0 Introduction and terminology

James Horner was one of film music’s greats. Understanding his talent requires thorough study of what made him an outstanding and influential individual composer, but also of the changing landscape of film music itself. What is it exactly that drew James Horner to film music back in the seventies? And what had so changed by the 2010s that it made him grow impatient with his trade? This text sets out to answer these questions and serve as an introduction to film music in general and to James Horner’s film music in particular.
The first part of this article supplies a short history of film music. A debt is owed to Emilio Audissino, whose excellent overview of the studio system in “John Williams’s Film Music” (University of Wisconsin Press) wakes one up to the importance of the historical perspective. Once the context is clear, the second part of the article will aim to clarify the place James Horner occupied in the arena of film music. With the benefit of a certain historical perspective, it will show James Horner as an artist who valued continuity yet whose strong musical individuality foils any attempt at pigeon-holing.
It makes sense to divide the history of film music into categories whose names have begun to take root at least within the film music community itself: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age and Digital Age. It’s interesting to note right away that the sequence of names does not exactly point toward increasing quality.
It is vital to distinguish between diegetic and non-diegetic music. Diegetic music is heard by both the audience and the movie characters. It emanates from an on-screen source, such as a radio or a pianist in a bar, even if this source is only implied. This diegetic music is commonly referred to as source music. Non-diegetic music is what we call score or underscore, and it refers to music composed specifically for the movie that the audience hears but the characters do not. Here is an example from Back To The Future (1985): When Marty McFly discovers the 1955 version of Hill Valley’s town square, he hears a fifties song blaring from speakers, a clear case of source music. However, as the reality of the moment sinks in and Marty is emotionally unhinged, Alan Silvestri sneaks in unsettling string chords, which of course Marty himself does not hear. The string chords are a means of conveying Marty’s confusion to us, the audience, and thus constitute underscore.
Underscore can be merely a matter of pacing, supplying a scene or a series of scenes with their own internal rhythm. But more often than not, underscore helps tell the story and guides an audience’s emotional response to the material. The English verb to underscore means to reinforce, make stronger. Therefore, the most basic emotional function of underscore is to take a scene’s emotional content and amplify its impact in the audience’s mind. If a score does only that, it will invariably end up being accused of painting white on white, bringing out only what is already explicitly present in the scene. Intelligent film composers realize that underscore as a tool of emotional manipulation has a far greater potential. James Horner brought to the opening scene of The Rocketeer (1991) a sense of magic and exhilaration that had eluded director Joe Johnston in the shooting and editing process. Adding emotional shadings and, especially, new meanings to visuals is what elevates film music to the status of storytelling art.
1 Film music history
1.0 The beginnings of underscore
When in 1895 the Lumière brothers filmed the arrival of a train at La Ciotat station and later projected the footage inside a tent at a fun fair, audiences fled in panic, believing the train would crash into the tent. It shows the origins of cinema: short, unedited moments in time captured on acetate and celluloid. Completely devoid of narration, these snippets of visual material did not require any musical accompaniment and were basically fun fair attractions.
It was a popular attraction, however, and pretty soon posh picture palaces sprang up all over the country, drawing in large crowds. By the 1910s, producers had begun to realize the storytelling potential of film. And with it came the need for some kind of musical accompaniment. One of the first known instances of underscore was the beating of tom-toms in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation (1915), a milestone of early moviemaking. While this groundbreaking movie had laid the foundation for what became known as continuity editing, The Birth Of A Nation was criticized even in its time for being unashamedly racist. David Wark Griffith was the son of a confederate colonel and portrayed black people in a particularly unfavorable way. The beating drums told the audience that black people were, in fact, nothing more than imported Africans. Even though its ethics were more than questionable, the technique showed underscore as a way to instill associations into an audience’s mind and convey a meaning that was not present in the material. It also points to the potential dangers of underscore, especially since this kind of music is deliberately ‘inaudible’, the emotional manipulation taking place at a subconscious level.
The scene was set for the emergence of film music as a device of musical storytelling.
1.1 The Golden Age (early 1920s – 1958)
1.1.1 First generation (early 1920s – 1947): Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Realizing audiences would not be willing to sit through one-hour plus silent movies, film studios commissioned some kind of musical accompaniment. This, of course, varied considerably depending on the venue. Luxurious movie palaces like the Roxy Theater in New York could afford a 110-piece orchestra, while backwater screening rooms would be equipped with a perhaps out-of-tune piano played by a perhaps drunk pianist.
