Unheard Peoples: Primitivism and Postcolonialism in James Horner’s Avatar

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


This paper investigates the use of musical exoticism in the scores of fantasy films, focusing on ways in which composers have tried to create the imagined musical styles, cultures and traditions of fictional people groups. The research centres on contemporary Hollywood blockbusters with particular focus on James Cameron‟s Avatar, and includes several examples from this film.

The body of the paper features analyses of several of James Horner‟s cues from the film that feature non-Western musical elements, alongside interpretations of the ways ethnic signifiers areused and heard by Western audiences. These interpretations are then compared with claims made by ethnomusicologist Wanda Bryant, with whom Horner consulted during the film‟s production,
seeking to evaluate the success with which Bryant and Horner were able to create a coherent musical culture for the indigenous alien population of the film.

Drawing on discourses from musical exoticism and the work of Edward Said, the paper highlights the presence of potentially racist undercurrents in the film and its score, and underlines the powerful role fantasy cinema has to play in contemporary intercultural discourse. To quote Joshua Bellin, „[fantasy films] play a vital role in circulating and validating pernicious cultural
beliefs embedded within specific social settings‟ (Bellin, 2005). If this is the case, it is important that we understand the power that such films hold over Western audiences, particularly when they appropriate non-Western voices in exoticist or primitivist capacities.
Period11 Sep 2015
Event titleRoyal Musical Association 51st Annual Conference
Event typeConference
Conference number51
LocationBirmingham, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational