Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tightrope Walker

James Horner  (1953 - 2015)

The best movies, and Hollywood films in particular, are more memorable for the soundtracks which underscore (no pun intended) and add emotional color to the action. In the heyday of the studio era, film music was big, bold and dramatic -- Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bernard Hermann and Max Steiner, even Leonard Bernstein, are good examples -- and that music made obvious the story unfolding on the screen: Shock! Suspense! Action! Danger! Love! 

When film began to change as an art form after WWII, the supporting music became more nuanced, less obviously another supporting star in the cast. Some film composers carried on the traditions of the old-studio, bold-as-brass soundtracks; Vangelis (Blade Runner; "The Bounty") and John Williams ("Star Wars", A.I.; Saving Private Ryan and too many others to mention) are good examples.

Others began as big-studio composers, but developed another language for their work later in life -- Maurice Jarre started with Lawrence Of Arabia and "Dr. Zhivago", but also provided work like the soundtracks for "Witness", Jacob's Ladder and Dead Poet's Society.  Jerry Goldsmith could deliver  "In Harm's Way", The Blue Max, and Patton, but also A Patch Of Blue, "The Island", Chinatown and Papillion.

Other artists were less obvious in their composing styles from the beginning, and (at least, for me) more effective in adding the added dimension of emotional color to a film without being intrusive -- three I would mention are Michael Covertino (Children Of A Lesser God; Bed Of Roses), Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption), and James Horner.

Horner died over the weekend in a small plane accident in Southern California. He was capable of providing a bigger-than-life soundtrack (several "Star Trek" films, or Cameron's Titanic are the best examples), but also created specific scores that I enjoy as music, as evocations of particular emotions; as an analog in sound for what is sometimes difficult to define in words. He once described satisfying the demands of a specific medium, a director or producer, and maintaining artistic integrity at the same time was “like being a tightrope walker with one foot in the air at all times.”

Now he knows what we do not. Horner provided his own artistry in that extra dimension which music provides to film, and gave something to our collective culture. We won't move into the future and hear more of what he might have created; I'll miss that.

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