Sound technology finally allowed the musical accompaniment to be brought under the control of the film studios. This is the often overlooked true reason for the invention of “talkies”: the aim was not talking characters, but control over the musical element of the movie’s sound track.
At that point in time, however, sound editing and mixing were unfeasible, making it impossible to print a decent mix of separate audio tracks (sound effects, dialogue and music) onto the sound strip of film copies. This means underscore was generally limited to the movie’s opening and closing credits and a few montage sequences in between. Throughout its 130-year history, the evolution of the aesthetics of underscore has surprisingly often been motivated by economic and technological considerations rather than conscious choices made by film music practitioners themselves. The introduction of “talkies” had taken cinema from the dream-like quality of silent movies to a greater sense of realism. During this early stage, which Emilio Audissino calls “the poetics of musical realism”, movie makers argued that music should always be motivated by an on-screen element. If not, it would be “unrealistic”. In an amusing anecdote, producer Hal B. Wallis (seated on the left), director Michael Curtiz (in the middle) and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (seated on the right) viewed a rough cut of Captain Blood (1935) with the music mixed in. Wallis whispered to Curtiz: “We’re at sea. Kindly ask Mr. Korngold where the music comes from.” Curtiz relayed the message, after which Korngold whispered: “Ask Mr. Wallis where the cameras come from.” It shows just how wary the movie business was of non-diegetic music interfering with movies’ naive perception of realism.
By 1933, technology had evolved enough that multiple audio tracks could be satisfactorily mixed and edited. It was also the year directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack handed over King Kong to composer Max(imilian) Steiner. Steiner stated correctly that the puppet was a little on the crude side and audiences were perhaps not going to fear the creature at the start and pity it at the end. Making the case that music could play a significant part in a much-needed suspension of disbelief, Steiner was allowed to write what was probably the first full-length score in film history. It prompted Jack Warner (of Warner Bros.) to recognize that “films are fantasy and fantasy needs music”. But even then, full-length film scores were limited to the fantasy genre.
It is important to understand the way Steiner scored pictures, because it produced ripple effects that have stretched as far as the 2010s. One: he quoted standards wherever he could. If the action took place in France and even if the Eiffel tower was in plain view, Steiner would throw in a quote of the Marseillaise. Two: Steiner mimicked every little on-screen action. If a character fell down a flight of stairs, Steiner provided a falling movement in the music; a hand landing violently on a face would be treated to a cymbal crash, and so on. The degree to which the score adheres to the visuals is still one of the film composer’s most important decisions. There’s a case to be made for sticking closely to the visuals: it makes the score intricately embedded into the fabric of the scene, allowing the composer to reinforce the smallest details. However, it is often detrimental to the musicality of a cue, as it renders the statements of fully-fledged themes or any kind of consistency in the musical flow highly problematic. If, on the other hand, the composer chooses to ignore scene-specific events, the resulting music is liable to be tracked into scenes for which it was not composed. The exhilarating Escape From Torture, a cue Jerry Goldsmith composed for Rambo First Blood Part II (1985), also ended up (several times no less!) in the third Rambo movie. Extremer cases include composers being asked to pen a score based on the script and without seeing the movie. Director Christopher Nolan asked Hans Zimmer to score Interstellar (2014) that way, and it is also how Mica Levy approached Jackie (2016). This is where the line between film music and pure music gets blurred (and one has to wonder if this can still be called underscore by any traditional definition). Anyway, it is the exact opposite of Steiner’s approach, which ultimately failed to take root in general film music and was relegated to the realm of animation (or really silly comedy), where it flourished and became known as Mickey-Mousing.
Back in 1933, Max Steiner successfully composed the first full film score for King Kong, but it would be two more years before underscore broke out of the confines of the fantasy genre. In 1935, three vastly different films featured a full score. The first was John Ford’s The Informer, for which Max Steiner wrote the ultimate Mickey-Mouse score. The second was Bride Of Frankenstein, whose prototypical horror score allowed Franz Waxman to pioneer techniques that would become staples of the horror genre music. The third one was Captain Blood, which thrust Erich Wolfgang Korngold into the limelight. Korngold had fled his native Austria during Hitler’s rise to power and introduced Tinseltown to the late-romantic Middle European tonal sound that would come to define Hollywood’s Golden Age. Korngold, a child prodigy, treated the film score as an opera score.
