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THE NEW WORLD – James Horner

December 23, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

newworldOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

James Horner’s fourth and final score for 2005 is without doubt his most prestigious: The New World, directed by Terrence Malick, tells a new dramatic version of the familiar story of Native American princess, Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher), and her first encounter with John Smith (Colin Farrell), the leader of the first English Settlers to land on the shores of what is now the United States of America. Despite the misgivings of Pocahontas’s tribal elders, Smith’s colleagues, and the girl’s age (she was just 14) the pair fall deeply in love – but it soon becomes apparent that their relationship cannot last, and that their forbidden romance will have terrible repercussions for both sides. The film, which also stars Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, Ben Chaplin, David Thewlis, and Native American character actors Wes Studi, August Schellenberg and Irene Bedard, is about as far from the Disney animated feature as it is possible to be, concentrating on the reality of what life in Virginia in 1607 was like, and the hardships faced by the new settlers in a dangerous and unfamiliar land.

Texan-born Terrence Malick is an interesting filmmaker. The New World is only his fourth theatrical feature, having made his debut way back in 1973 with Badlands. He is a director in love with the art of cinema itself: not just the storytelling aspect, but the poetic visual language one can create, through sumptuous camera work, a detailed eye for striking imagery, a love of landscape, and languid pacing. In many ways, Malick is more of a painter with film than he is a traditional director, and as a result the scores which accompany his movies often reach great levels of epic beauty. Malick’s last film, The Thin Red Line in 1998, contained a critically acclaimed score by Hans Zimmer, and for a while the German was expected to write the music for this film as well. The fact that Horner came on board was a surprise, but at least it gave him the opportunity to revisit the broad, expansive, sweeping landscape vistas that inspired his greatest works.

In recent years, Horner has moved away from the style that made him a fan-favourite in the mid-1990s, challenging himself to create more understated, introspective music that relies less on enormous themes and more on extremely detailed writing for unconventional ensembles: acclaimed scores like House of Sand and Fog, Beyond Borders, and more recently Flightplan and The Chumscrubber are perfect examples of this. In many ways, The New World epitomises the perfect synthesis of “classic” Horner and “modern” Horner, containing as it does a number of large, sweeping melodies, but combined with several unexpected moments innovation, unusual orchestration, and electronic enhancement.

As one might expect, Horner’s depiction of the first tentative steps into the new land by the colonists is filled with awe, wonder, and just a little trepidation. The opening “The New World” is unique in that it juxtaposes Horner’s expansive main theme against sampled sounds of the forest, including bird song, insect chirps and croaking frogs, creating an exotic sonic atmosphere of natural beauty. The theme is a good one, a sort of amalgamation of textures heard most recently in The Missing, Deep Impact, A Beautiful Mind, and even Titanic, but obviously with a different melodic core. Further performances in “First Landing” and “Journey Upriver” (where it is accompanied by the familiar rolling chords from dozens of Horner scores past) give the score weight and consistency, while the more florid and sweeping statements during the sumptuous conclusive pair “All is Lost” and “A Dark Cloud is Forever Lifted” recall the best moments of Braveheart.

The birdsong nature sounds return again in “Of the Forest”, a cue which struck me as an innovative cross between something Alan Silvestri wrote for the eco-friendly film Ferngully in 1992, and the dreamy textures from his own 1996 score for The Spitfire Grill. The first hints of blossoming romance appear in “An Apparition in the Fields”, a gentle piano motif accompanied by a solo voice, which has emerged into a lush string arrangement by the time it reaches its zenith in the quietly moving “Pocahontas and Smith”. A slightly more melancholy version, performed by a Titanic-style lower-key piano and sampled choirs, anchors “Rolfe Proposes” – possibly an echo of the lost and forbidden love that was as much the central element of the 1997 blockbuster as it is here.

The extended “Forbidden Corn” is an interesting texture in sound manipulation, which sees Horner shifting fragments of his thematic material around various sections of the orchestra, resulting in a long cue which is somehow both stimulating and relaxing. The calm textures Horner creates with his piano, string and woodwind combo cast an idyllic spell, and when a full statement of theme moves to the forefront of things, the effect is sublime. Tony Hinnigan’s mystical ethnic woodwind solos add a great deal of the emotional heart during this cue, as he has done throughout his almost 15-year collaboration with Horner.

The one action cue, “Winter/Battle”, revisits the moody electronic textures Horner made use of in Titanic, Braveheart, and parts of Legends of the Fall, and even incorporates a variation on the undulating melodic line from A Beautiful Mind into the mix, before exploding into a cacophonous rage with bagpipes, percussion, and a throbbing string section. The conclusive song, “Listen to the Wind”, is based on the main theme, features poetic lyrics, and is performed with delicacy and grace by the exceptionally talented, 17-year-old New Zealand-born opera star Hayley Westenra.

Somewhat surprisingly, much of Horner’s music was replaced with classical selections from Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in the final cut of the film, meaning that this album actually represents the entire score as Horner originally envisaged it. There is more music here than you hear in the movie itself, and it’s well worth seeking out. Of course, detractors will say ‘it’s just the same old stuff recycled again, it’s a rehash of Braveheart and The Missing and A Beautiful Mind’, and if you look at A New World as it’s basest level, they’d be right. However, it is my opinion that film music listeners need to forget about the “this cue sounds like this cue” criticism and reconcile themselves to the fact that Horner is not like other film composers. I only mention the similarities myself as a way of describing the music, and to provide prospective album purchasers with a frame of reference – my intention is not to pour scorn on the score with negative connotations. His scores are not proprietary, he doesn’t even try to come up with completely unique themes for every score he writes. Horner’s work is like one, big, 25 year symphony, where each score is a new movement, and themes and motives and textures are developed over the course of several years and several scores, not just within one 2 hour slot. And The New World, for me, is one of the most interesting movements he has written for a while.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The New World (5:22)
  • First Landing (4:45)
  • A Flame Within (4:05)
  • An Apparition in the Fields (3:42)
  • Journey Upriver (4:16)
  • Of the Forest (6:55)
  • Pocahontas and Smith (3:41)
  • Forbidden Corn (11:01)
  • Rolfe Proposes (4:31)
  • Winter/Battle (8:28)
  • All is Lost (8:14)
  • A Dark Cloud is Forever Lifted (9:55)
  • Listen to the Wind (performed by Hayley Westenra) (4:35)

Running Time: 79 minutes 29 seconds

New Line Records NLR-39058 (2005)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner and Jon Kull. Featured musical soloists Tony Hinnigan. Special vocal performances by Hayley Westenra. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Dick Bernstein. Album produced by James Horner and Simon Rhodes.

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