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Comments about the soundtrack for A Beautiful Mind (James Horner)

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Re: Standing Ovation for A Beautiful Mind
• Posted by: Kevin Scott   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Wednesday, January 2, 2002, at 4:39 p.m.
• IP Address:
• In Response to: Standing Ovation for A Beautiful Mind (Samantha)

Well, this is going to be one of the most unusual things I have to say about James Horner's score for what I think is one of Ron Howard's best films in years.

This is a collaboration that is probably going to be as underrecognized as any in the history of composer/director unions that have seen such brilliance come from the likes of Herrmann/Hitchcock, Walton/Olivier, Prokofiev/Eisenstein, Rota/Fellini and so on. Yet it is one of the most important in late 20th Century filmmaking. And it is with regrets that I found the score to A Beautiful Mind to be a beautiful score from a brilliant mind that in the end doesn't sum up to the whole of this near-uncompromising film.

From the onset, I was rather disturbed by Horner's opening prelude, a series of arpeggiations against a very tonal background of joy and cheer that doesn't set the stage of 1947 Princeton, but more like 1990s downtown New York. In other words, Horner's prelude smacks more of John Adams and Philip Glass by way of Danny Elfman than anything I have ever heard. But I'm afraid that's not all. It seems as if from this moment on, Horner decides to give us a basically tonalally centered soundtrack that may explore the circumstances surrounding John Nash's brilliant mind of mathematics against the angst and turbulence of his illness, but not once did I feel the dual power of this phenomenon as a person in the score.

I may be speaking to people whose musical education may not know half of what I am saying, but I will put it in lay terms as best as I can. For me, Horner should have employed an idiom more akin to the music heard in Nash's time, namely composers like Roger Sessions or Milton Babbitt. While these composers are generally not familiar with most moviegoers, they are with people who attend classical concerts. Sessions was an American composer who adopted Arnold Schoenberg's compositional technique of arranging all twelve tones in a row where all melodies and harmonies are derived from, whereas Babbitt was a composer who further developed Schoenberg's techniques with higher mathematics, so that not only pitch, but rhythm and dynamics, are serialized to the point of severity. I know that this music is still not too popular in the concert hall. Many concertgoers feel that the music is far too cerebral, too intellectually rigorous without emotional weight or soul. But in the case of a motion picture, such techniques could heighten and open up the visuals to a new dimension. Such was the case when Leonard Rosenman wrote a 12-tone score for Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb in 1954. To a lesser extent, such jarring atonal scoring was a hallmark of some of the early scores of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. As a final note to this paragraph, both Sessions and Babbitt taught at Princeton.

Two of my favorite scores of Horner happen to be Wolfen (1981) and Jade. Both are uncompromising. Both enhance not only the visuals, but psychologically probe into the motives and minds of protagonist and antagonist, of these films. Both are Horner at his most advanced. I wish he would have contributed a similar score to this film. It may not have been his most popular, but it certainly would have brought out more of the brilliance of this major work from one of America's best directors.

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