In fact, he saw a movie as a libretto to be scored – there is a scene in The Sea Hawk (1940) where Captain Thorpe and his men unchain themselves from the oars and take possession of the ship, singing Strike For The Shores Of Dover. With his Straussian orchestrations, Mahlerian feeling and melodic concepts of Puccini, Korngold was able to define the way an adventure score should sound: late-romantic style, overwhelming tonality, lush orchestrations and a prominent brass section, but with the mastery and sensitivity of an opera composer and the formal strength that lacked in Steiner’s fragmentary idiom.
Korngold’s influence on film music cannot be exaggerated. His fanfare for Kings Row (1941) contains the seeds of John Williams’s famous 1977 Star Wars theme, his swashbuckling style is evident in the pastiche cue The Laughing Bandit James Horner composed for The Rocketeer (1991). In fact, every attempt to recreate the sound of Hollywood’s Golden Age is a return to the scoring techniques of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. In an amusing anecdote, James Horner briefly quoted Korngold’s theme from The Sea Hawk (1940) in Casper (1995) during the swordfight between Harvey and the three “evil” ghosts. The scene was an intentional reference to The Sea Hawk.
In a way, however, Korngold was merely the right man at the right moment. Hollywood film music was in its infancy and its musical style had yet to be determined. Since Hollywood producers knew almost nothing about music except the broad gestures of the late-romantic period (already “old” by the 1930s), and since they automatically assumed it was the sound movie audiences would most easily identify with, it became the de facto musical dialect film music was expected to follow.
Upon closer inspection, there are other (and better) reasons for choosing the Middle European late-romantic style, chief of which is its sweeping and extraverted nature. This made it a comfortable fit for the larger-than-life fantasies Hollywood cranked out at a steady pace. Moreover, the studios had started to employ their own large orchestras, and having sixty to seventy pay-rolled musicians around meant that composers were naturally encouraged to write for as many of them as possible.
The studio system was now well grounded. Film studios formed music departments, according to the assembly-line logic that characterized the movie-making process. A musical director was in charge of the entire operation, facilities and branches of the department, which included a musical archive, a legal department for contracts and copyright clearance and a casting office to recruit singers and musicians. There was also a technical team in charge of recording, editing, mixing and dubbing. The artistic workforce included composers, orchestrators, arrangers, conductors, piano accompanists, copyists, proofreaders and in-house symphony orchestras. The composers were pay-rolled: they were given a fixed weekly salary, rather than being paid for each individual work, and they would not own the music they wrote.” (Emilio Audissino, John Williams’s Film Music, p. 16)
1.1.2 Second generation (1947 – 1958): Bernard Herrmann and Miklós Rózsa
After World War II, society had changed. Gone were the fanciful days of fantasy and exuberance, as post-war bitterness and pessimism swept across Europe and America. Hollywood responded with the film noir, in which morally dubious characters took center stage. The chiaroscuro style expanded from horror movies to gritty urban crime stories and the Middle European late-romantic dialect increasingly lost out to 20th-century modernism. Among the leading new figures of the time were Bernard Herrmann and Miklós Rózsa. Herrmann was influential because, apart from his obvious talent, he had been fortunate enough to score Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). As movie editing became quicker, Herrmann decided to forego the option of fully stated themes and melodies and instead opted for “coloristic development”, choosing to identify situations or characters with short motifs and even simple musical colors rather than long-line musical building stones. Miklós Rózsa pioneered the Theremin, whose slurring sound fit the troubled psyche of film noir protagonists. It was also a very early prototype of what would become the synthesizer decades later.
During the late forties, Miklós Rózsa was one of the pre-eminent specialists of the film noir genre, with influential scores for Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Spellbound (1945). However, he changed hats in the fifties and early sixties and became the go-to guy for biblical-historical epics like Quo Vadis (1950), Ben Hur (1959) and El Cid (1961).
