Remembering James Horner

Remembering James Horner

by Brian | Jun 26, 2015

Growing up, there was never a time where a James Horner film score wasn’t playing. Be that on a movie screen, TV, headphones or in my memory. As a child of the ‘80s, I grew up on a steady diet of some of the most fantastic films ever to grace the screen and a number of them with scores by Horner. You could say that he scored a good portion of my childhood. Whether it was traveling through the streets of New York City in 1885 with Fievel, or playing chess in Central Park with Josh Waitzkin, or walking in the footsteps of history with the men of the 54th Regiment, or setting foot on Pandora, like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, Horner could always grasp the core of the story and elevate it to a level of emotional beauty (or tragedy) that stayed with you long after the film was over.

Like others, I have been posting my some of my favorite cues over the past 96 hours via my Twitter feed. Friends of mine in the film score community, and some of my family members know how much I love Horner’s music. While Williams, Goldsmith, and many others also have written many scores I love, for some reason, more than any other, Horner’s scores just connect with me. He was always great at scoring the raw emotion of a scene, and there are many examples I could draw from, but here’s a few: the reunion in “An American Tale,” the launch sequence in “Apollo 13,” the finale of “Legends of the Fall,” Russell Crowe’s performance in the whole of “A Beautiful Mind,” Rose saying goodbye to Jack in “Titanic,” all while powerful scenes in their own right, but Horner’s music simply grounds them in the reality of that moment in the film and allows the audience to escape further into the scene through the notes in his music. This was something Horner could do in spades.

The last few years of his life, I felt that Horner’s music was entering a kind of second renaissance. He not only composed his first concert work in 30 years, the fantastic and beautiful “Pas de Deux,” but his scores to “Black Gold,” “Wolf Totem,” and especially “The Amazing Spider-Man” all rank as some of his best. Later this year we’ll hear his final film scores with “Southpaw” and “The 33.” Horner’s next scores were to be Antoine Fuqua’s remake of “The Magnificent Seven” and James Cameron’s next “Avatar” films. I don’t know about you, but those films will be bittersweet for me come release time.

I never had the pleasure to meet James Horner, but I’d like to think that his music was a reflection of who he was as a person. Music touches all of our lives and his scores were no different. (This was no more evident than on Monday night when #JamesHorner was trending number two worldwide on Twitter.) While I’ve been playing his music non-stop since I heard about his death, the truth is that I’ve really been playing it since the late 1980s. And I’ve never stopped. And don’t plan to. Ever.

Thank you Mr. Horner for every note. You are sorely missed.

“Beyond the Clouds” – The Music of How To Train Your Dragon 2

“Beyond the Clouds” – The Music of How To Train Your Dragon 2

by Brian | Aug 17, 2014

When Dragon flew into theaters in early 2010, I had no clue what I was walking into opening weekend. As “luck” would have it, I’d seemingly missed seeing any trailers or TV spots. All I had was a 98% RT rating and I’d just finished listening to the score. I knew it had some nice big moments and themes, but since I was only paying half attention to it (because I was at work) all I could truthfully say to my friends was: “This film is either amazing, or a complete dud.” Of course not only was the film not a dud, I’d also say it’s arguably one of the best animated films of the last decade and certainly one of the best film scores ever written for the genre. Dragon not only broke the mold for DreamWorks’ normal fare of films, but it also proved that a great story with great characters, a huge heart and a timeless message about being yourself can (and does) steal the show. Now, four years later (or five years later film time), we catch up with Hiccup, Toothless and the rest of Berk, and likewise, we get to see if lightning can be bottled a second time, and spoiler: Yes, it can!

One of the things that Powell did so well with Dragon was something strange in Hollywood these days and that was to create large amounts of thematic elements, develop them, and execute and expand on them over the course of the score. Now, that is not to say that Hollywood these days is totally devoid of this kind of “sound,” but scores like the original Dragon are a rarity these days. So, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Dragon 2 not only energizes Powell’s original thematic material, it also keeps the Celtic influences abound and adds a wealth of complexity in their arrangements and performances. True to a good sequel score, Powell also expands his musical language for the score, adding a number of new thematic elements to give the score more emotional weight than just a “typical” sequel score. Simply put, this is not a simple “rehashing” of the original but stands strongly on its own two legs and then some.

The two first cues are a great reintroduction to the score and the world of Dragon. Beginning with “Dragon Racing,” this fast paced almost five minute cue kicks off the film’s score as we find the characters (with the exception of Hiccup and Toothless) racing their dragons around Berk while playing a game similar to Quidditch, only with not-very-amused sheep as the Quaffles. (There’s even a black sheep that doubles as a Golden Snitch like point grab.) The cue quickly reintroduces the audience to the main themes from the first film including bits from “This Is Berk,” “Test Drive,” and “Romantic Flight” to name a few. But they’ve been rearranged for a fast paced performance and the tempo is more frenetic. The cue combines the force of the orchestra with the choir to provide the overall power and feeling of the cue. “Together We Map The World” finds Hiccup and Toothless out on their many adventures. The cue is much slower than “Racing,” and references ever so lightly some of the new thematic underpinnings that we’ll hear expanded later on as well as the familiar “Forbidden Friendship” and a string based version of “Romantic Flight” which of course is the theme for Hiccup and Astrid. With these two cues setting up what we’ve heard and very light hints of what’s to come, Dragon 2 begins its journey.

One of the great things about the new material is that it’s crafted with such skill that it’s inserted effortlessly into the existing musical landscape. Two new themes that appear are what I’d call the “Family Theme” for Hiccup, his father Stoick, his newly found mother, Valka, and of course Toothless. The villain of the film, Drago Bludvist also gets his own brooding and brassy motif. The “Family Theme” first appears in low notes in “Together We Map The World,” but it’s there to serve as a general idea and only when Hiccup meets Valka does the theme begin to be fully realized throughout “Should I Know You?” and “Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary.” The theme fully blossoms in “Losing Mom / Meet The Good Alpha.” The cue carries with it the weight of the scene as Valka tells Hiccup her story. Powell makes grand use of the Metro Voices Choir for this cue too by putting them front and center for the key section of performance. Backed by a light string and bells performance, the choir performs the cue with an air of somber force as the scene comes to an end. The theme of course makes various appearances in the rest of the score including the singing of the song “For The Dancing and the Dreaming.” It’s then used to great effect in the later part of the score where the story is hitting its emotional stride and the stakes are high for everyone, especially Hiccup and Toothless in cues such as “Stoick’s Ship” and “Toothless Found.” Put another way, the “Family Theme” is one of the most flexible pieces of music in the score and that’s a credit not only to Powell’s writing, but the performance of the orchestra. They’re able to take his arrangements and play them with such raw emotion that at times the theme takes on a gut-wrenching tone that just goes along with the rest of the equally emotional music on the later part of the album.

“Meet Drago” introduces us fully to the villain character of the film. Low strings, drums, and brooding choral passages go a long way in telling you exactly who this character is. His theme is the darkest piece of music across both films. As it’s something we’ve never associated with the universe before, it’s easy to hear and identify that this character is not a happy one, and given his backstory, the music conveys that in spades.

There has been some criticism that this score lacks any highlights in the first half. While I’ll agree that it doesn’t have anything like “Forbidden Friendship” or “Test Drive” early on, I’d also argue that it’s not needed. Like the films, the scores can almost be played back to back to keep the height of emotion flying high and as such, big set pieces like that are not needed in my opinion. The majority of big emotional cues come at the later half of the score, which are appropriate when seeing how the score works within the context of the film.

