James Horner Remembered
Anyone who has lived long enough on this Earth will have come to some form of acceptance about death. It is an intrinsic aspect of life, one which we all experience, and one we must all face. Despite one’s views of what happens to a person’s consciousness after death, or the beliefs that help one to come to more accepting terms with it, there is no denying that we are all to some degree affected by the passing of someone we know. When someone we know passes away, it forces us to stop and contemplate the unexpected nature of life, how precious and impermanent it all is, and it usually stirs us to examine our memories associated with that person: what that person meant to us, how he or she lived, what the person offered us or the world at large, what this person added to our lives and how much we may now miss that, even if it had become something we were somewhat taking for granted, as if it would always be a reliable component of our experience of life.
In today’s world, we have so much access to information, that it is very common for us to be hyper-aware of the births and deaths of a great many more people than people of any other time period in history were likely to be. The media never misses an opportunity to sensationalize tragedy or death when it comes to “public” figures such as actors, athletes, famous artists, etc. In part, this is to commemorate and celebrate individuals who contributed a great deal to the collective, honoring what they shared with the world in terms of gifts, talent, and presence. Sometimes it is an older person who has lived a full life, in which case it is often easier to accept their passing, such as with Christopher Lee’s recent death. He was in his 90’s and had been working all the way up to the end. While I certainly was sad to hear of his passing, the news neither shocked me, initiated any particular mode of contemplation, nor did I have a sense that it was an unfortunate circumstance. Lee lived a full life, he gave us a great deal of work to admire, and he did not seem to ever stop living fully up to the very end.
There are, however, times when hearing of a celebrity death creates a more pronounced reaction on both a collective and individual level. Of course, this is often a very personal process, depending on our “relationship” with that person or his or her body of work. For instance, the passing of Robin Williams to most of us came as a shock. We experienced a grave sense of loss, as if he had been taken before his time and left us wanting more of his presence and spirit in a world that could use as much laughter and upliftment as possible. When someone dies in manner such as suicide, a car accident, a plane crash, or even an illness, we seem to have an innate reaction that implies that this occurrence was aberrant in some way, that it did not accord with the harmony of the Divine plan, that we have lost something precious to us before it had contributed to the greatest capacity it was able. These, of course, are simply reactions based upon our limited perspective of the entire web of life, for it is impossible to know all of the factors that must converge in order for a soul to leave, or enter, the world, not to mention all of the ramifications and ripples in the continuum that involves.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but admit that I recently felt a deep sense of loss learning of the abrupt and unexpected passing of James Horner, the successful and well-known film score composer, who died in a plane crash on June 22nd outside of Los Angeles on a beautiful, sunny day. He was an experienced pilot and was flying his own small, single-engine plane, which for reasons unknown crashed in the forests north of Los Angeles, instantly killing the 61 year-old composer. As far as ways to go out, he did alright. He died flying a plane, one of his great loves, died without pain or complication, he was still an in-demand professional in his field, and he had just returned from London for a celebration of his score to Titanic, in which music from the film was performed live to a projected image of the film in Royal Albert Hall of all places. Clearly Horner went out on a “high note.” Despite the apparent grace with which Horner lived and died, his unexpected passing initiated a poignant and intense period of contemplation for me. It also prompted me to take time again to appreciate the large and influential role his music played in my life and the personal memories I associate with his music.
Perhaps a bit of personal background would help contextualize this reaction. As a child, I was not really interested in music, apart from my own explorations on the piano as an untrained player and a passing interest in some of the classical music I had heard here and there. I was, however, incredibly interested and passionate about movies from the earliest possible age. I grew up in the 1980’s, so films like Star Trek, Star Wars, E.T., and other milestones were new and relevant to my childhood experiences. I can still remember how much I cried the first time I went to the theater to watch E.T., watching Poltergeist over and over no matter how much it scared me, standing in line for hours to see Willow when it first came out, or getting totally caught up in the epic battles between Kirk and Kahn. I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the most moving and involving aspects of all of these films, and what probably most directly engaged a genuine emotional response, was the film score playing along with the images and dialogue. After all, what would E.T., Star Wars or Star Trek be without the music that so elevated the impact these movies had on us?
By the time I was 13, I finally began making the connection that one of the greatest aspects of film was the amazing score music that was being written for them by some of the world’s most talented living composers. These composers had just happened to find a niche writing music for films, which in many cases more than likely ensured a far greater and more prolific output than any other musical arena. I think it really started with Danny Elfman’s score for Tim Burton’s Batman. That music really got under my skin and connected me to that dark, outlandish representation of Gotham’s epic hero far more than I would have in the absence of such an amazing orchestral tapestry. I bought the CD of the Batman score and finally learned how rewarding it could be to simply appreciate this music apart from the film as a listening experience. This began a fervent and passionate exploration of film scores that lasted for many years, and continues to this day, however my interests have broadened a great deal since then and my film score appreciation is more selective in order to accommodate such a broad range of musical interests.