Rózsa’s epics proved to be the last gasp of the Golden Age. In the early fifties, the rapid spread of television meant audiences stayed away in droves from movie theaters. Hollywood responded with stereophonic sound, color cinematography, new projection formats like Todd-AO and Cinemascope, 3D and even “Percepto”, electric buzzers attached to the underside of seats that would vibrate to increase the startle of the audience during a sudden horror shot. Hollywood has never stopped using gimmicks as a way to lure people back into its darkened theaters: in 1981, John Waters’s Polyester featured “Odorama”, whereby viewers could smell what they saw on screen through scratch and sniff cards.
In 1958 a strike of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) paralyzed Hollywood music. Musicians wanted higher wages, and a new deal was struck: the contract orchestras were replaced by free-lance ensembles with variable wage rates according to the number of musicians called for a three-hour recording session. Both the musicians and the studios stood to gain considerably: the former made more money, the latter no longer had to engage and pay for a full orchestra for every recording session, however small or large the score was. The proud musical departments fell into disuse and the studio system collapsed.
In the strict sense of the term, the Golden Age of film music is limited to the late thirties and early forties, and especially the careers of such composers as Max Steiner and E.W. Korngold. A broader and more sensible definition of the term would encompass the symphonic film music composed throughout the studio system period and up to the early sixties, when it became marginalized due to a considerable shift in aesthetics.
1.2 The Silver Age (1958 – 1977): Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini and John Barry
During the late fifties, a new generation of composers started to prefer new music aesthetics. Elmer Bernstein was one of them. Even though he is now most famous for such large-scale scores as The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), steeped in Golden Age mannerisms, his smaller scores were more influential at the time. In fact, jazz music had evolved to a point where it was no longer associated with the noir genre. Back in the 1940s, gritty urban dramas often took place in grungy bars, which contributed to jazz being part of the “noir” idiom. Alex North had incorporated jazz within the fabric of a symphonic score for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), albeit for a very different context, a torrid New Orleans setting of a story about moral decrepitude. Bernstein dropped the orchestral element altogether and scored The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), a drama about drug addiction, for just a small jazz combo. This choice prefigured the modern style of the next decade and put the score outside the classical style. The jazz idiom was completely decriminalized in Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), in which James Stewart’s lawyer is also a jazz pianist who quite simply loves to play the piano. Duke Ellington composed the score during the shoot, a novelty at the time.
The musical template for westerns also underwent significant changes. In the earliest days, Max Steiner brought late-romanticism to the genre, and Dimitri Tiomkin added folk influences, like the ballad Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling in High Noon (1952). Tiomkin briefly brought a Russian sensibility to the Hollywood western genre before Jerome Moross shook things up with The Big Country (1958), which featured a stellar, Aaron Copland-inspired score, a kind of pandiatonic classicism that served as the perfect expression of the American heartland. From The Big Country on, westerns would follow either the Copland template or the one set by Ennio Morricone, who did away with all the western stereotypes and introduced elements of rock, archaic modalism and onomatopoeic sounds that quickly became stereotypes themselves in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns (Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966) and many more).
The Copland-Moross template would go on to yield such scores as The Cowboys (1972, John Williams), Silverado (1985, Bruce Broughton) and An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991, James Horner), whereas the likes of The Wild Bunch (1969) were cast in the Morricone mold.
The Italian Ennio Morricone was one of the leading figures of the new film music aesthetic. With Hollywood in a shambles after the advent of television and especially the 1958 AFM strike, European cinema became a major influence in America. With it came a new appreciation of film music, if only because European composers did not honor such Golden Age principles as synchronism, tonality and a constant presence of music. In fact, contrary to Wagner and the German opera (which had inspired Korngold’s music and therefore the Golden Age sound), the Italian opera was a succession of aria (a self-contained set piece for singers) and recitativo (the reciting of story elements). Morricone transposed this to film, saying that music can only be meaningful if it is surrounded by silence, and that since narration and action have their own internal rhythm, music should not interfere. Only when the action stops and crystallizes can music express a meaningful comment – this means that Morricone no longer favors using underscore as a storytelling device. When film music does play, it should sound so prominently on the sound track that the audience is compelled to listen to it. By surrounding the aria-like appearances of underscore with silence, Morricone revised the rules of placing music within the fabric of a film (the practice of spotting) and also did away with the Golden Age notion of “inaudible” background music. In fact, Morricone’s scores were “foreground music”. This also meant that film music was no longer there to guide a viewer’s perception of story and emotions on a subconscious level, rather, it was divorced from the action and was now only about making emphatic emotional comments. Hollywood had always been about ‘invisible’ direction, ‘invisible’ continuity editing, ‘inaudible’ underscore and so on, whereas the European Nouvelle Vague made a point of making all these disciplines very ‘visible’ by drawing the audience’s attention to them.