As for that later part of the album, the final eight cues on the soundtrack that begin with “Battle Of The Bewilderbeast” are nothing short of an emotional powerhouse. All of the themes from both films make it into these cues as the film races towards its emotional finale with what could be described as a flawless performance from the orchestra. Just like the first film, the finale cues serve up some of the finest music on the album with soaring emotion all around. Of course Powell’s score is fantastic in the film, just sit back and listen to how Powell moves the music along. It’s a wonder because he does so with what seems like little effort. Now, of course that also comes down to how director Dean DeBlois is moving the story forward, but as you’ll be able to tell from the performance (masterfully recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Shawn Murphy) how special this type of film scoring is. It’s a great example of what can happen when a director and composer are in sync and that in the end serves the story.

For me, the raw emotion of the score comes out of my love for the characters, story, and film scores in general. There are a number of cues in the finale that got me misty while listening even before I saw them within the context of the film. Film music by its nature is not created to be an outside listening experience, but every now and then, you find a piece of music that does just that. It pulls at your heartstrings and you give into it. The final eight cues, including “Stoick Saves Hiccup,” “Stoick’s Ship,” “Toothless Found” and “Two New Alphas” are some of the finest music written this year. Period. Music like this reminds listeners why a film score is so important to any film, be that animated or live action.

The bottom line is that as of now, you will not find a finer score than Dragon 2 in 2014. A bold prediction I know as the year is already half over, but I think that once again, John Powell has risen to the task and delivered one of his finest. It would be nice if the Academy once again would recognize Powell’s work come awards season. But their ginned up rules regarding the subject of material previously used in a film are all well documented. That said, there could be hope! Howard Shore’s The Return of the King was nominated and won even though it contained material from his earlier Oscar winning The Fellowship of the Ring as well as The Two Towers, so, I’m optimistic!

That said, I’m ready for How To Train Your Dragon 3, a score that’s sure to roar louder and fly higher than all the rest.

Rating: 5/5
Favorite Tracks: All of them!
Special Thanks to: JJ Hinrichs and Matt DeTurck

“Pikachu, I choose you!”

"Pikachu, I choose you!"

by Brian | Jun 30, 2014

Hey everyone!

I’m excited to announce my next project with “The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses” creators and producers Jeron Moore and Chad Seiter, Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions! Lots of work between now and the premiere on August 15th at the The 2014 Pokémon World Championships in Washington DC! Check out the link for more information and a full website is in the works!


Get Ready For “Double Team!”

Get Ready For “Double Team!”

by Brian | Dec 11, 2013

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of providing video support for Pokémon Reorchestrated’s “Double Team!” album. Recorded in downtown Seattle at the fantastic Studio X, this album features great ensemble and solo performances by some of Seattle’s best. My good friends Eric and Braxton poured their hearts and souls into these arrangements and you can hear it. They just launched their website where you can listen to early clips and pre order the album. If you’re a PokéFan, or just a fan of good music, then this album is for you! Check it out on Loudr or iTunes!


Ditching Facebook (or, How You Too Can Find Sanity In The Modern World)

Ditching Facebook (or, How You Too Can Find Sanity In The Modern World)

by Brian | May 27, 2013

I’m not the first person to do this, nor will I be the last.

After my good friend Jeron stepped away from Facebook a few weeks ago, it got me thinking about doing the same thing. Not that it hasn’t been on my mind over the recent months, but June seems to be shaping up as the month to get a few things done! (Cutting out my sugar intake and getting back on the gym bandwagon are some others!) Not that I don’t love keeping up with my friends and family, and posting the latest Apple or movie news, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a little breather.

But, fear not! I’m not cutting off ALL social networking. I’ll still be very much around. You’ll be able to find me on the following: Twitter, Google Hangouts, ADN, Instagram, and Path. Not to mention my website, AIM, Skype (sometimes), email and you know, an old fashioned phone call (or text!) All of my contact info is current in my profile. PM me if you are looking for more specific bits of information.

So, you could call this a countdown of sorts. June 1st is the cut off date. This gives everyone plenty of time to get in touch with me on the other networks I’ve mentioned if you wish. My account will remain active for a few reasons, but don’t expect replies to messages and such as it will not be installed on my phone nor will I be accessing it from browsers and what have you.

