James Horner gave us yet another mind-blowingly good score with Avatar, this time rather intriguingly weaving a unique musical tapestry of heart-pounding brass and tribal-sounding vocals to give the movie’s alien protagonists (the Na’vi) a literal symphonic culture.
When it came out in 2009, Avatar was far from your typical movie release. In fact, it wasn’t so much a movie at all; being more of a tremendous cinematic event. It ended up being the highest grossing movie of all time (making over 2.7 billion dollars overall and 600 million more than second place’s Titanic – so beating it by quite a margin) with viewers going nuts over the movie’s groundbreaking and rather stunning visual effects. Avatar represented a major technological step forward in terms of computer-generated imagery as well as motion capture techniques, and will forever have a pretty important place in cinematic history.
Of course, one of the major things us fans of film music were excited for with Avatar was the score. As the movie itself was so groundbreaking, it was hoped and even slightly expected that the score would follow a similar path. Then James Horner was announced as composer, and those thoughts went from hopes to absolute certainty (well, they did for me anyway). He was one of the greatest film composers of all time, and if anybody could create an innovative and iconic score for what would go on to be the most successful movie of all time, it was James Horner. The album has now been out for a good nine years, and while I wouldn’t say the music was quite as groundbreaking as we all hoped it was still a pretty fantastic score, and will likely go down as one of Mr. Horner’s best pieces of work.
The score opens with You Don’t Dream In Cryo, and a mysterious and somewhat dramatic tone is set immediately as Horner introduces the “main character” of this score; the vocals. They are a rather interesting tonal blend of both tribal and alien, and it’s that blend that sets Avatar apart from the other films Horner has composed for, as it is a truly unique thematic element for the music here. The vocals then vanish as quickly as they were introduced, replaced by dramatic percussion and an eyebrow-raising cameo from the classic “danger motif” that the composer is so very fond of. Mystery then descends again as the vocals return and then combine with some synthetic-sounding brass to create an intriguing mood mixture of melancholy and wonder.
The main theme is then introduced towards the end of Jake Enters His Avatar World, in pure wondrous strings-based fashion. As the theme plays out tribal-(I’m saying that word a lot I know, but I’m struggling to find a better one in all honesty)-sounding percussion and powerful brass rush up to meet it, and we are then treated to a good thirty seconds of truly breathtaking Horner-style orchestra. This track serves as a pretty great debut for the simple-yet-superb main theme for Avatar and overall is a highly enjoyable piece of music, and the score’s only just getting started.
The Bioluminescence Of The Night then fleshes out the main theme quite considerably, though this time in a much slower and gentler style. The uniquely-Avatar vocals play a pretty major part here, mixing with sombre strings and the now frequent tribal percussion to overall create a pretty extraordinary soundscape for the Na’vi’s alien culture. If there’s one thing that James Horner can do incredibly well in composing it’s create unique musical identities for characters, and here with Avatar he is no different; using breathtaking blends of emotion (wonder, awe) and instruments (primarily the vocals and tribal percussion) to create such a truly different musical style for the Na’vi that we recognise them in the score without even needing to hear a theme. It’s easily the standout musical idea of Avatar, and is what in my mind raises it from standard Horner score to one of his best pieces of work.
The Na’vi’s rather tranquil and rather amazing soundscape continues into Becoming One Of The People/Becoming One With Neytiri, through Climbing Up Iknimaya/The Path To Heaven and into Jake’s First Flight, essentially making for fifteen glorious minutes of emotion-brimming vocals and inspirational-sounding brass. I’m grouping these tracks together here simply because they go together so incredibly well, and I’d find myself repeating if I were to talk about them individually. The main theme gets several considerable performances through these three tracks, enhancing the enchanting musical scene that Horner sets tenfold whenever it appears. The vocals of course take much of the forefront, backed by hopeful strings, bold brass and the percussion that we now know so well (I’m trying to avoid using that word now). Notably, things switch up from tranquility to grandiosity in Climbing Up Iknimaya, the pace increasing with dramatic brass and percussion flaring to raise the score up yet another level of epic. All-in, this is fifteen minutes of James Horner that should not go unlistened to.
The tone of the score then entirely changes with Scorched Earth. Gone is the gentle and peaceful musical culture of the Na’vi, and in its place is a war-torn, brass-heavy battlefield. Melancholic strings and tribal percussion are replaced by rapid, dramatic brass and loud almost evil-sounding drums – all this of course indicating the arrival of humanity and their attempts to destroy the Na’vi. This new tone continues for the rest of the album, which is both a good and a bad thing – it changes the pace and allows Horner to experiment with his new thematic ideas in a much more musically powerful setting, but at the same time it robs us of more beautiful and tranquil Na’vi culture-based tracks. The Destruction Of Hometree is the first significant war-based piece, featuring several much darker and brass-heavy renditions of the main theme as well as taking the score overall further into despair with sinister vocals and many an appearance of that classic danger motif.
The standout cue of the score (and the final piece of Horner music on the album) is War, and as you might have guessed it is the score’s major action cue. It opens with rapid and dramatic percussion before moving into a loud and particularly heroic brass-based rendition of the main theme. Vocals also play a major part here, though their once gentle and tribal tone has now disappeared, and in its place there is a much colder and more hostile one as the Na’vi fight back against the humans. The long, drawn out vocal notes have been replaced by rapid war-like chanting, and this combined with Horner pulling out all the stops with bold and heroic brass, brisk orchestral percussion and tense strings is what makes War the standout track of Avatar as well as one of the best action cues that James Horner has ever written. It’s a glorious twelve-minute-long action setpiece, and also serves as a pretty fantastic finale to the album.
All-in, James Horner’s score to Avatar is mind-blowingly good. His expert use of tribal-sounding vocals and percussion in combination with traditional orchestra not only makes for some breathtakingly beautiful musical moments, but also gives the Na’vi a literal thematic culture, and one that is truly unique in its symphonic style. The main theme is also fantastic; being a rather simple yet incredibly musically powerful motif that is used just enough to hold up the score where needed but not so much as to take away from the dramatic moments where it plays. The tonal combination of peace and war is also done very well, with each getting enough just album time to satisfy without becoming tiring. In spite of this though, I did find myself wanting a little more tranquil Na’vi score, but that’s probably just because I liked it so much.
If there is one thing that the score to Avatar does, it’s showcase exactly why James Horner is one of the greatest film composers of all time. A marvelous show, as usual.
Standout Cue: 13. War