatic framework that has been static so far. Bishop interrupts the game and uses Scrabble tiles to rearrange the letters of “Setec Astronomy” into other word combinations. Meanwhile, the blind computer wizard Whistler (David Strathairn) does some researching of his own, joining forces with his assistant Carl (River Phoenix) in trying to establish a connection between seemingly random notes in the notebook and encrypted websites.
The tone of the first part is relaxed, Horner indulging in Branford Marsalis’ saxophone (whose presence here neatly incorporates this cue into the fabric of the score as a whole) and even a lighthearted women’s choir. The saxophone and especially the subtle “oohs” and “aahs” in the female voices reflect the levity of the piece as a whole (Sneakers never gets too serious), but they also seem to denote the “magic of technology”. In fact, the decision to reinterpret the cold rationality of mathematics as some kind of intellectual magic is a master-stroke on the composer’s part. This nuance of magic would be even more evident in Bicentennial Man and A Beautiful Mind, especially when Horner establishes and develops a fertile contradiction between magic on the one hand and mortality and madness, respectively, on the other. Incidentally, this shows how sometimes, an idea only reveals its full dramatic potential over the course of a number of scores, which, once again, should give pause to those critics focusing on the self-plagiarism issue in Horner’s oeuvre.
Part of the easy-going nature of the cue’s first part is the decision not to hit any individual moments. Horner establishes a recurring piano line at the very start and creates two waves of thickening orchestration, adding a different piano line here, soft cooing there, a harp figure and the saxophone element. Interestingly, the saxophone plays a musical line that starts with the four-note motif of doom. In Horner’s oeuvre, this frequently repeated idea refers either to death (Enemy At The Gates, Willow’s general Kael and so on) or to the military-industrial complex (Aliens, Electronic Battlefield from Patriot Games and so on). In this case, Horner expands the latter notion to include the dark side of technology. The result is an interesting contradiction: the saxophone’s sound is an element of levity, but the musical idea it plays is decidedly foreboding, the magic of technology tinged with subtle darkness.
When Whistler asks Carl to “get the diagnostics” (42:04), Horner pulls almost all of the elements and thins the orchestration down to a bare rhythmic device. The repetitiveness of the music mimics the wheels turning in Bishop’s head and the internal pause is Horner’s way of foreshadowing Whistler’s revelation later on.
Lightheartedness becomes subtle comedy when the power of imagination leads Liz and Bishop to form the words “montereys coast” and then, right at the end of the cue’s first part, “cootys rat semen” (42:31). The load is definitely taken off and director Phil Alden Robinson goes for a few chuckles. Horner lets the comedy of that moment take care of itself, all the better to change the tone of the sequence just three seconds later.
 
 
b) Part 2 (42:34 – 44:22): from light to dark
Sudden and violent timpani break up the relaxed atmosphere of the first part when we see a needle touching the interface of the braille terminal. Things become more serious and James Horner brilliantly creates a sharp tonal shift.
During this second part, the saxophone and the women’s choir are still there, but the underlying rhythms, drawing increasingly from percussion and cold woodblocks, are not light-hearted anymore. Horner’s rolling piano motif acknowledges both Bishop’s fingers rearranging scrabble tiles and Whistler’s fingers gliding over the keyboard of his braille terminal. The piano as the metaphor for the composer’s fingers mirroring characters’ fingers has definitely been done before, but as evidenced by this cue, it still works fine when it’s handled with subtlety.
The second part is also different from the first in that it features a number of sync points. Actually, the score becomes a sound effect when Horner accents a series of numbers flashing by, reflected in Whistler’s dark glasses. The first appearance of the numbers is greeted with a high-pitched treble hit (43:16), the second appearance with growling timpani (43:23). The timpani are joined by churning strings while the letters “Too Many Secrets” move across the screen, Bishop and Liz having arrived at a word combination that rings alarmingly true. In a highly cinematic shot (43:50), the director frames Bishop in the foreground and Whistler in the background. Shifting the focus from Bishop to Whistler, Phil Alden Robinson takes the action away from the Scrabble game and to Whistler’s work desk. Instead of accenting this moment, Horner counter-intuitively thins the orchestration down, creating a “sinking feeling” in Bishop’s head.
Robinson’s transition occurs at 43:50, Horner holds off until 44:22. Whistler wants to hack the Federal Reserve, Carl says he’ll never get in and while he punches in numbers from the mysterious notebook, Horner ups the ante with a cluster of rapid brass notes, a new and forceful element that signals the start of the cue’s third part.
 