I’ll be back at some point before and during PAXPrime for sure 🙂


“Between Light and Shadow” – The Music of Twilight Symphony

“Between Light and Shadow” – The Music of Twilight Symphony

by Brian | Feb 1, 2013

First off, I think it’s only appropriate that I tell you that while I am a Zelda fan, I’m not a crazy Zelda fan. A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening are two of my all time favorite games, but I must admit, I’ve not kept up with the series as I should have. I sadly did not get to play either The Wind Waker or Twilight Princess because I didn’t own a GameCube or Wii. (Although I did borrow my parent’s Wii for Skyward Sword). This glimpse into Twilight Symphony is coming from the viewpoint of someone who has listened to film and game music all his life, who is a Gamer (free time to play being my great enemy!), and one of the video editors for Symphony of the Goddesses.

Twilight Symphony is not simply a “reorchestration” of the original score for Twilight Princess. I think it would be better to call it a complete “reimagining.”  It not only keeps true to what Toru Minegishi, Asuka Ota and Koji Kondo composed for the game, but it offers something that I think really sets it apart from other “fan projects” over the last decade. Score elements and thematic devices have been tightened or expanded to fit the cinematic approach that the score has. The Zelda Reorchestrated Team has taken great care to make sure that all 51 tracks function as both a listening and emotional experience. There’s a lot of detail to be heard throughout the score and I suspect fans will be picking tracks apart for a long time. This is something you need to play loud to get all the information they’ve packed into these tracks,

One of the aspects that makes Twilight Symphony unique is the level of mastery on the blending of both sampled and live elements using players and a choir. The final result is something akin to Final Fantasy XIII or the more recent, Kid Icarus: Uprising. There are times when I had to remind myself that Twilight Symphony was not the official soundtrack. Yes, it’s that good. Speaking of live players, while some of the soloists have wished to remain anonymous, these players are all names you probably already know from YouTube and other AAA video game titles. They are all masters of their craft and Zelda Reorchestrated had the great foresight to get them involved: Aubrey Ashburn (Dragon Age / Devil May Cry series), David “Docjazz4” Ramos, Marc Papeghin, Jake “jam2995” McCoy, Kyle Landry, and Jeff Ball to name a few.

All of these 51 tracks are fantastic, but if I were to talk about all of them, you’d be reading for a long time! So I’m going to select tracks that stand out to me for one reason or another. Kicking right off with disc 1, track 1, “Overture,” you’ll quickly realize that it’s not business as usual for this album. The samples mix beautifully with Ashburn’s vocal performance, Tim Davis’ choir, and Papeghin’s french horn. This track quickly establishes the tone for the rest of the album. It takes the listener on those first steps toward a longer journey. “Ordon Village” and “Ordon Ranch,” while early in the album, are two of my favorite cues. Ramos, Papeghin, McCoy and Davis’ choir give tracks 3 and 4 some much added weight and the result is fantastic. Both of these tracks convey a great sense of fragility while at the same time, balancing an epic nature of orchestral depth. “Midna’s Theme.” One of the previews that was posted during the choir sessions, you finally get to hear it in all its glory. The choir adds a huge sense of weight for the character, which of course plays to who she really is, Princess of the Twilight Realm. The theme is fuller and expanded by piano, live strings and french horn. It’s simply beautiful. “Hyrule Field” as you’ve never heard it before. Here we get a fully bombastic performance of the theme in this swashbuckling action packed rendition.

