Collage – The Last Work is a James Horner compilation album that you’ll definitely want to listen to – and will revisit time and again. It not only presents the concert piece that lends the album its title, but also serves up generous re-recordings of cues from previous scores, one in an absolutely stunning new arrangement. To put the icing on the cake, the album offers two excellent suites from the 2012 student film, First in Flight, one of Horner’s final scores, in a stellar orchestral performance that enriches the score originally recorded for the film, which was performed electronically because of budget restraints. All of the non-Collage pieces are performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by David Arnold (not to be mistaken for the English film composer). Collage is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the capable baton of Jaime Martin.
The origins of Collage are well-known by now. An ardent fan of the instrument, James Horner had for the longest of times wanted to bring together his regular French horn players and compose a piece suited to their particular talents. He enlisted the services of David Pyatt, John Ryan, James Thatcher and Richard Watkins in another carefully orchestrated attempt to break into the world of concert hall music upon acknowledging he had mostly said his piece in film music. Pas de Deux had seen Horner largely (and surprisingly) foregoing the opportunities offered by thematic building blocks to create a solid musical narrative. Instead, Horner’s double concerto, his first concert work in ages, felt like a stream-of-consciousness wash of (very) pleasing harmony with a final movement set to blow the roof off any concert hall. Much of the same applies to Collage.
James Horner and Jaime Martin
© Etienne Walter
Despite an intimate familiarity with the peace that has sneaked its way into my memory through repeated listens, I’m hard-pressed to point to any significant theme. Sure, there’s a five-note motif – in fact, it presents itself right at the start, first performed by one horn and then taken up by all four of them. Indeed, the motif is all over the concert work, either in its 5-note form or in a bare-bones 3-note variation (look for it in Parts III and V), whether in the horns or in other sections of the orchestra. And, yes: there’s a piano and brass “fanfare” (for lack of a better word), which cuts through the restrained body of the work much like the boisterous fanfare did in the superlative Flight (a work written for the aerial acrobats, The Flying Horsemen). But, in Collage, it is hardly the structural marker that it was in Flight, where it announced every new movement of the lengthy 12-minute cue and served as a bookending. Moreover, the aforementioned 5-note motif pops up everywhere but seemingly out of nowhere and for no apparent reason other than that it can. Those looking for a musical narrative in Collage will find just a soupçon of it only in Part I. I’d even assert that the parts into which the composition is split up on the album seem perfunctory and random. Once the initial exploration of the 5-note motif (composed as a chorale for the four horns) is over, shimmering strings (a la Iris) form the bed on which the horns play the motif in sometimes full, sometimes partial statements. The “babbling brook” that this setup establishes is allowed to swell a tad when Horner thickens the orchestration before subsiding again, the decibel levels quite deliberately having been kept well controlled along the way. The general impression is one of perpetual movement but very little musical narration. In other words, the music constantly moves along but almost nothing actually happens. And that’s the most structured movement we get. The rest is all Horner in stream-of-consciousness mode. The piano and trumpet flourish/fanfare is introduced in Part II, returns in the Part III (but not in Part IV), appears in slightly altered form in Part V and forms the backbone of the sixth and final movement.
Remarkably, Collage seems perpetually on the verge of unleashing a Big Theme. In Part III especially, the piano and trumpet fanfare is vaguely reminiscent of The Flight Of The Griffin from The Spiderwick Chronicles, particularly the way it served as a build-up to the grandiose thematic statements of the main theme in that cue. Here, however, the build-up climaxes into nothing.
So, what are we left with? Well, a lot actually. First and foremost, this is another unapologetically tonal work at a time when tonality is lost in a mix of post-modernism and challenging, sometimes gratuitous, atonality, which more than anything typifies the current musical landscape (both in Hollywood and in the concert hall). Horner’s work feels like a soothing antidote to that: Collage indulges in unabashed tonal accessibility, showing the inclination of a composer who had decided to turn his back forever on the kind of bleak, depressingly “serious” tone of Zimmer-inspired contemporary film music and had seemed to arrive at a carefully deliberated decision to compose uplifting and gentle music of admirable restraint. I once heard someone say that the differences between sentiment and sentimentality are subtext and restraint. If that is true, a large chunk of Horner’s output in the 2010’s, and Collage in particular, are all sentiment and zero sentimentality. Intellectually, the music’s constant references trigger a stimulating intertextual meta-story in the mind of the informed listener. Moreover, Horner’s dogged refusal to let the orchestra swell into any kind of flashy Big Theme lends the piece a sense of restraint that keeps any criticism of heavy-handed emotional manipulation at bay. Yes, we all love Horner’s proud themes and we keep them high on the playlists of our iPods, but you can’t help but appreciate how refreshing the approach of Pas de Deux and Collage is: unassuming, humble music that offers nothing but changing and carefully assembled colors, occasional brilliant flourishes, incredibly soothing harmonics and tentative, almost teasingly tentative, hints of what came before. Like Pas de Deux and contrary to 95% of Horner’s film scores, Collage ends with a bang. In this case, the piano and brass fanfare is the jumping-off point for a dazzlingly virtuosic (but, again, consistently non-thematic) finale and a powerful tutti to wrap things up.