 
c) Part 3 (44:22 – 46:06): descent into chaos
As Whistler successfully hacks the Federal Reserve, the national power grid and finally, an air traffic control system, it dawns on Bishop that Janek, the notebook’s owner, has found a way to bypass vastly complex encryption codes, thereby creating a universal code breaker.
During the cue’s last part, Horner does away with each and every comforting element: the soothing quality of the women’s choir, the lazy sax tones and the gently flowing rhythm. Any notions of levity and “magic” are now usurped by angry piano and brass clusters playing over aggressive percussion. Horner effectively deconstructs the “magic of technology” and has it disintegrate into utter chaos. Of course, every artistic chaos is controlled, and in between the randomness of the writing, individual moments are highlighted, such as the black random code becoming the intelligible blue print of the Federal Reserve’s website pages and the visual decryption of the air traffic control system.
While Bishop and Crease are increasingly disturbed by the ramifications of the codebreaker’s power, Mother, Carl and Whistler have fun imagining what it would be to steal money from the Federal Reserve or black out New England. When they nonchalantly ask if anyone in the room wants to crash a couple of passenger planes, a very alarmed Crease turns the machine off. Appropriately, this is the point a shrieking and atonal musical crescendo has been building to, and also the point when Horner abruptly breaks it off.
 
d) aftermath (46:06 – 46:33)
During the aftermath, the characters are stunned by the discovery they have made, and in the oppressive silence that ensues, Horner just about has the movie’s sound track all to himself. He fills it with nothing but bleak tapping on woodblocks, a metaphor for the wheels in everyone’s minds, still turning but numbed by the shocking realization. Bishop realizes “Too Many Secrets” refers to the codebreaker and in fact means no more secrets. Crease tells his wife to take her things and the score ends when the Sneakers decide to pack up and leave.
 
Of course, Horner makes sure that the cue has its place within the score as a whole. There may be a kind of “magic” to be found in technology, but as stated before, this magic is of a largely intellectual nature, bemused as scientists are by the dizzying heights to which their rational brains can take them. By the time the cue Whistler’s Rescue rolls along, however, the score presents magic of an altogether different nature. In fact, Horner takes the concept of magic and transforms the blind man’s wild ride into something of a fairytale sequence, with its shimmering orchestrations and a soaring theme that does not appear until this late in the game and will only return once more, during the end credits suite. The cue is worthy of discussion in and of itself, as it shows how in the hands of an imaginative dramatist, one of the elements of the cinematic experience can take a scene and utterly transform the whole. In this case, the dramatist is the film composer, the element of the cinematic experience is the score and the transformation is emotional, inspired by a genre-bending decision.
 
