Film composer John Barry died yesterday.
His compositional versatility allowed him to write music to complement a wide variety of narratives from the James Bond franchise -- though this was somewhat disputed -- to our personal favorite score: Dances with Wolves (1990).
The score's success in the film was acknowledged with an Academy Award.
But it had a much larger life after this. Throughout the 1990s, Barry's score for this "epic western" was used in promotional material for all manner of "epics" and "westerns" and things that were neither. To an adolescent film score nerd, this homage was clearly ubiquitous for many years. And why not? It's a lovely tune.
There's a loveliness and honesty in the various "themes" for the film that also speak of a shared American experience when removed from this particular narrative. (In fact, if memory serves, PBS did make good use of it in promos for their "American Experience"). And I suppose the reason it was so readily adopted is that there was nothing of the sort ready.
I don't know many pieces that tread on this hallowed ground. It's not as cathartic as Barber's Adagio, nor is it as optimistic or as much of Copland's writing. Drawing from the film narrative, one might call it "American introspective".
And if we dare label these notes with such a specific intent, doing so might help explain why the music speaks so well in the film and beyond. These chords, and these sweeping gestures point beyond the American landscape into our very selves and ask us to examine what we find there.
In the world or American literature, I think the closest parallel would be "The Peace may be exchanged" from Rubrics by Dan Locklair. Here in the Christian community, we are asked to rise out of our dusty pews and into the whole church and examine those fellow men and women who travel the way with us.
This is a special kind of music.
Conventional Wisdom holds that deaths come in threes. We've seen an esoteric champion of the "ultrarational extreme" and a film composer die in the first part of this week. If you average these two, you get someone much more "mainstream classical", I think. I don't want to tempt fate, or jinx anyone, but I would caution all composers (especially New York minimalists) to be very careful crossing the street, walking down stairs, etc.
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