For much of its duration, Collage might sound like meandering and diffusely structured (at best), but like Pas de Deux, it is also a consistently beautiful work that can easily be perceived as another Hornerian ode to nature, blissfully unspoiled and alluringly elegant.
A far clearer musical narrative is to be found in the two suites from First In Flight, a student movie about the Wright Brothers’ later years and their memories of their definitive moment of glory that managed to draw Horner’s attention with its theme of flight (and subtext of nostalgia). It compels one to wonder if flying was Horner’s way of escaping the melee of stress and worries down here on earth, especially in light of his growing dissatisfaction with the way Hollywood film music had been (d)evolving. The suites revolve around three ideas. The first one gets Conquest of the Air going and is an original addition to the Horner canon, a beautiful melody whose ascending structure mimics a plane taking flight. Note how the grand gesture in the cue title belies the actual music that it announces: instead of grandiloquence, Horner opts for gentle elegance and kind-hearted sentiment. The second theme, also a full-fledged melody, is a barely reworked version of Deep Impact’s main theme – the one taken up by the children’s choir quite prominently over the start of the end credits (and subsequently explored at some length). The third idea is the Horner stalwart par excellence, the four-note danger motif most prominently associated with general Kael in Willow but basically littered all through Horner’s oeuvre – yet conspicuously absent from Collage. Horner used to get repeated beatings from critics over his obsessive use of the danger motif throughout his career (I remember a particularly savage outcry when Enemy at the Gates was released) and yet more than anything else, the long road travelled by this motif reveals and explains the methodology of James Horner as a composer: for the longest of times (most of the eighties, in fact) it used to be a harbinger of doom, danger and death, but then, in The Spitfire Grill, Horner turned the motif on its head and it became a rolling piano motif (an unassuming snippet of music, really) which became a musical portrait of water flowing gently through a riverbed. Horner had effectively put the motif through a spectacular U-turn and transformed it utterly and completely, going from ominous atonality to gentle and relaxed tonality. In this radically new shape, it made prominent returns in scores such as Iris and, for the briefest of moments, First in Flight takes it one step further. Towards the end of the second suite, Kitty Hawk, consciously or unconsciously, Horner seamlessly integrates the motif into the line of the ascending main theme: at 8:34 the motif starts, its fourth note now becoming the theme’s first one. It’s a subtle but brilliant stroke and it goes a long way to show how James Horner approached music: he spoke of his entire oeuvre as one giant canvas (once again returning to the analogy of orchestral colors and painting), in which one idea is perfectly suited to one score but might also fit another. In doing so, Horner opened up the possibility of an entire meta-story once you start considering individual scores as parts of a bigger whole. (That meta-story is explored at great length by the ongoing It’s Logical episodes written by Jean-Baptiste, look for them elsewhere on this site.) A consummate and erudite musician, Horner obviously did not limit the references to his own body of work, but freely incorporated hints of the greats that came before him, and he even allowed references to himself and to the great classical composers to bleed into each other, creating surprising new identities – listen to what he did with Khachaturian’s Adagio from Gayaneh in the (mostly unused) opening cue from Windtalkers. All of this understandably opened Horner up to severe criticism but, if you think about it, might actually be nothing other than this composer’s humble recognition that each of his scores is just a piece in the puzzle of his own oeuvre and that that oeuvre itself is just one piece in the giant puzzle of music history. I contend that this puts the specter of plagiarism into an entirely different perspective. Whatever the reasoning, this much should be undisputed: the two suites from First in Flight ooze with restrained honesty and, in the case of the second one, a slow-burning but knockout emotional impact. When the Braveheart-like fog lifts and hints of the main theme have adjusted our gaze to the light, the Deep Impact theme and the four-note motif rise to overwhelming highs, before the main theme, now in the horn, brings the suite to its solemn ending. This ending is structurally similar to the first suite’s, although there, the horn ended up performing snippets of the Deep Impact-related theme.
Rounding out the album are cues from other Horner scores in re-recordings that do not offer any new shades but are very competently handled. It’s nice to hear David Arnold revisit Wolf Totem, Legends of the Fall, and Iris. On the other hand, I found the lengthy suite from Aliens to be the album’s only false note: the ice-cold strings and the action music break up the gentle tonal flow of the album, and the Liverpool musicians’ stab at Ripley’s Rescue in particular is not quite on a par with the brilliantly savage original performance by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Mari Samuelsen, Simon Rhodes, Hakon Samuelsen
But then there’s Jose’s Martyrdom from For Greater Glory. Upon the album’s 2012 release, I thought this devastatingly emotional cue stood as the year’s best from any composer, especially the way it was performed by the soulful voice of soprano Clara Sanabras backed by an entire choir. (The fact that they performed an absolute stunner of a theme kind of helped, too.) This time around, gone are the soprano and the choir, only to be replaced by Mari and Hakon Samuelsen, who apparently also fell in love with the piece and for whom James Horner composed Pas de Deux. Their violin and cello interpretation is miles away from the operatic original, but every bit as heartfelt and emotionally overwhelming. This re-recording alone would justify the purchase of any album, but in the case of Collage – The Last Work, it is just one of a great many highlights. This album comes highly recommended for any fan of tonal music and is downright unmissable for the Horner crowd. Once the album concludes, the title seems to resonate on a deeper level as the listener must accept that this is indeed the last work of James Horner, an infinitely talented composer who had so much more to say…