Attempt on the Royals from Patriot Games: surprising humanity
 
Patriot Games (1992) was the first of James Horner’s two Jack Ryan movies, Basil Poledouris having inaugurated the franchise with an orchestral and synthesizer hybrid for The Hunt For Red October (1990) and Jerry Goldsmith and Patrick Doyle scoring later installments. (Goldsmith took a more traditionally symphonic and occasionally even operatic approach, while Doyle’s contribution was a modern action score – enough said.) Director Philip Noyce, who collaborated with Horner on both the second and the third Ryan films, initially expressed disappointment over the Patriot Games score. By the time La La Land Records released the complete score, however, he had warmed to it considerably. He stated that Games got the purer of the two scores, mainly because its bare-bones approach shuns all attempts at patriotism. Instead of proud flag-waving, Horner draws from a wistful Gaelic song (performed by Maggie Boyle), while the insistence on ice-cold electronic textures for most of the action set pieces places the effort firmly in the category of earlier all-synth scores such as Commando (1985) and Red Heat (1988). What’s more, the Gaelic influence (with Maggie Boyle’s contribution bookending the score and pennywhistles appearing throughout) allowed Horner to focus on the bad guys and their doomed scheme, and actually humanize them. What the resulting score wins in terms of functionality within the fabric of the movie, it inevitably loses as a standalone listening experience. Since Clear And Present Danger (1994), the second of Horner’s Ryan movies, features an actual theme (a highly patriotic one at that) and lots of orchestral razzle-dazzle, it was greeted with a great deal more enthusiasm by most of the composer’s fans. Clear and Present Danger takes the perspective of Jack Ryan, resulting in a thunderous and occasionally heroic action score, while Patriot Games takes the perspective of the doomed bad guys, which makes the score an exercise in bleak futility.
Attempt on the Royals underscores the scene which gets the story going, the Catalyst in screenwriter lingo. Boat Chase is the cue that scores the demise of Sean Bean’s bad guy and brings the intrigue to a close – it’s the story’s finale. A neat bit of architecture: Horner scores the movie’s first and last action scenes for the orchestra, while all the action in between (including The Hit and Assault on Ryan’s House) is composed for electronics and in a markedly different style. Detailed analysis of Attempt on the Royals reveals a gem of a tension-building cue, even though editing and trimming done after the score was recorded means the cue as it appears in the film is forty seconds shorter than the original version, heard on the soundtrack albums.
(Note: James Horner scored Patriot Games in 1992, but a few months earlier than Sneakers, which is one of the reasons why none of the musical seeds planted in the lighthearted caper score appear here.)
 
 
The cue’s start is amazingly well-spotted. At exactly seven minutes into the movie, the terrorists’ black car appears, and that would have made for a legitimate starting point. (Okay, since the audience doesn’t even know who’s inside the car, menacing low strings this early on would actually have phoned it in.) At 7:08, a gun is revealed, which would have made an even better starting point for the cue. Instead, Horner lets Sean Bean go over the details of the imminent attack one more time and waits until he calls the other terrorist “little brother”. Only at this point, mid-shot instead of on a cut (which would have been more customary and convenient) does the cue get going, with drumrolls representing the (para)military nature of the terrorist cell and pennywhistles referring to the attackers’ Irish origins. Even when making a decision as seemingly banal and technical as spotting, James Horner finds a way to humanize a character, just by starting after those two seemingly casual words: little brother. The pennywhistles and snare drums continue to play over a shot of the royals driving by, an element pointedly not addressed by the composer, who keeps his eye exclusively on Sean Miller and Paddy Boy.
 
After the judiciously-spotted start, the first few seconds of the cue are the musical equivalent of exposition, the part of the screenplay that sets up all the elements of the A-story. The A-story of this particular score cue is made up of orchestral gestures, a snare drum figure and the ethnic flutes. These are the elements Horner will draw from during the remainder of the cue, and there’s not a theme in sight. Since the composer takes the terrorists’ perspective, he wisely refrains from developing full melodies, which would have glorified the terrorists when all Horner wanted to do was humanize them. Moreover, the futility of the bad guys’ plans is the focus here, and what better way to express this futility musically than to flat-out deny the score any kind of thematic content?
 
 
At 7:44, again mid-shot, Sean Miller has spotted the royals’ car and he gets down to business. This decision is signaled by a percussive punctuation mark and thickening orchestration. The harp supplies another rhythmic figure and the pace quickens.
 
At 8:01, the scene cuts to Cathy Ryan (Anne Archer) and daughter Sally (Thora Birch), who wave as they see Jack walking toward them. Again, the score does not flinch in its use of Irish whistles as the score’s only referential element – in fact, Horner goes as far as to ignore Jack Ryan (the story’s hero and Harrison Ford!) during the entire score, a bold move if ever there was one. (Material prior to 8:01 was duly scored by Horner but evidently excised from the final version of the scene.)
 
At 8:14, we cut back to the action: the royals’ car is forced to a stop and one terrorist attaches a bomb to its undercarriage. While gunshots are heard, col legno strings and other musical devices mimic a ticking bomb. When at 8:34 the explosion occurs, Horner tacets the action and resorts to just shrieking whistles and flutes, high-pitched terror that vaguely resembles tinnitus. It was a wise decision on the composer’s behalf to remove the low-register sounds in order to accommodate for the sound of the explosion, and by having the flutes play in the extreme upper register, he ensures that the music is heard over the sound effects. (One of film music’s basic requirements is to coexist alongside dialogue and sound effects, two elements a composer shares the film’s composite sound track with – and to which he will generally play second fiddle, like it or not.)
 
