A Little Movie Called “Avatar”

So most of you have heard of this film Avatar I’m assuming, it’s kind of been everywhere for  the last month of so and raked in money left and right this past weekend.  I’m not going to bore you with a film review here, but I will say that I do recommend seeing it, and if you do, try and see it in 3D.

What I’m here to do is talk about Little Jimmy Horner’s score for the film, his third with director James Cameron (after Aliens and Titanic).  The debate on Horner rages round and round the film score world, and just like any debate with impassioned people on both sides, this score is likely to give people in both camps plenty of ammunition.  My thoughts are as follows: it’s good, it works, though with a few ‘buts.’

So let’s talk.

First, the standard charge lobbied against Horner: he copies and steals from himself and others.  Well, those hating him for that will find stuff to complain about, mostly in the first cue on the album, “You Don’t Dream in Cryo…”  Listening to it, and granted I don’t know every note Horner ever wrote, I heard Field of Dreams/Sneakers (the two scores were written for the same director and have some things in common, especially the sound of piano chords) and The Dark Knight (there was some electric cello that smacks of the Joker’s Theme) at times, and possibly some Apollo 13, but it’s been awhile since I heard that score.

My other big complaint with the score is the “ethnic” element that is supposed to be representative of the Na’vi people.  According to the Wikipedia article on the score, but found nowhere in the liner notes for the CD, Horner worked with an ethnomusicologist to create the musical sound of them.  My problem is that many of the elements that Horner incorporates serve to somewhat reinforce this idea of “African” as “other” or “primitive.”

Most of the vocal elements heard in the score seem to be taken from stereotypical Africa singing, not unlike what we heard in Hans Zimmer’s score for The Lion King.  The more instrumental aspects of the score are based in percussion and winds.  I cannot name the woodwind instruments used, but if I’m not mistaken they are taken from cultures that live in the forests of Oceania (Papau New Guinea possibly).  I could be wrong, I’m not a trained ethnomusicologist.

The winds are definitely taken from a culture that live in a dense forest of the equatorial region, though, which makes sense.  When one is trying to create a music for a fictional culture, or even trying to explain how one culture creates their music, one of the first question you ask is, “what materials do they have to make instruments from?”

For the Na’vi it would be wood from the forest and skin from animals.  As we see in the film, the forest and animals are sacred and part of them, so music would most likely have deep religious connotations and making and playing instruments made from them would be a highly ritualized activity.  If Horner did indeed work with an ethnomusicologist, I’m sure she would tell him these things…

But if Horner took anything away from the meetings, it seems like it was only the basics of what cultures might have music that the Na’vi’s would sound like because he doesn’t seem to have tried to create a unique sound, but rather merely copy what we already had here on Earth.  And in a world where Bear McCreary has shown how one can combine instruments from many different cultures to create a sound that is different from what one might hear from their respective cultures and use it to represent an alien culture, there is really no excuse for Horner to fall back on such stereotypes.

Not to mention it could be considered offensive by some, which was my most immediate reaction when listening to the score.  Some of this is tempered to a degree by the film’s presentation of the Na’vi people, thanks in large part by the over-the-top prejudice of the film’s main villain, Col. Quaritch.

In large part, though, the score works.  Just as the visuals and 3D help the viewer get lost in the world of Pandora, so to does the score carry a viewer along.  The best example of this is the sequence when Jake takes his first flight.  When I saw the sequence I immediately remembered the “Lighting of the Beacons” sequence from Return of the King.  It is a beautiful example of how music and image can be integrated into a whole that can enrapture a viewer’s senses.

The score, as a whole, illustrates the best part of James Horner as a composer: the man is a master of orchestral colors.  Along with John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith before he died, few others really know how to get the varied colors that are possible with a traditional orchestra.  I love the work of Michael Giacchino, but he could learn a few things from Horner and Williams about using the colors of a big orchestra – but that is another post entirely.

Horner’s Avatar score is one of the best of the year, in my opinion, and will probably be on the short list when Oscar nominations are announced in late January.

Stay tuned for hopefully a review of Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes score, then be on the look out New Year’s Eve for my Year End Awards, complete with my bold Oscar predictions.

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