Movie Music - A Rant

Like many American music enthusiasts, I studied classical piano in my younger years but really only had the interest for more popular-oriented orchestral music like film and video game soundtracks, which combined all manner of "concert hall instruments" with synthesizers, drumkit and electronic percussion, guitars, bass, what have you - a true mashup that is somehow much more tacky than it sounds. But while I liked some of these themes and scores enough to listen to them separately, I usually had no interest in their clumsy application to a film, usually with obvious edits and maximum volume to completely destroy any chance of you noticing how subtle they aren't. Even worse when the film is about some non-Western subject, and the music takes on awkward non-Western instrumentation for the sake of boxing the audience about the ears, screaming "Listen you! We're not in AMERICA any more!"

All this is building up to something, and that's the curious conflict of Avatar. See it - it's probably $12 in theaters for 3D but it's worthwhile for an immersive, probably revolutionary visual effects experience that successfully suspends my disbelief in many moments. The effects are simply that flashy, but with a certain amount of subtlety that makes it all the more convincing. But the less said about the atrocious script, riddled with Action/SF cliches, the better. The less said about the pan-indigenous mashup that is the alien race the Na'vi, with their 10 ft height, feline faces, dreadlocks, accents that are somewhere between southeast Asia and Kenya, etc, etc, etc, the better. The less said about the heavy-handed but still vague environmental metaphors that also have the time to pick up a dash of fantastical reverse-assimilation stories like Dances with the Last of the Samurai etc, etc, etc, the better. But I shall not be silenced on the subject of the music which is so explosively terrible and doesn't even provide a basic function of distracting from bad dialogue. The perpetrator here is James Horner, whose fascination with taking a folk instrument and beating an audience to death with it is well known thanks to the (for some reason) million selling Titanic soundtrack. However since ethnicity is here more ambiguous, Horner's score draws on every continent in a synthesizer's "World Instrument Section," mixing "Airy Panflutes" with "Warm South African Vocals," "East Asian Lutes" with "Oriental Percussion Kit." (These are actual names of synth presets on one of my programs. We are SO post racial...) Actually these recordings probably fat-paid a BUNCH of musicians but boy those sessions must've been boring.

Although I can't be sure; is it more sad that scores like this exist, continuing Western art and popular music's fascination with the "exotic other" that has early documentation with what was long known as the "Local Color" phenomenon? The phrase is used in classical textbooks, describing the decisions of composers like Mozart or Puccini for using imported percussion and pentatonic melodies in operas set in Turkey and China, and it is rarely used as a complement, since it usually reflects only a superficial familiarity with the source instrumentation or melody and some show of coercion to align it with the western orchestra. Or is it more sad that scores like this exist BECAUSE over the past century of Hollywood's fascination with and dramatization of the "other," composers have established particular timbral and melodic cliches that completely bastardize the context they were stolen from?

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