 
At 8:47, the action returns, ever more frantic. The music ducks under the deafening gunfire, undergoes another edit and reappears with the strings already building over a shot of the royals inside the car. At 9:02, the dynamic of the cue works its way upwards as Jack impulsively charges forth, and reaches its climax at 9:06, when the hero intervenes, pushes Sean Miller to the ground and shoots down three terrorists, taking a bullet to the left shoulder himself in the process. The climax is full of excitement, with frantic xylophone hits and busy strings, yet it consistently refrains from triumphalism – again, Horner scores the baddies, not the hero. The climactic action continues even after most of the terrorists have been killed or neutralized, as we see the lone survivor leaving the scene in a getaway car. A brilliant musical accent occurs at 9:29, when a percussion accent brings an end to the most violent musical elements of the action, which nonetheless continues as an insistent snare drum ostinato – Jack Ryan relaxes as the tension is relieved, but from Sean’s perspective, things are far from over. The one eye staring at him is Paddy Boy’s, and Sean desperately wants to know if his little brother has survived Ryan’s intervention. This last piece of action is psychological rather than physical, and yet the music James Horner uses to express Sean’s pounding heart is just as intense as what came before. At the same time, the composer does not lose track of the human side of the moment, as he captures the looks exchanged by the hero and the terrorist in two instruments of the same family (the woodwinds), as if trying to forge a bond that transcends the characters’ antagonism. Finally, mid-shot, Sean hears a policeman say that Paddy “has had it”, and the ostinato comes to an evident halt. Horner appropriately scores Sean’s numbing realization with an ugly electronic drone. But the composer has one more surprise in store: at 10:26, Sean looks from his dead brother to Jack Ryan and the sudden fierce hatred toward the hero is acknowledged with seven chilling seconds of uncoordinated electronic effects in a descending movement.
 
 
James Horner did what the scene needed him to do: highlight the Catalyst of the story and pace the action sequence judiciously and methodically. That alone would have been basically sufficient. Being a stellar dramatist, however, Horner added his own dramatic interpretation of the events, looking at the story and the action exclusively and consistently from the terrorists’ point of view and humanizing them to some extent (through instrumentation) without glorifying them (through themes and melodies). Moreover, by starting on Sean’s face as he says the words “little brother” and by ending on Sean’s face as he watches Paddy Boy’s killer, the cue delineates both ends of the scene and puts it into focus: it’s all about the loss of a brother and the birth of a hatred that will motivate all subsequent actions of the story’s protagonist as seen by James Horner.
 
Deleting the Evidence from Clear And Present Danger: blurring the lines between tension and action
 