During those years in which films scores dominated my musical life, I collected an obscene amount of cassettes (!) and later CDs, gobbling up most of the scores by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman and James Horner, who were the most successful composers of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and created some of the most memorable and enduring scores ever written. While other composers captured my interest later on, especially Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer, usually I just bought the scores I liked for particular movies, whereas the four composers mentioned above were like Gods to me. I learned about their lives, where they went to school, and I gave them the benefit of the doubt and bought just about everything they released, and would often go see movies just because of who wrote the film score. Often times, the film score is the best thing to come out of a movie and lives on far longer than the movie itself. When I first started college, I began as a music major and dreamed of becoming a composer of film scores. Life ended up taking me in a different direction, but my admiration for film music has never waned.
So, when we lost James Horner so unexpectedly, it really sent me down the memory lane of my childhood, and I began reliving so many of those memories. I watched a few interviews with him on Youtube, listened to several of his scores again, and just experienced a tremendous well-spring of emotion, appreciation and gratitude for this beautiful man who gave us so much wonderful music and made such an indelible impression on me through the sound-world he created to enhance and deepen so many of our most beloved films. It also helped remind me of how passionate, opinionated and fervent film score fans can be. Nowadays, I simply tend to listen to music that I enjoy without getting caught up in so much of the fandom I used to get excited about.
For those who are aware of film music but may have only a passing interest in experiencing film scores apart from the films for which they were written, it may be shocking to learn that there is a vast community of people who appreciate film scores and possess many of these albums as a staple component of their musical collections. Among this community, James Horner is without a doubt one of the most well-known composers, but also one of the most polarizing. Many people over the years have for some reason chosen James Horner as their critical focus, highlighting the things they find annoying, tedious or, in their estimation, lazy about Horner’s music. The first complaint tends to be that he copies himself a lot, using certain musical motifs repeatedly, reworking themes used in previous films, and overall having a very recognizable style that can seem repetitive. He has also often “borrowed” certain themes or passages of music from famous classical works, with a particular focus on Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, and worked them into his scores here and there.
I will admit certain of James Horner’s scores are not as interesting when divorced from the film as others. Certainly scores that tend to be quieter, more subdued, or come off more like sound effects than music, tend not to translate to enjoyable listening experiences as readily as the big, showy, epic and melodic scores. I will also admit that I would find it sometimes annoying to hear certain motifs used over and over again from film to film. Despite these small reservations, there is so much amazing and transcendent music that Horner gave us over the years, that even if his scores don’t always attain the greatest heights possible, they usually enhanced a film to some degree and were always in service to the story. Given the many rewards of listening to Horner’s music, some of his supposed transgressions are easily forgivable.
Another aspect of film music composition that many do not take into account is that these composers are often called in very late in the production process and have only a couple of months to write 2 hours worth of music for a story and characters that they do not have much time with before having to channel their reactions into a musical retelling of the story. Scenarios like Howard Shore’s involvement with the Lord of the Rings series, or Hans Zimmer’s relationship with Christopher Nolan, which allowed them to be involved in the films from the very first stages of conception, are somewhat rare in the film industry. This in part explains why there might be certain “shortcuts” in film music that might not otherwise be present in works composed solely for the symphony hall.
Regardless of any apparent shortcomings, I have loved the music of James Horner for as long as I was aware of his music and his scores played a huge role in my own life, accompanying me on many long drives, underscoring my hours of study and homework throughout school, to say nothing of the impact they had on me as a part of the original film experience for which they were written. I can certainly acknowledge that at 61, James Horner had a longer life than many, offered the world a huge output of excellent music, and that it might even be churlish in the face of such accomplishment to pine away about the “music that might have been,” had he lived longer.
The Avatar sequels will still be made and James Cameron will find another composer to work with, and James Horner’s scores will live on in the digital and film world for decades to come. Still, his passing was a sad day in my life and one that helped me to reconnect with a somewhat dormant part of myself, that young child who used to spend hours upon hours lost in the sound-world of film scores, allowing his imagination to go wild and his emotions to get fully drawn in to the experience. There is a lot to be said for a hobby that elicits that much enthusiasm, joy and abandon.
I could probably write a book on film music, film composers, and the many, many memories I have of the spectacular scores I have spent so much time with over the years. This essay, however, was mostly intended to simply honor and appreciate the passing of a legend, at least a legend in my Universe, and to offer people a chance to reflect on how much of an impact film music may have had on their lives. I also encourage anyone reading this to do a quick search on James Horner, or maybe read his Wikipedia entry. You may just be surprised how many memorable movie experiences his artistic contribution added to your life.
