April 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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The New World  
Music composed and conducted by James Horner
Orchestrated by James Horner, John Kull, and Kevin Kliesch
Score vocals by Hayley Westenra, ethnic woodwinds by Tony Hinnigan
  Available on Silva Screen (SILCD 1200)
Running Time: 79:37
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • The Thin Red Line 
  • The Missing
  • Iris
  • Windtalkers
  • I look at the images and title of Terrence Malick’s The New World and I suspect that it isn’t really a romance about the woman all the world now knows Pocahontas. Rather, if I had to describe it from a distance, I’d say something like ‘audio-visual elaborations on the theme of cultural clash’, the tone of the thing tragically-weighted by the knowledge of Anglo-Saxon dominance of North America. But clash seems to be the idea – of man with nature, industrial man with natural man, man with woman, Christian settlers with indigenous mysticism, restless exploration with contented love. The romance is but the surface. Terrence Malick’s films are lifted by his gift for employing the unique elements of cinema to achieve an argument that is both visceral and intellectual. I can’t wait to see it, and hopefully, to be mystifyingly compelled by it. Too many films tie things up too patly, and it makes their issue-mongering seem dishonest. Malick feels closer to Wong Kar Wai – I don’t always understand the films, but I’m overwhelmed by the feelings, the ideas and by the refusals to coldly explore them as other (more easily respected) film-makers would.

    All the while this leaves me wondering about the music of The New World. When I heard Horner was scoring it, I hoped that Malick might nudge him towards the same kind of magnum opus that Hans Zimmer achieved with The Thin Red Line. Perhaps Horner’s previous work with aspects of Native American music (The Missing, Windtalkers) might counterpoint Malick’s always-interesting use of hymnal pieces. If “Christian Race” and Polynesian versions of hymns had permeated Zimmer’s effort for a war film in Guadalcanal, and Christian allegory was all over his masterful Days of Heaven, it seemed ever more likely that the first footprints of ‘the Christian race’ in the new world would also involve that kind of interpolation from James Horner.

    But the score as represented on Silva’s opulent release doesn’t seem like that at all. The only hymns here are of the diatonic variety – symmetric harmonies around melodies that couldn’t be confused as the work of any other composer. And there’s no concessions to the ‘Native American sound’ either – Malick and Horner seem to have agreed on one thing, that orientalising the subjects was not really what the film was about. At the heart is a love theme for the briefly-smitten adventurer John Smith and the more profoundly-loving Pocahontas as stirring and recognizable as any Horner has written – set for piano and woodwinds (Tony Hinnigan’s ethnic woodwinds feature), it arcs beautifully around Hayley Westenra’s ethereal vocals in ‘A Flame Within’, and is movingly placed in the strings in ‘Pocahontas and Smith’, ‘Forbidden Corn’ and the stirring emotional climax ‘All is Lost’. (Actually the shape of it is reminiscent in parts in Morricone’s love theme from Days of Heaven, but this undoubtedly coincidence – the type of progressions that pop up in love themes more likely than not.)

    The love theme even gets a vocal treatment – ‘Listen to the Wind’, as sung by Hayley Westenra, doesn’t sound so unlike the Menken-Disney Pocahontas musical animated film as one might have hoped. Though Westenra sings beautifully, and the theme is wonderful, familiar lyrics from previous Horner songs about how ‘seasons keep changing’ and ‘knowing (there’s) no end’ kind of equates the love of Malick’s film with that of other Horner-scored knee-jerking films – Titanic and Bicentennial Man. It kind of simplifies the whole thing in a way the Horner-Josh Groban song ‘Remember’ did for Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, when the rejected Yared-penned song seemed to speak to the complexity of the carnage so much more eloquently. (It’s interesting that Horner is back with the ethereal female vocal for this song – his style not translating well to Groban’s voice in ‘Remember’.)

    What we have then is a romance score on album as far as I can tell – the whole thing united by the idea of the love in the foreground story rather than the ideas of cultural clash that underpin the piece. So it doesn’t surprise me a great deal to learn that this album probably isn’t the score of The New World. The fulcrum of historic change that Malick seems to be going for by picking this time and place to set his ambitiously-titled film seems to have been better captured by the Overture of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, a stirring work of anticipation ripe for cinematic plucking. Mozart’s piano concertos, Francesco Lupica’s blaster beam, R. Carlos Nakai’s Native American flute, and reconstructed renaissance works together with Wagner make up the unlikely team that displaced Horner’s score in the film. None of their work is heard here. And while it’s great to see a composer get their labour on CD despite its lack of use in the film, I suspect those who really love the film and want the music of it won’t appreciate the omissions. Could not some of the beautiful but repetitive cues like ‘Forbidden Corn’ have been displaced for elements central to the musical identity of the film? (Some reviews suggest the omission does not begin with Wagner, but with the Horner score as it appeared in the film – a lovely Horner-penned theme that dominated the latter third of the film, for Pocahontas and her later husband John Rolfe, is omitted in all but a suggestive phrasing in ‘Rolfe Proposes’.)

    The reason for the Horner-skewed album might have something to with the fact that New Line’s Music Producer Paul Broucek did not favour Malick’s handling of his composer. The note of thanks by Horner to Broucek speaks volumes: “A very special thankyou to Paul Broucek, without whose much needed support, keen and astute ears, and being witness and seeing for himself the incomprehensible incoming madness and chaos that comes from a perpetually changing film, I truly would not have survived this project.” Strange thanks indeed. And one can only wonder what to make of the credit for Dick Bernstein: “Music editor, consigliore, and Provider of Elegant and Educated Taste Where None Was Constantly Being Asked For.” Does that make him one of Horner’s sympathisers? Or one of Malick’s?