Moreover, Morricone rejected synchronism, saying that music has its own unity and must follow its own discourse. This is the antithesis of Korngold’s dialogue scoring during the Golden Age, which “took into consideration the pitch of the actors’ voices, their timbre, the content of the single lines and the pauses in the dialogue. Korngold would write above or below the actors’ pitches, so that music would not interfere with the frequencies of their voices; he would make sure that the orchestral timbres blended harmoniously with those of the actors; he would meaningfully introduce a musical cell of an already presented leitmotiv to reinforce one particular line; and he would calculate when a dialogue line paused, so that music could soar in those moments and retreat in the background as the dialogue resumed.” (Emilio Audissino, John Williams’s Film Music, p. 36) Another major voice of the Silver Age, John Barry also avoided synchronism, as evidenced in his James Bond scores: Barry adhered much less closely to the visuals than his Golden Age predecessors.
The second major shift in Hollywood film music is the market orientation of pop songs during the sixties. After the crisis of the late fifties, Hollywood had found a new but decidedly younger audience, who were listening to funk-soul, jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues, rock and “easy-listening pop” rather than late-romantic Middle European tonality. Filmmakers opted to inflate the proven tactic of reworking a score’s theme into a song and releasing it on album. And again, technology had an influence on the way movies were scored. With the advent and rapid spread of the 33 rpm LP, vinyl offered considerably more place for songs. This, in turn, meant that movies now had to contain more songs, because an album had to be a souvenir of what audiences heard in the film. Add to this that studios no longer measured their profits at the end of each fiscal year (the sum of the profits gained from all the movies produced during that year), but rather honored a package-deal approach whereby each individual movie had to turn a profit. The effect was predictable: movies like The Graduate (1967) were stuffed with songs whether they served the dramatic needs of the scene or not. This practice led to Alfred Hitchcock firing his long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann on Torn Curtain (1966) after the studio and the director had asked the composer to provide a song. (Ironically, after John Addison had written a replacement score, including the song, Hitchcock realized the nonsensicality of the matter: the song was dropped from the movie and included only on the LP album.)
Henry Mancini successfully navigated these troubled waters. He felt comfortable with symphonic music, as The Molly Maguires (1970) amply proves, but made a name for himself with hip scores for sixties comedies. When he penned Moon River, a song based on his theme for Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), Hollywood discovered the untapped well of marketable movie songs. Mancini became Blake Edwards’s composer of choice, penned an earworm of a tune for The Pink Panther (1963), produced a great many songs and sold vinyl records like hotcakes. Unlike his peers, Mancini understood which tunes were appropriate for which scenes, and largely avoided the pitfalls of gratuitous song placement.
The third innovation of the sixties was the introduction of avant-garde compositional techniques into the world of film music. Leonard Rosenman ushered in the twelve-tone dialect in The Cobweb (1955) and provided an atonal score for Fantastic Voyage (1966). Jerry Goldsmith scored an Academy Award nomination with avant-garde music for Planet Of The Apes (1968). Interestingly, Goldsmith’s career displayed the same bizarre turns as Miklós Rózsa’s: Goldsmith started out as a modernist, but by the early eighties had become something of a romantic, especially after Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979). His symphonic scores for The Mummy (1999) and The 13th Warrior (1999) were decidedly old-fashioned, essentially a throwback to the Golden Age.
By now, the reader must be wondering if there is such a thing as “the Hollywood sound” or “the film music sound”. Such a sound arguably does not exist, because Hollywood music was never about the music per se. Rather, film music as an art form, especially in Hollywood, has always been about the interaction between music and visuals, and particularly, the use of music as a storytelling device. This means that the idiom, the style, the musical dialect, whatever you may call it, has always been of secondary importance. To ignore this would be to misunderstand film music altogether. Composers of “pure music” have always treated film music dismissively, stating among many other things that no musical innovation has ever come from the world of film music. They are right, of course, but that is entirely beside the point. The wondrous impact that musical notes can have on images is the true wellspring of the art form and the only door that leads to a correct understanding of non-diegetic underscore, music that impacts a movie beyond measure but in many cases is not even meant to be heard or listened to.