 
If great film music is about more than just meeting the basic requirements, well than, this cue takes the basic requirements of tension-building and defiantly throws them out the window. In fact, the genius of Deleting the Evidence from Clear and Present Danger (1994) is that Horner reinterprets a scene of tension as a scene of outright action.
Of course, apart from a couple of all-synth cues, Clear and Present Danger was always going to be the antithesis of Patriot Games: extroverted instead of introverted, showcasing the orchestra rather than the electronics and yes, bookended with unashamedly triumphant thematic content. Of course, that’s what we get when the composer decides or is asked to focus on the hero of the piece. Compare The Hit from Patriot Games with Ambush from Clear and Present Danger: the former is uninvolved emotionally, just-functional by design and only half-formed musically, while the latter is a furiously emotional portrayal of a hero trapped and attacked (cue anguished strings) but ultimately triumphant (cue soaring brass). Considering this particular scoring approach, elevating even non-physical sequences like Deleting the Evidence to the status of balls-to-the-wall action material makes sense. Two guys sitting at a desk and staring at computer screens, that’s basically all there is here, but listen to the cue on album and you could be forgiven for thinking that it underscores a large-scale assault of some kind. In fact, come to think of it, Horner might have intended Deleting the Evidence as a companion piece to Operation Reciprocity. In the latter, we witness a team of CIA-agents led by Willem Dafoe performing a non-sanctioned helicopter incursion into the Latin American jungle. In the former, Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny) and Jack Ryan, both safely tucked away in their adjoining offices, face off as one tries to delete evidence of the incursion and the other tries to retrieve it (after having whiz kid Petey hack Ritter’s computer). These two scenes could not be more different, yet judging by James Horner’s interpretation, you’d think both sequences were every bit as large-scale.
Additionally, the cue features an unusually large number of hits. This is tension-building in the extreme, every onscreen development, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, acknowledged with a subtle accent in the score. It’s Horner deliberately over-thinking, over-performing and over-spotting the scene, and the result is a glorious, edge-of-your-seat set piece where most if not all of today’s film composers wouldn’t even think of going beyond the most tentative of drones. Perhaps the most telling moment comes late in the game. When after no small amount of frenetic tapping on his keyboard Ryan has finally managed to save one single incriminating page from deletion, he presses the “print screen” button only to see there’s no paper in the printer! It’s so hilariously over-the-top that you have to love it. James Horner’s approach is equally over-the-top, and it serves the scene no end.
On a purely musical level, there’s nothing new here: Horner brings into play elements from Sneakers (piano clusters and tapping of cymbals preceding a cut) and action riffs from Brainstorm (1983), but if anything, the blatant lifts are further proof that the composer keeps tongue firmly planted in cheek. Among the scant few referential elements present in the cue are Latin American pan pipes carried over from Vibes (1988), which oddly makes sense, since Operation Reciprocity, referenced here through a classified paper trail, takes place in the jungle.
 
Let’s look at just a few of the musical accents. At 1:29:45, a cut brings Petey and Ryan into the same shot, and this is where the score kicks in. Again, the spotting is judicious: Horner holds off until the literal start of the action, when Ryan leaves and Petey (Greg Germann) goes to work – tapped cymbals and a few tentative piano clusters are used as embellishment. The rhythm changes at 1:30:40, when Ryan sees Ritter’s access code on his screen and Horner brings in material from Brainstorm. As he skims the material on Ritter’s computer, Ryan is intrigued by a folder named “Reciprocity”, at which point Horner adds some subtle growling brass.
 
 
At 1:31:18, Ryan’s phone rings and things take a turn for the worse. Ryan learns that he has logged on too soon and that Ritter will know he’s inside his computer. The moment is brilliantly staged: the camera swerves down to Ryan while Horner’s crashing piano pounds from high octaves to low ones – there’s clearly no room for subtlety in any of this.
Almost every transition is preceded by either a piano cluster or tapped cymbals. A cat-and-mouse game develops as Ryan tries to buy time by calling Ritter on the phone and inviting him to a tennis game, but before long, an alarmed Ritter is on to Ryan’s tricks, delivers a nicely vicious line about how “computer theft is a criminal offense” and starts deleting files even more frantically. Horner uses every trick in the book: the music builds, accelerates and moves up the scale until 1:33:07, when it launches into full action mode, complete with percussion and crashing cymbal. At 1:33:21 there’s another acceleration, at 1:33:39 the brass go all-out for the printer episode, at 1:34:00 Ritter gets up from his chair and at 1:34:06 the music reaches its climax as Ryan grabs a sheet of paper out of the printer and confronts his nemesis. Finally, at 1:34:12, Horner releases the tension and strings taper out as both men battle it out in the flesh, so to speak.
 
 
Each in its own way, Too Many Secrets, Attempt on the Royals and Deleting the Evidence show how a talented composer can turn even “functional music”, “tension cues” and “filler material” into inspired and intellectually stimulating film music art. In my book, all three are brilliant cues in an oeuvre that has no shortage of standout set pieces.
 
Photo credits:
Sneakers: © Universal Pictures
Patriot Games / Clear and Present Danger: © Paramount Pictures

Comments

  1. There is perhaps no other set piece that better demonstrates Wan s firm grasp of tone. Ostensibly, there s no reason the imagery in this scene should conjure up the stomach-churning d 8 read it does – it s just a

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