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IRIS – James Horner

December 14, 2001 Leave a comment Go to comments

irisOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In collaborating with the virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell on his latest score, Iris, it would seem that James Horner is developing a reputation akin to that of John Williams in the way that he is attracting top-quality classical talent with whom to work. With Charlotte Church also working with him on A Beautiful Mind, these two latest scores could be taken as an indication that Horner’s standing in the crossover classical music world is growing at a steady rate, after the commercial successes and album sales his scores have enjoyed of late. It is perhaps worth noting that Horner, Bell and Church are all contracted Sony Classical artists, and it is no coincidence that Sony are marketing both scores by heavily publicizing the soloists, but the optimist in me would like to think that it is Horner’s creativity rather than a marketing strategy who have brought them together. Nevertheless, an artist as talented as Bell brings a definite sense of class to the project – and it doesn’t hurt that Horner’s music is superb in its own right.

Iris, directed by British film-maker Richard Eyre, tells the tragic true story of theologist and author Iris Murdoch, the acclaimed author of such novels as “The Bell”, “In The Time of Angels”, and “The Sea The Sea” (which won the British Booker prize in 1978), and who died in 1999 after suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Played at different stages in life by actresses Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, Iris tells parallel stories of Iris at two different stages in her life: meeting and falling in love with John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville), their idyllic courtship and marriage; and later, when the older John (Jim Broadbent) finds himself having to cope with his beloved wife’s declining mental state and eventual death. At the time of writing, Dench, Winslet and Broadbent have all been nominated for Golden Globe Awards for their acting work, and are greatly tipped to be major contenders at the 2001 Oscars.

Iris is in many ways a quintessential Horner score, and one which hearkens back to his work pre-Titanic, when he would often take up scoring duties on smaller, more intimate films which required a greater degree of feeling and sensitivity in the music. Somewhat surprisingly, the core motif of the score is, yet again, those “four notes” that have generated so much discussion and controversy of late. But, whereas in Enemy at the Gates and others, it was used to denote evil or danger, in Iris it suggests nobility, innocence and love. By changing the key and orchestration of the motif, its nature alters wholly – oboes and Bell’s violin instead of the deep, bass-heavy brass we are used to.

Bell’s solo performances are unwaveringly excellent, bringing to Iris the same expressiveness and lightness of touch he brought to John Corigliano’s Oscar winning score for The Red Violin a few years ago. In every cue, at some point, Bell’s performance comes to the fore, and occasionally (such as the delicate ending to Track 7) performs almost solo, accompanied by a simple piano and the merest string wash. It has rightly been pointed out elsewhere that parts of Horner’s solo violin writing is similar to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ famous 1914 classical piece “The Lark Ascending” – a reference which would seem to be reinforced by the lyrics of folk-like song in the beautiful end credits cue, “A Lark in the Clear Air”, which re-uses Horner’s melody for a crystal clear solo vocalist.

Two things which may put some listeners off Iris are the construction of the album – 8 untitled cues which are given scene descriptions in the album notes – and its lack of a tangible central theme – there is nothing you can take away and whistle. Instead, Horner’s score is much more about moods and textures, conveying very subtle emotions without battering you over the head with overly-manipulative music. This is not to say that there are no moments of great beauty – indeed, there are cymbal-ring crescendos in several tracks which tingle the spine, notably in the middle of Track 4, at the end of Track 5, and especially in Track 7, which underscores the scene where Iris dies.

In fact, most of Horner’s music for Iris is of a quiet, romantic, pastoral nature – the kind of music which receives very little in the way of plaudits or promotion, but at which Horner is excellent. The opening minutes of Track 6 feature the score’s only moments of more “urgent” music, for a scene in which a frantic John searches the streets of Oxford for a missing, hallucinating Iris, and for which Horner uses the undulating string figures and cymbal hammers which first appeared in Ransom, before resolving the cue with a greatly relieved orchestral passage.

There are many, many subtle references to other Horner scores in Iris. Its closest musical cousin is probably Horner’s 1996 score The Spitfire Grill, but I was often reminded of Cocoon, Deep Impact, The Land Before Time, Bicentennial Man, The Man Without a Face, and even relative obscurities like Once Upon A Forest. The strange thing about Iris is that these echoes are so ingrained into the score that they never feel out of place. Instead, they are murmurs of a Horner from a bygone age – suggestive colors of his unique compositional style which gently emerge from within the fabric of the music and leave identifiable traces of his personal stylistic stamp over the entire score.

I have always been a great admirer of Horner’s more personal and intimate scores, and he hasn’t really written one since he penned The Spitfire Grill and To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday in 1997. This style of film always seems to bring out the best in the composer, allowing him to really flex his emotional muscles and write music which doesn’t overwhelm the listener in the way his more flamboyant works do, but instead gently lulls the audience into experiencing the emotional nuances of the score. With his standing in the film music world, it is a rare thing indeed for Horner to agree to score as small-scale a film as Iris, but this reviewer is very glad he did in this instance. I personally believe it is one of his most accomplished works of the last five years.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Part 1 – Main Titles (3:42)
  • Part 2 (3:24)
  • Part 3 (4:46)
  • Part 4 (4:35)
  • Part 5 (11:00)
  • Part 6 (6:41)
  • Part 7 (10:57)
  • Part 8 – End Credits/A Lark in the Clear Air (4:48)

Running Time: 49 minutes 53 seconds

Sony Classical SK-89806 (2002)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner, Randy Kerber and J.A.C. Redford. Featured musical soloist Joshua Bell. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Mastered by Chris Landen. Album produced by James Horner and Simon Rhodes.

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