1.3 The Bronze Age (1977 – mid-1990s): John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Vangelis
Film music took a surprising turn in 1977, when George Lucas’s Star Wars broke box-office records and John Williams single-handedly resurrected the Golden Age sound. Again, the influence of any given film score is a vector of its movie’s financial success or award recognition. John Williams was only able to consolidate his success because the director instructed him to harken back to the Golden Age, because Star Wars spawned sequels and because he got to follow his first smash hit up with a slew of Superman and Indiana Jones movies. By the mid-eighties, John Williams was everywhere, and everyone wanted a John Williams score. (In 2015, Michael Giacchino strung together a trio of Golden Age 2.0-style scores: Jupiter Ascending, Tomorrowland and Jurassic World. Had each of those movies been as successful as 1977’s Star Wars, Giacchino might have been able to change the course of today’s film music as Williams’s Star Wars did back in the seventies. Instead, Jupiter Ascending and Tomorrowland bombed, and Jurassic World, which did turn out to be a bona fide blockbuster, saw Giacchino following the template set by John Williams in 1993’s original, which effectively kept the new score from becoming a game changer.)
In the wake of Star Wars, every film composer in Hollywood was asked to compose in the style of John Williams. And the style of John Williams was essentially a throwback to the style of the Golden Age. The Bronze Age is therefore a re-imagining of the Golden Age, a Golden Age 2.0 if you will. True, eighties comedies continued to be scored like their Silver Age counterparts, albeit now with synthesizers and eighties pop music inclinations. True, Jerry Goldsmith famously incorporated electronic sounds into the fabric of such Golden Age 2.0 scores as Supergirl (1984), but instead of recording the synthesizers separately and adding them to the orchestral track in the music editing room, he often set them up on the scoring stage, recording the electronics and the symphony orchestra simultaneously. True, the methodology of the Bronze Age differed slightly from the “pure” Golden Age sound, but the essentials were the same: unabashedly thematic scores which wore their emotions on their sleeves and were performed by large symphony orchestras. John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Basil Poledouris, Bruce Broughton, David Newman, Joel McNeely, John Scott, Alan Silvestri, Cliff Eidelman and Michael Kamen all graced movies with emotionally extraverted music that would nowadays be summarily discarded as “overscoring” and “manipulative”.
Synthesizer-only scores provided a strong undercurrent in the Bronze Age as a result of the Academy Award Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou won for 1981’s Chariots Of Fire. Vangelis had left his mark on film music and consolidated his position with another influential electronic score for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Vangelis ushered in an era of electronic scores that co-existed comfortably alongside the Golden Age style 2.0 throughout the eighties and early nineties. The two styles were very different indeed, yet they had a common thread running through them: rich themes and melodies that stuck in audiences’ minds long after the end credits rolled.
Meanwhile, the advent of digital recording and mixing and the introduction of the CD in the eighties coincided with a new shift in film music aesthetics. The name Digital Age refers exclusively to the way scores are recorded and no longer to the place the music itself has in film music history.
1.4 The Digital Age (mid-1990s – ): Hans Zimmer
Themes were still a big thing in the early years of the Digital Age, when Hans Zimmer rose to prominence and melded rock with symphony, his early scores part Morricone, part Bronze Age synthesizer, always with a Big Tune at the heart of it all.
The orchestral Bronze Age style took a hit in 2003, when Gore Verbinski fired regular collaborator Alan Silvestri and commissioned Hans Zimmer to provide an orchestral-rock score for Pirates Of The Caribbean. The approach was surprising, to say the least. Pirate movies, which by the early 2000s had become a largely defunct genre, had consistently enjoyed proud Golden Age scores, and Zimmer’s approach sent shock waves through the film music community. Zimmer’s approach was antithetical to John Debney’s Golden Age score for Cutthroat Island (1995), which had, however, been a commercial failure of colossal proportions. Economics again trumped aesthetics, and by the time the third mega-successful Pirates movie rolled out in 2007, an entire young generation had grown up thinking pirates did in fact swash and buckle to Zimmer’s orchestral rock. As such, the Golden Age template is as absurd a characterization of pirates as Zimmer’s sound, of course; the only difference is that the symphonic approach had been generally accepted all through the genre’s history.
