James Horner searches for the sound of Pandora

Nov. 30, 2009 | 8:09 p.m.


As we close  the door on November, our countdown coverage to the Dec. 18 release of “Avatar” continues, and it’s fascinating to see the opinions, gossip and expectations that are already putting the film front and center in the marketplace of ideas. The most expensive film ever made? Sure, probably. The most over-hyped? Possibly. Easy to ignore? Absolutely not. The game-changer? We shall see. Today we bring you the first part of our conversation with Oscar-winning composer James Horner, who famously collaborated with “Avatar” director-writer James Cameron on “Titanic.”

James Horner


GB: This film takes place on another world, a distant, troubled moon covered with lush jungles and dotted with floating mountains. That must have made for an interesting set of decisions when you began work on the score. 

JH: This film is so radically different from any other movie and, really, from any other movie ever made, both on a technical level — how it was made — and just the look of it. The usual sort of rules and the ways I would approach the project don’t apply. What was asked of me was to create a score that was grounded for a conventional audience — being that it would play in Oklahoma — yet at the same time was very adventurous in terms of the sounds I would use and the approaches I took cinematically.

GB: There’s also the epic sweep to the film; you’ve had experience with that, certainly, with “Titanic” and films such as “Braveheart,” “Apocalypto” and “Troy,” but in each of those you had an earth-bound historical backdrop to use as a reference.

JH: Yes, correct. The sound world that I created for “Avatar” had to be very different, really, than anything I ever created before. There is also three hours of music. I had to find a sound world that covered so much territory; it had to cover  both the human side of the story and the indigenous side of the story and the tremendous, epic battles that take place as well as the love story that is at the core of the film.

GB: How do you create a “sound world,” as you put it?

JH: I had to create a sound world that was really quite different than anything I had used before. It wasn’t simply a matter of using instruments from New Zealand or Iceland or Lapland; I had to create new instruments, too, a whole library of instruments and sounds. I also found indigenous instruments and digitized them and changed them slightly. I used a lot of voice and digitized that to create a sound world for myself, a palette of colors so that I was able to create worlds that satisfied [James Cameron] and his need for this new world to sound appropriate as a place that you had never been to. It had to be different and alien yet at same time to have a very warm quality and an organic quality. The score needed to be very grounded, too, as I said. The score is very thematic even though the colors are very exotic.

Avatar netyri


GB: That’s interesting about the created or altered instruments. Could you be more specific?

JH: There were a lot of vocal sounds I took from various places. These were odd vocal sounds that I would manipulate digitally and there were interesting flutes, for instance, from South America and Finland that I wanted to be more abstract. I also have instruments invented from scratch. They were programmed. There were a lot of instruments that sound like flutes of different sorts, but they were combined with gamelan-sounding instruments. The gamelan is Balinese. The word itself means “orchestra.” The individual gamelan instruments are these bell-like sounds. A lot of the percussion for “Avatar” is gamelan-based or sounds gamelan-based. So this has this sort of quality of ringing bells, like Indonesian music. It’s a very pretty fusion of different worlds that gives the place itself a quality that is magical. Using it for percussion, rather than drums or other things, gives a sort of magical glow to everything. And as I said there were a lot of instruments that I invented and worked on with my programs. I was very particular.

GB:That sounds like a pretty fascinating expedition for a composer. I can’t imagine there are many Hollywood projects that entail the invention of new musical instruments.

JH: But the most important thing that came before anything was creating a sound world that would convey Pandora and the world Jim was trying to invent. It had to be foreign yet not avant-garde and not art film; it needed to support melodic writing so I could write thematically. I had to stay grounded in that way. I couldn’t go off into some weird world and present a whole new scale system or a whole new theme system; I had to try to glue everything together. The film — as radical as it looks and with the “new look” of all the information coming as you visually — required music that was grounded and emotional. No matter how dense it is on the screen or how alien it might be, there is a thread in the music that keeps it grounded for the audience so they know what is going on and how to feel.

GB: You mentioned a magical glow to the music. One of the most striking things about Cameron’s alien setting is the iridescence and bioluminescence. Tell me how that fit into your creation of a sound world.

JH: With how beautiful all of that looks, that has to be reflected in the music. I can’t use common instruments when I paint that; I can’t use common words to describe it. You have to make an audience experience with the ears as well as their eyes.

GB: On the screen, Jim Cameron’s movie aspires to create a whole new world and do it with next-level visual effects and filmmaking techniques, but on the page, really, this is a very old-fashioned adventure tale. You can see flashes of “The Man Who Would be King” or “Heart of Darkness” in it and Jim Cameron has acknowledgedDances With Wolves” and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” as influences. It seems to me the approach you’re talking about with the score — present the fantastic but make sure that it’s grounded in classic structure — is the same approach taken with the script. 

JH: Yes, you’re right, the story is basically an ex-Marine in a wheelchair whose epic journey takes him from that point all the way to leading a nation. That whole journey has to be covered with music. There’s a tremendous amount of emotional weight that journey carries.


— Geoff Boucher


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5 Responses to James Horner searches for the sound of Pandora

  1. Johnny Randalls says:

    I cannot wait for Avatar to be released, even though it is seriously hyped. At the end of the day…it's James Cameron so I don't think this should be bad at all!
    I can't imagine the soundtrack to be any less amazing.
    Such beautiful color and amazing artwork in this movie…I had to preorder the game http://bit.ly/avatarforps3 the soundtrack http://bit.ly/avatarsoundtrack and the artbook http://bit.ly/avatarbookonamazon

  2. Larry says:

    After watching the trailer for Avatar,all I can say is ..WOW..I'll gladly pay to see this movie

  3. Zeke Uribe says:

    @Johnny Randalls: I see you linked the Wii version…I understand that it will incorporate the Balance Board and Wii MotionPlus into the game, should be interesting.
    As far as the interview, thanks again Mr. Boucher for the quality interview. I like how your interviews are informed, and I like that you ask the kind of questions I would have asked.
    The music definitely sounds unique and evokes an emotional response from what I've heard in the 13 one minute samples (and 30-second sample of "I See You"). I actually downloaded and listened to them on loop over and over again for the last several days. I especially enjoyed the ambivalence of "You Don't Dream in Cryo…", and thoroughly liked "The Bioluminesence of the Night" for it's sheer beauty. When listening to that song I kept thinking of the picture of the tiny fuzz-looking creatures floating around Jake and Neytiri. Link: http://media.photobucket.com/image/avatar%20neyti
    The beginning of "Jake Enters His Avatar World" reminded me strongly of WarCraft (a good thing!). "Scorched Earth" grew on me after the first few listens and I am interested in hearing the rest. Parts of that song definitely sound a bit like "The Matrix". "Jake's First Flight" makes me feel a strong sense of wonder and excitement whenever I listen to it. "Shuting Down Grace's Lab" is easily one of my favorites, so beautiful, so sad. I instantly disliked "I See You", but after a few listens I am curious to hear the rest of the song.
    I can't recall where I read this, but I heard that there is about 150 minutes of music on the soundtrack, which seems to be about double of the typical OST. I saw another interview with Mr. Horner where he mentioned that some songs were over ten minutes long with ten ensembles within. Just goes to show you that the samples were have heard are barely anything! I am very excited to see Avatar, and I will definitely be purchasing the soundtrack!

  4. Tokkes says:

    I hope James Horner churns out a score worthy of this epic picture. If I was making the film I think I would ask Hans Zimmer to create the score for me. Sure he is abit whored these days, but he's just so good at creating the epicest of scores…oh well. If the score lets it down, the visuals and story are more than likely to make up for that.

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