|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
The Numinosum Blog
Last night I went to see director James Cameron's Avatar. I did enjoyed the film and its vertiginous use of CGI technological advancements in telling a basic (and often quite predictable, although not unenjoyable) story. And since seeing the film I have had subsequent continued contemplation of the movie's ecological message, with the obvious corollary to our own world. Despite my pleasure at the world James Cameron and crew placed on the screen, there was one aspect of the film which left me a bit disappointed: the music.
James Horner, the composer of the score to Avatar, has worked with James Cameron on a few previous films such as Aliens and of course Titanic (THE-GREAT-EST-MO-VIE-E-VER-MADE!) and he has a controversial reputation in film music circles as a recycler of his own themes and motifs as well as some say a, ahem, 'borrower', of themes and motifs from other composers (in Avatar, I notice a few obvious moments of recycled Horner, such as a snare motif borrowed from 1986's Aliens which in itself, was also used in 1982's Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan). Avatar's music is generally pleasant and serves the film's visuals passably as the sound world James Horner creates certainly having elements from what we've come to expect from blockbuster film music. For example, rousing and rhythmic battle scene music to accompany the hordes of CGI warriors (with a parallel to Howard Shore's score to The Lord of the Rings), an exotic sounding choir matched with ethnic percussion (similar to Ennio Morricone's music to The Mission, with nods to Horner's own Titanic), and the requisite 'hit song' during the closing credits and which, not always but often, seem out of place and jarring, as it did in Avatar (think the song at the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or "My Heart Will Go On" at the end of THE-GREAT-EST-MO-VIE-E-VER-MADE). But in many ways the music is an antipode to the visual technological innovations.
Why do directors, who claim to be breaking boundaries in their films, fall back on using standard movie music memes? In Avatar, sadly there is no musicological equivalent for the stunning visual world saturated with beautiful dendrological, entomological, botanical, zoological, and geological interest and imagination (most things are based on recognizable earthly models such as a glowing forest floor, the 'helicopter' lizard, the white butterfly-like seed from the sacred tree which looked like a cross between a jellyfish and a dandelion seed head, and the Hallelujah Mountains (which all during the film I was speculating on how they would be able to float, perhaps some kind of terrestrial variation on Lagrangian points)). And while there is not much source music in the movie (music that emerges from a source in and from the world on-screen, as opposed to the music score, which is strictly outside it), the few times there were, particularly a scene toward the end where the entire Na'vi tribe chants, musically it was fairly straight-forward and plain. Now this is not to say the music doesn't help the visual images, but if James Cameron's team were able to create such a visually striking alien people, with their own legends and spoken language which was commissioned for the film, why couldn't there also be some hint of an equally imaginative, forward-sounding music, if not in the score at least in those moments in the film when the aliens are actually singing? Maybe I'm a bit unfair since my criticism stems from what James Horner (and James Cameron) did NOT do and what the music is NOT. After all Star Wars was looking back, not forward with its pseudo-Wagnerian romanticism including its one source material moment, the Cantina Band and its galactic-steel-drum electro-swing. However, where John Williams created a great and memorable score for Star Wars which was in the vanguard of helping popularize a return to big, sweeping 'operatic' orchestral music in movies (after a decline in the 1960s and early 1970s due to more pop music being used), James Horner only creates a decent, functional, and prosaic score. And for a film as 'next generation' as the moving-graphic-novel Avatar, that is disappointing.
(Photos from the official Avatar website)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:15 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.