However, the real game changer materialized two years later, when Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman franchise and asked Zimmer to compose a barebones score for Batman Begins (2005). (True, the score was co-composed by James Newton Howard, but Zimmer was the predominant influence, and by the third instalment, James Newton Howard had withdrawn altogether from the series.) So barebones was the score, in fact, that a two-note line was the most any character in the movie was granted. Batman Begins was the prototype of what has become known as the modern action score, but more than anything else, it is the demise of the Big Tune that defines the Digital Age after 2005.
Filmmakers now reject the very essence of Golden Age music: that on-screen emotions need to be heightened by the score, that this emotional reinforcement is realized through memorable themes and melodies, and that the preferred means for achieving this goal is the proud symphony orchestra whose players are regularly given a healthy workout. Present-day filmmakers are so afraid to overemphasize the emotional point of a scene that they ask composers to provide an indistinct, vaguely soothing sound wash rather than a clearly composed and well-defined musical statement pointing the audience in the desired emotional direction. Wearing one’s emotions on one’s sleeve is currently the worst offence any film composer can be accused of. At best, this leads to the technically refined yet emotionally understated compositions of Alexandre Desplat or the admirable attempts by Thomas Newman to stay true to his own highly personal style; at worst, to the droning “soundscapes” and “composition by committee” that Hans Zimmer and his army of collaborators at Remote Control (previously called Media Ventures) crank out at a steady pace.
As far as blockbusters go, Golden Age scores have now become the exception rather than the rule. Golden Age heirs such as Patrick Doyle and David Newman try to reconcile the old rules with the template of the modern action score in such efforts as Thor (2011, Doyle) and Tarzan (2013, Newman). Michael Giacchino still composes decidedly old-school scores such as Super 8 (2011) and John Carter (2012), John Powell pays homage to the Golden Age in the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy (2010, 2014, 2019), the young Canadian composer Andrew Lockington ventured into Golden Age territory with Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) and Journey 2 The Mysterious Island (2012), James Horner stubbornly continued to craft Golden Age scores albeit for increasingly obscure movies (For Greater Glory, 2012), and at his advanced age, the venerable John Williams gets away with anything, but even his high-profile Harry Potter and continuing Star Wars scores cannot seem to buck the trend: nowadays, Golden Age scores are few and far between. So pervasive has the methodology, the aesthetic and the spread of Hans Zimmer’s film music become that he must be seen as the single greatest force in present-day film music.
The Golden Age aesthetic was the first in Hollywood’s history, and it enjoyed a resurgence of sorts between the late seventies and the mid-nineties. Whether this means it automatically deserves more credit than other aesthetics and methodologies is obviously a matter of individual tastes. James Horner, for one, regretted the demise of the Golden Age model, and even though he never put it in these words, admired the Golden Age for the way it encouraged emotional expressiveness. There is, however, much more to James Horner than the simple apology of a film music aesthetic that has now fallen by the wayside, and that is the subject of the second part of this text.
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  1. Wow…this piece today is going to keep me busy reading for a while. Thank you so much to all concerned. And also for your great piece on Enemy at the Gates. James certainly deserves a place in Film Music history, for all his wonderful pieces, a tribute concert would surely be well placed, bearing in mind it is getting near to his second Anniversary. London is lucky to shortly have the 20years showing of Titanic at the Royal Albert Hall, with concert orchestra. A tribute in itself to the wonderful evening of 27th April, 2015. I really appreciate all your hard work JHFM. Pamela.

  2. JHFM fans based in the UK and Ireland would have had a chance on Friday 22nd February 2019 to watch the documentary ‘Score: Cinema’s Greatest Soundtracks’ broadcast on BBC Four. The documentary can also be viewed for a limited time on the BBC website (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes). Despite its title, the film does not present a ‘top twenty’-style selection of the best known movie scores, but attempts to relate the story and role of music at the cinema from the earliest times back in the era of ‘silent’ pictures, when an intrepid musician on piano or possibly the organ would attempt to keep pace with and interpret the on-screen action for the benefit of the viewers, all the way to the sophisticated kaleidoscope of sounds presented to today’s cinemagoer. For a film lasting just 90 minutes this was a very ambitious undertaking, to say the least.
