AT NO OTHER TIME in our new century has so much attention been paid to the world premiere of an orchestral work. Too bad it only lasted 10 seconds.
The piece in question, by James Horner, the Oscar-winning composer of the film score for "Titanic" and other popular soundtracks, is the new theme of the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric." Call it (in the absence of any other published title) "Katie's Theme."
Certainly the expectations for this brief flourish of sound, on the part of the CBS executives who paid for it, approached those for Couric herself. In a Wall Street Journal article Tuesday, the executive producer of the program, Rome Hartman, said the music needed to be "urgent and serious, yet light.... Flexible, yet memorable," and some further contradictory-sounding pairings of adjectives that mirror the implicit and near-impossible demands placed on Couric: to be serious yet perky, sober yet feminine, informative yet (to judge from the content of the maiden broadcast) fluffy, solid yet (in that now-infamous photo) airbrushed.
As for Couric: According to the Wall Street Journal article, she wanted music that evoked "wheat fields blowing rather than Manhattan skyline."
There's something touching about the unshaken faith that a piece of orchestral music can express so much, so literally. The question of what music can or can't express has been around for as long as instrumental music has been played, from the Greeks -- who held that music expressed (even induced) specific emotional states -- to 19th century tone poems illustrating things such as thunderstorms (think Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony).
But it was the 20th century, with the film soundtrack, that saw the true exploitation of music's illustrative potential. A soundtrack at once lets the audience know where it is and how it is supposed to react at a particular moment. Viewers have come to rely on music to explain what it is they are feeling -- something CBS, like all contemporary broadcasters, is well aware of.
For his assignment (which required him to create more than 100 snippets of music), Horner had to prepare different versions of his theme for different kinds of news: A bad news day (such as a day in which the Iranians obtain a nuclear device, Horner explained to the Journal) might get more drums; a "more reflective" version closes with a trumpet solo.
Yet however evocative music may be, it remains true that when it appears to illustrate something specific, it is often because it appears in tandem with something else (a note in a program, an actor's face on a screen). I'd venture that this is one reason soundtracks are more popular today than abstract art music. The same people who flock to Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings" symphony because they can follow the story may be slightly discomfited in a "straight" classical concert, precisely because they are not sure what they are supposed to be getting out of it.
So whatever Horner's music may communicate, it's hard to separate it from all the other elements -- new graphics, Couric's makeup, weeks of national media hype -- that went into shaping the moment on Tuesday evening when it was first heard by a national audience. What it conveyed, in this context, was a sense of monumentality, of America, of slickness. This theme would be right at home at the start of a Hollywood blockbuster about World War II -- which is to say that Horner fulfilled the "waving wheat" part of his mandate, with all the American-heartland baggage the term implies, pretty well.
The unspoken directive to be new yet safe, original yet familiar, may have been the hardest part of Horner's assignment. Not for him the relative freedom John Williams had when he wrote the "NBC Nightly News" theme in 1985. Much of Horner's music seemed drawn from something else, starting with the two-chord exclamation at the very beginning of the broadcast (shades of Puccini's "La Boheme"), and continuing with echoes of the old theme featured in CBS broadcasts for the last 17 years. Although the composer spoke of breaking the mold, the music sounded as if he were carefully adhering to it.
So what does "Katie's Theme" tell us? To this ear, its strongest message is: I'm pretty, I'm packaged, I'm slick, I'm new, I'm careful. In other words, Horner has succeeded admirably. His theme is a perfect embodiment of what Katie Couric, so far, has meant to the evening news landscape.