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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Of Salt Spray and Space Warps

Superconductor remembers the music of composer James Horner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The U.S.S. Enterprise (top) fires on the U.S.S. Reliant in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Image © 1982 Paramount Pictures,
The composer James Horner died yesterday when his single-engine plane crashed in California. Mr. Horner was an acclaimed film composer with a wide range of credits, from Aliens to his award-winning Celtic-influenced scores for Titanic and Braveheart. But what he will always be associated with (in the mind of this writer at least) is his two symphonic scores for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.


.James Horner was not the first composer associated with Star Trek. Alexander Courage had created music for the original series, and Jerry Goldsmith had lent a sense of adventure and mystery to the effects-heavy Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What Mr. Horner gave the series was a sense of romanticism and sweep with a rip-roaring Wrath of Khan overture that evoked not interstellar travel but the feeling of salt spray and nautical adventure.

Wrath of Khan came out in 1982, and injected fresh energy into the franchise. Director Nicholas Meyer accentuated the military aspect of Star Trek, with natty red uniforms for the characters and a tight, fast-moving script that brought back an enemy (Khan Noonian Singh, played by Riccardo Montalban) for a death struggle with Kirk and crew. The space battles (between the Enterprise and the hijacked U.S.S. Reliant) are fraught with tension, leaping minor key horns and pounding percussion.


On the reveal of the bad guys, Mr. Horner creates a two note figure in the flute that surges into a chord, tighting and spiraling up into a fortissimo tone cluster. In the following interrogation scene, Khan enters to this same tone cluster, which slowly unpacks h itself into his theme as he reveals his face, a low chord, a backward version of the Trek horn call, and all is unease and dread. Tone clusters, muttering winds and glissandi strings accompany the horror that follows.

Khan's wrath falls on Mr. Spock, Kirk's best friend and the ship's science officer. Mr. Horner is particularly moving here, adding harps and violins and adding in the hymn "Amazing Grace" for Spock's funeral. The movie ends on a hopeful note, with Kirk finding his way through his own personal mid-life crisis and a voice-over by Leonard Nimoy of the familiar "Space...the final frontier." (There are broad hints that Spock may not actually be dead.)

That story was followed up in The Search for Spock, which also marked the debut of Leonard Nimoy behind the camera. Mr. Horner returned as well, crafting a modified version of the "Genesis" theme from II, slow, somber and yet rising in its minor key with the faintest hint of hope. He also crafted music depicting the marauding Klingons (the villains of this film) and the spectacular conflagration of the Genesis planet at the close of the movie. Also moving, Mr. Horner's accompanying theme for the regenerated Spock, slowly rising and culminating in a variation of his theme from the old show.

Mr. Horner saved his best tricks for last, a lengthy ceremonial scene where Spock's katra (his soul) is removed from the body of Dr. McCoy and placed in the body of Spock, who has now regenerated sufficiently to look like Mr. Nimoy. This ceremonial scene is slow and beautiful, resolving itself in the final Trek fanfare as "The Adventure Continues..." scrolls across the screen.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.