Onward to disc 2 and “Rutela’s Wish.” Kyle Landry’s absolutely heartbreaking performance of Queen Rutela’s theme (Ocarina of Time’s ‘Serenade of Water’) as well as the traditional Zora’s Domain. Gets me misty every time. The crispness of the piano is flawless, and you’d think you were sitting in a seat at a symphony performance. This cue is just awesome. Next, “Ralis, Prince of the Zoras.” Another heartbreaking rendition awaits. A somber, yet powerful track that calls on the talents of a live oboe player. Light bells grace this cue making it that much more emotional. You might need tissues for these two pieces. The later part of the track incorporates the wonderful “Calm and Hope” melody. “Midna’s Lament” once again features Landry on piano. This touching performance only amps up the emotion. Really amazing. On to track 7, and one of the most grand renditions of “Zelda’s Theme.” You already know the tune, but crank this one up, your neighbors should be yelling to turn it down. Choir and live players show their might as the track slowly builds to a powerful crescendo. Moving right along to “Sacred Grove” once again showcases the talents of Ramos and Papeghin, giving us a great performance of the “Lost Woods” theme. “Hyrulean Odd Jobs” was arranged by Braxton “Skotein” Burks over at Pokémon Reorchestrated and if you don’t know him, you will after hearing this track. Burks gives the various melodies a lot of personality and in the process, interjects himself into the music. Funny, a little zany and very endearing, this was a perfect track for him to tackle. It’s great! “Fishing Hole” is another wonderful piece. Arranged by Jake McCoy, this track swims through the ears with a relaxing atmosphere and great tempo. Papeghin and McCoy add a splash of color to give this track its refreshing quality. One of my favorites! Ashburn, McCoy and choir return once again with this darker and subtle rendition of “Gerudo Desert.” The brass and choir provide the main basis for the cue which ends on a haunting note.

Finally, disc 3. For me, yes, I love the disc and set as a whole, but it does not get any better than the final five tracks. I’m saying that lightly either. The album has been building for the past few hours and we finally come to “Throne of the Demon Thief,” “Blood, Spirit, and Hatred,” “Dark Lord Ganondorf,” and “End Credits Parts I and II.” These final tracks are some of the most dense and complex music of the set. Pulling out all the stops with a 29 minute thematic driven, brass heavy orchestral onslaught, with Skyrim-like choir moments, this is a roller-coaster you’re not going to want to get off. “Throne of the Demon Thief,” “Blood, Spirit, and Hatred,” “Dark Lord Ganondorf,” perfectly encapsulates Link and Ganon’s epic battle. It just keeps building and upping the ante until the awesome end. You’ll need to actually take a breather after these three cues, it’s that big in scope! Wrapping up the set is of course “End Credits Parts I and II.” If you’re not smiling and in a good mood after “End Credits, Part I” then you need to have your hearing checked. One of the most beautiful cues on the set, including an awesome performance of The Legend of Zelda title theme. Turn it up! Loud is the only way to listen! Finally, it’s hard to not compare the finale that is “End Credits, Part II” to what Chad Seiter did on Symphony of the Goddesses with his finale in the Twilight Princess movement. However, Zelda Reorchestrated manages to rise to that level of grandness and absolutely knocks the ending out of the park. If you’re not misty at the end of this final track, you’re listening to it wrong!

It’s been a long journey for Zelda Reorchestrated, and it’s paid off. I’m so proud of you guys! This is not only a AAA title, but already one of my favorite scores of 2013…and it’s only a few weeks into the new year! I know that Zelda Rechorestrated’s fan base has been waiting five long years for this. Some have given their complete and unending support, while others have not. To all the fans, listeners, and naysayers, you’ll be absolutely blown away. This will be a title that you’ll come back to again and again. No one can say there’s a shortage of love and talent pouring out of this album. This was made for fans, by fans and it shows in the final package. I hope one day that Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Eiji Aonuma, Toru Minegishi, Asuka Ota, and of course Koji Kondo get to hear this. I think they’d be proud that their universe inspired this kind of passion, creativity and drive of everyone involved.

I know I’ve been rambling long enough! But please, heed my final thought…

…Don’t go alone, it’s dangerous out there! Take some good headphones, and let the music take you on the grand adventure that is Twilight Symphony!

Rating: 5/5