    Whatever the politics, we must be grateful for the score we do have here, and it’s a lot more than a love theme, actually one of the most consistently lovely albums we’ve heard in a while. ‘Rolfe Proposes’ and ‘Apparition in the Field’ both rely on dreamily warm piano meanderings over strings. The horn calls of ‘Journey Upriver’ and ‘First Landing’ characterize the intrusion of the colonists in the America as neither heroic nor imperial rape – there’s daring, and that is more stated than celebrated. The accelerando piano-led orchestral writing that opens ‘The New World’ (presumably Horner’s answer to the Wagner temp track) is reprised in the album’s finest moment – the climax of ‘A Dark Cloud is Lifted Forever’. The musical device that most seems to speak to Malick’s ideas about music is the use of birdsong – opening ‘The New World’ and dominating ‘Of the Forest’, it’s a reminder of what wonderful sound mixes accompany Malick films.

    Most unexpected is ‘Winter – Battle’ – the ethereal vocals over synthesized brass and real strings is a memorable combination. The heavy drumming and bagpipes that enter halfway turn the piece around again, and had the whole score been written with this degree of novelty, the score would have been labeled as a turning point in Horner’s style, rather than the summation of a familiar approach. It’s no coincidence that ‘Winter-Battle’ was used in the film – it’s powerful scoring-against-the-action that recalls, if only for its unexpected content, Zimmer’s ‘Journey to the Line’.

    Overall, the score is not a bad conflation of both old and new in the Horner canon, with a leaning towards the former. It overall reminds me most of Horner’s Iris, a violin concerto-style work that I’ve come to like in time that subtly serves the Horner canon while throwing up new directions. Here there’s a bit more gravity, but it’s the intimacy of the symphony orchestra rather than the scale of it that is most frequently communicated in Simon Rhodes’ lush mix of elements. With The Legend of Zorro and Chumscrubber fresh in the mind of this reviewer, Horner seems to be in one of his best phases yet as a composer. Apocalypto, The Good Shepherd and All the King’s Men can’t come soon enough.

    Familiar but sublime. And strongly recommended, but not necessarily for those who love the music of the film, as there’s very little of it here, and certainly none of the classical selections that dominate the theatrical soundtrack.

    Michael McLennan

    Rating for Horner’s score as a wonderful musical experience: 4.5
    Rating for the album as containing the music actually in the film: 3.0

    Ian Lace adds:-

    James Horner’s new score moves forward slowly and atmospherically, creating for the most part an elegiac utopian mood of peace and harmony in an unspoilt New World.

    It opens with primeval forest birdsong and female wordless chorus alluding ‘calls of the wild’ over serene piano meandering. Then the Titanic and Legends of the Fall themes are revisited, re-arranged to underline the peace of the early 17th  century American Indians, the noble savages, before the advent of the European invaders. ‘First Landing’ suggests a sense of wonder, with bugle calls foreshadowing the pride and grandeur of a nation that would eventually evolve from the wilderness. Yet a dread and darkening ostinato grounds this vision of natural beauty, peace and tranquillity – it is all nicely suggested by this music.

    Atmospheric multi-part writing for women’s voices and tranquil, easy-flowing material lightly coloured by ethnic instruments in ‘A Flame Within’ suggest the primitive and contented life of the Indians.  Soft solo piano with women’s voices introduce ‘An Apparition in the fields’ and, perhaps, a hesitant first romantic encounter.  A lovely track this. ‘Of the Forest’ is similarly pleasing: softly meandering piano over hovering strings serve as a beguiling background to birdsong.  ‘Journey upriver’ continues with atmospheric horn calls that at times suggest American Indian ethnicity, and there are deep piano chords reminiscent of the ‘ocean depths’ material from Titanic, and then strings punctuated by deep chord ostinati.

    ‘Pocahontas And Smith’ ushers in a personal dimension and this track harks back to the Legends of the Fall but in a tender rather than noble/heroic frame.  ‘Forbidden Corn’ has gentle tinkling piano chords, dripping behind melancholy pipes before the horns and deep chords of ‘Journey Upriver’ return and sound a note of apprehension.  The substantial ten minute track then turns, featuring the beautiful, almost hymn-like introspection of a chorus.  ‘Rolfe Proposes’, again with a piano solo lyrically suggesting tenderness and vulnerability.

    ‘Winter – Battle’ quickens the tempo, cools the atmosphere.  For much of the track danger is held at a distance until war drums and poisonous-snake-like rattles suddenly intrude. A timpani barrage with bagpipe-like drones respond, and female voices wail despairingly.  A tense track full of primitive anger recalling Braveheart.  ‘All is lost’ is a poignant after-conflict reflection with the horn calls and Legends material.  ‘A Dark Cloud is Forever Lifted recapitulates all foregoing material and re-establishes serenity.

    The album ends with the by-now obligatory song ‘Listen to the Wind’ sung in little-girl-saccharine charm by a breathy Hayley Westenra.  It sounds so like so many other Horner film ballads. The birdsong that precedes her sounds better.

    Horner offers no really new thematic material. It is self-derivative music again but The New World is an appealing score of, predominantly, serene untrammelled beauty.

    Ian Lace


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