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James Horner (1953-2015)

A Hollywood legend has passed: film composer James Horner died on Monday morning, when the small plane he was flying crashed in California. For most people Horner's fame rests on the soundtracks he composed for the James Cameron blockbusters Titanic and Avatar, films that were both so awful that his music for them does not stick out in my mind. For me and all my friends who were also children of the 1970s and 80s, Horner's music for so many of our favorite (often pulpy) movies fueled our imagination. Starting in the 1980s with Oliver Stone's The Hand, Albert Finney's Wolfen, Krull, and especially Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, our hearts soared with his beautifully orchestrated melodies. He had a particular way with using music to heighten suspense, tension, and climax, heard in Something Wicked This Way Comes, Cocoon, Aliens, Patriot Games, and Apollo 13, among many others.

In those years especially, Horner was extraordinarily prolific, producing soundtracks at a staggering rate but becoming more selective in recent years. As is the case with most top film composers, that meant he repeated himself a lot and that he was more a gifted mimic than a truly creative voice. His music was often derivative of the work of greater composers, but because he had exquisite taste in music, that yielded excellent results. In an interview published last year, he spoke about the composers he admired, including Shostakovich, Strauss, Mahler, Britten, Tallis, Prokofiev, Debussy, and medieval and Renaissance music -- in short, most of the Ionarts pantheon -- and the sounds pop out of his scores.

Horner was a musician's musician, with a conservatory training, advanced degrees, and an academic side career through which he continued to study and refine his knowledge of classical music. He did all of his own orchestration because he could, a part of film composition that is not always credited: "I like Danny Elfman's music very much," Horner said in that interview. "His orchestrator is great. He owes a lot to his orchestrator, he's brilliant." He did not have much respect for the way much film music is written now: "You can do so much, with just two lines that cross each other, you don't even need an orchestra," he said in the same interview. "And most of the scores that are being written are done with orchestras that are bigger than Mahler. It's crazy, just crazy. You don't need anything like that. But it's a different aesthetic; it's not just the composer who's asking for it, it's the director. They want it to sound like something else."

Horner also spoke in that interview about how he came to hate the committee-like approach to composing a score for empty action movies, and indeed he wrote his best scores for beautifully made, character-driven dramas, where he could bring some unusual sounds into play. The devastating sound of the Harlem Boys Choir in Glory, the medieval style of The Name of the Rose, the poignancy of Searching for Bobby Fischer, The Dresser, or A Beautiful Mind are all favorites, both movie and score, perfectly matched. Both clips embedded here are examples of moments where the score of James Horner made a film what it was, telling the story through music and image only.


Virgil T. Morant said...

This is perhaps the best recollection of James Horner's work (of the many I've seen online these days), noting the debt he owed to great composers and to himself without belaboring the point. It is a hard part of the character of the business of film composition to shake, I suppose. And he did nonetheless put some very compelling music into the movies when he was at his best.

I did not know that about his orchestration, so thank you for pointing that out too. My opinion of him goes up with that. I think I must have seen on an old soundtrack (The Wrath of Khan perhaps) that someone else did the orchestration and assumed that was his way overall. Glad to know that he did that work too, and I like his comment about it.

Nice post.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thank you. It's true that he had some assistant orchestrators on several projects, without whom he probably could not have kept up the pace he did. I think this was mostly people carrying out his instructions, though.