    In truth, fascinating an exercise though it is, ‘Score’ packs far too much into too small a space. It is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the film composing world, but many of the contributors to the programme, who are among the elite of those active in the profession today, are limited to appearances that last only a matter of seconds. In trying to leave nothing and no one out, the makers have rather ended up skimming across the surface of the subject, rather than exploring the art of composing for film in greater depth, which would have been altogether more informative and satisfying. But having said that, I don’t recall there ever being anything on television before that looked seriously at film music, and as an introduction to this world it has an awful lot going for it, and the finished product was the result of a huge effort by all concerned.
    It would have been great if the production team had taken a leaf from the above outstanding overview of film music history and perhaps decided to put together a TV series rather than a one-off special, each episode devoted to one of the four ‘ages’ identified by Kjell and Jean-Baptiste in their highly knowledgeable analysis: the Golden Age, The Silver Age, The Bronze Age and the Digital Age. A quartet of programmes along those lines would allow the many talented practitioners, who make ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearances on ‘Score’ and who clearly have a lot more to tell us about what they do, to enlighten viewers in a more compelling way on the joy and beauty of the often underrated and misunderstood art of composing for the big screen. Having said that, someone may be inspired by ‘Score’, which in many ways is a revelation, to take things further, perhaps by producing a series of television profiles that takes in each case a detailed look at the career output of a celebrated film composer.
    The question remains of course–what does ‘Score: Cinema’s Greatest Soundtracks’ tell us about James Horner’s place in film music history? Well, one of the frustrations of watching the programme unfold was knowing that JH himself is no longer around to give his considered opinion on the intricacies and mysteries of setting music to film. As one of the film music’s most gifted exponents he had much to say on this field of endeavour in his lifetime and would have made a great impact on ‘Score’ were he still with us.
    Nevertheless, the programme was peppered with brief clips of none other than James Cameron, carefully positioned in front of an imposing model of the ‘Titanic’. In light of this visual clue, one rather had the feeling that the makers of ‘Score’ had no intention of letting the film conclude without giving the Maestro credit for his distinguished record of achievement in movie scoring. And this turned out to be the case, for James Cameron, in paying tribute to his friend, ensures that the last word belongs to James Horner.
    The final segment of ‘Score’ is captioned ‘Remembering James Horner’. Over the famous scene from ‘Titanic’ of the hero Jack, a study in concentration, drawing Rose, in reclining pose and wearing nothing but the heart of the ocean, Cameron describes how in post-production on the film he received a disc from JH marked ‘sketch’. The piece of music on it was a piano demo of the film’s love theme, which as we all know, turned out to be the greatest ever written for a motion picture. Cameron assumed from the title ‘sketch’ that JH intended the piece to be used for the scene where Jack produces the drawing that Rose had asked him for and duly added it to that point on the soundtrack. However, to JH himself the ‘sketch’ was simply a rough cut of the theme, and was not written with that scene in mind. But Cameron was convinced that the piano solo was perfect, and of course that’s where it stayed, to be rechristened ‘The Portrait’ and released on the ‘Back to Titanic’ cd. Of course, one wonders whether this anecdote is really true, but it’s a great story all the same.
    It is of course fitting, wonderful and very moving that the makers of ‘Score’ should pay tribute to James Horner in this way. But by ending on the drawing scene from ‘Titanic’ a very important point is made, not only about James Horner’s place in film music history–a preeminent one for sure–but also about the craft of film scoring in general. ‘Score’ illustrates not only the increasing complexities of the art form as it exists today, with the traditional orchestral approach now augmented by an array of digital and technological tools, but it demonstrates that screen composers are obsessed with novelty, with discovering new instruments and devices that have the potential to give their work something that no one has heard before. For ‘Titanic’ James Horner masterminded, with incredible success, a new way of scoring a period drama, delivering a multifaceted, skilfully layered and richly textured work that served the film perfectly while at the same time was utterly memorable. But in the middle of the score, for the drawing scene, the viewer is treated to nothing more than solo piano. The effect is hypnotic and spell-binding. As the narrative of ‘Score’ reveals, the solo piano is where film scoring began, way back in the days of silent movies. James Horner was of course fully aware of this fact, but also mindful that, no matter how grand and ambitious a film score could become, there is always a place for the simple touch, for going back to how film music was created in the beginning, relying on nothing more than the piano to capture, in a way that no audience could ever forget, the essence of a moment on screen. This, to my mind, is pure genius.

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