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Living in the Age of Airplanes (James Horner)

December 27, 2016

cover_livingintheageofairplanesLIVING IN THE AGE OF AIRPLANES

James Horner, 2016, Terwilliger Productions
18 tracks, 49:48

Flying was his passion, so James Horner seemed the perfect composer for this documentary about airplanes and how they changed the world.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Living in the Age of Airplanes is a story about how the airplane has changed the world. Filmed in 18 countries across all 7 continents, it renews our appreciation for one of the most extraordinary and awe-inspiring aspects of the modern world. Avid airplane-aficionado and pilot James Horner contributed one of his final scores, whilst pilot Harrison Ford narrated the story.

What does it sound like?

The album opens with a male voice (Graham Foote) oohing, aahing and eehing a simple, but memorable melody. Strings, strumming guitar and percussion join in soon after. There is something Adiemus-like about it, even though it certainly doesn’t sound like Adiemus (though it’s interesting to note that Adiemus, or Karl Jenkins, rose to fame following the placement of their music in a Delta Airlines advert in 1994).

“The World Before the Airplane” features various malleted sounds, guitar riffs, soft percussion and woodwinds – sounding exactly like Thomas Newman. Halfway through the cue, a ‘cowboy and injuns’-type rhythm kicks in, with guitar and piano adding a few accents here and there. It’s an intoxicating rhythm, though nothing really happens.

Piano and twinkling sounds introduce the next cue, though dramatic strings and brass soon take over. Things become much more exciting with “History of Transportation”. Strings arpeggios and electronic rhythms accompany a rather rousing theme for brass. In fact, it’s almost operating in The Amazing Spiderman-territory. It’s also the first cue where Horner’s voice really comes to the fore. For a composer who’s got such a recognisable style, it’s quite surprising how much LitAoA sounds like someone else (mostly Thomas Newman). Perhaps this is the influence of orchestrator Peter Boyer and arranger/producer Simon Franglen.

The main theme is reprised in “Nearly Perfected”, but here it’s performed by trumpet accompanied by strings. Halfway through, the orchestra switches roles – the strings take the lead whilst brass accompanies. It’s moderately paced, but feels quite epic nonetheless. If the main theme didn’t grab you during the opening cue, it certainly will now.

Light piano and cello briefly take the lead in “Portal to the Planet”, before guitar and soft electronics take over. “Migration Vacation” is one of the album’s easy highlights. Owing a bit to Avatar, it features the main theme against percussion, rich strings and noble brass. Elsewhere, there is more Thomas Newman-esque strumming and drumming in “Maldives”, and some… err… mambo in “Flowers”. It reminds me of the days of Cocoon and Batteries Not Included when Horner used to drop the orchestra in favour of an old-style jazz tune. “Ancient Civilizations” is a nostalgic cue, especially when solo violin and horn take the lead. “Antarctica” is a gorgeous orchestral cue with moments of lush (and very typical) string and brass writing, though it eventually settles for a mesmerising, floaty version of the main theme. It’s as if we’ve turned the engines off and are gracefully gliding through the sky.

“Exponential Progress” is a fabulous cue for strings-and-piano arpeggios accompanied by light electronics. It’s an updated version of Horner’s ‘mathematics’ music from A Beautiful Mind or Bobby Fisher. Oh, and that little fill in/transition around the 3:25 mark is arguably my favourite film-music moment of the year! It’s a wonderfully lush, almost magical, cue. “Perspective” is a much calmer cue, featuring a simplified version of the main theme, as it’s reduced to fragments of two notes at a time (not too dissimilar to Hans Zimmer’s recent Planet Earth II theme).

The main theme is reprised for vocals in “The Golden Age is Now”, where it’s accompanied by electronics, guitars and pop-like percussion. I can’t help thinking that it’s a little cheesy (like most of Horner’s songs), yet there is something incredibly uplifting and inspiring about it. “Home” returns to the sound of the “Opening Sequence” with it’s male vocal and strings. This continues into the “End Credits” where strumming guitars join in”. The album concludes with remixes of “The Golden Age is Now” and “End Credits”, both are actually more traditional, and more orchestral, than the initial versions.

Is it any good?

Living in the Age of Airplanes is a wonderful and, in some ways, surprising little score. There are plenty of quintessential Horner moments, which will bring a smile to the fans’ faces. Yet, there are many moments where Horner deviates from his own style and ventures, predominantly, into Thomas Newman and Adiemus territory. I mean, there is nothing too surprising here, but it’s interesting that Horner seemed to be adopting a few modern elements; especially considering he ventured out of his comfort zone with Southpaw. We may never know what discussions took place surrounding these scores, but I can’t shake the feeling that Horner was relying increasingly on Simon Franglen to provide a modern touch to his scores. I sure will miss that collaboration and all the goodness that could’ve come from it.

Horner’s death seems surrounded by several ‘finales’ – the last score he recorded, the last one that got released, the last non-score and the last of his ideas that had to be completed by someone else. I can’t quite remember where LitAoA fits in, but suffice to say it makes for a wonderful posthumous tribute. It’s not without its wonderful epic moments, but for the most part it’s a light-hearted and uplifting album. Clearly a labour of love from a man who will (and is still) sorely missed.

Rating [4.5/5]


1. Opening Sequence (2.01)
2. The World Before the Airplane (2.23)
3. 200,000-Year Timeline (2.31)
4. History of Transportation (2.51)
5. Nearly Perfected (3.11)
6. Portal to the Planet (1.20)
7. Migration Vacation (2.59)
8. Ancient Civilizations (2.48)
9. Maldives (2.54)
10. Antarctica (3.24)
11. Flowers (3.01)
12. Exponential Progress (4.20)
13. Perspective (2.58)
14. The Golden Age Is Now (3.09)
15. Home (2.02)
16. End Credits (1.25)
17. The Golden Age Is Now (Remix) (3.05)
18. End Credits (Remix) (3.26)

Review (C) 2016 Synchrotones

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