Below are reflections on my top five favorite James Horner scores and the impact they have had on my life:
Braveheart–Although Titanic is Horner’s top selling film score (in fact it is the top selling film score of all time), Braveheart is a close second in terms of sales and popularity. I have spent many hours lost in the beauty of this score, especially the first 5 tracks, which tells the love story between Wallace and Murron. The first time I saw this film, I sobbed at the end when Wallace cried out “Freedom.” I left the theater profoundly stirred, and could not stop thinking about this film for weeks. I bought the score almost immediately after seeing the film.
There is something very special about this score. It is full of so much passion, so many lush melodies, and so much delicacy, that it holds a special place in my heart. The evocative themes and use of Gaelic instruments really added a lot of authentic flavor to this score, yet Horner made some very interesting and haunting choices with this music, such as employing the boys choir to score Wallace’s execution, or the achingly beautiful track “The Princess pleads for Wallace’s life.” One of the best film scores ever written.
Legends of the Fall-Certainly not one of my favorite films, a bit too morose and tragic for my tastes, but a great film nonetheless. The score, however, is one of the most epically gorgeous film scores I have ever heard, and next to Braveheart another one that I have listened to many times over the years and will reliably stir up profound emotional reactions with each hearing. I particularly love his use of the shakuhachi flute, a Japanese instrument, to evoke the Native American spirit of the film.
The track titled “Tristan’s Descent into Madness” is a particularly stirring track that takes me to some very deep places and has a lot of very haunting moments. This is definitely a score written to be listened to on its own, and serves as a wonderful example of a film score album that can be successfully “divorced” from the film and appreciated on its own merits. It is also beautifully recorded and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, as was Braveheart.
Star Trek II/III–James Horner’s first major success was the score he wrote for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn in 1982. He had been writing some music for John Carpenter style B movies for awhile, and was hired to write the score for Star Trek II as his first major studio film. He delivered in spades. He said that the director, Nicholas Meyer, implied that he wanted a “nautical” feel to the score, as if the Enterprise was a sailing ship on a sea adventure. Horner responded with sweeping and heroic themes for Kirk and the Enterprise, a quiet and oriental-style theme for Spock, and bombastic, fanfare like music for Kahn to mirror his eruptive and hostile temperament.
It is a memorable and enjoyable score that added another dimension to the on-screen tensions and character relationships, which is what made this Star Trek film such a step up from the bloated and heady first film, despite the fact that Jerry Goldsmith wrote a great score for that film as well. Horner’s follow up with Star Trek III expands on the themes he introduced in Wrath of Kahn and is also a very enjoyable score, albeit not as epic as his first Star Trek outing.
Willow–The score for Willow is still among my favorite scores of all time and is probably the best all around action-fantasy-epic stand alone film score. Perhaps one could make the case for Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but it is difficult to assess (or listen to) those scores independently from the total trilogy (or two trilogies) in which they fit. Willow as an album represents a stirring, melodic, interesting, exciting and rich score, and is probably better than the movie itself.
I listened to this score a lot as a young man and it really stimulated my emotions and imagination every time I listened to it. It strikes me as the epitome of everything that is great about an epic fantasy score, full of nice little flourishes and touches such as a very effective use of the shakuhachi, chorus, and very rich and detailed orchestration. This is a very “busy” orchestra throughout the score, showcasing a layered depth to this music like few other scores, again performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Searching for Bobby Fischer–This is a very special score for a very special movie. Searching for Bobby Fischer is the true story of a young boy who showed exceptional skills at chess and was paired with a master chess teacher who was largely influenced by and was a great admirer of, Bobby Fischer, the legendary world champion of chess. The movie is really about the relationship between Max and his father juxtaposed against Max’s relationship with his teacher Bruce, and the implications of what one is expected to sacrifice in order to be the best. Max represents the antithesis of Bobby Fischer, who was incredibly reclusive and anti-social. Max resists his father’s and teacher’s attempts to suppress his kindness, his innocence and his humanity in order to become a skillful and ruthless chess player. Max proves that he can be a well-adjusted, decent human child, make time for play and leisure, and still be a champion at chess.
It is a terrific film, quite affecting and well written, and Horner composed a very special, mostly quiet and contemplative score to accompany the film. There is a lot of piano, which Horner typically played himself on most of his scores, and the sweeping and gentle themes are mostly presented in a very relaxed manner, however there are a few climactic moments such as the track toward the end where Max reunites with his Central Park teacher played by Lawrence Fishburne. I may have shed more tears listening to this score than any of the others mentioned. It really gets under one’s skin. Definitely an excellent example of how a great story with powerful themes can elicit similar work from a composer.
These are just a few examples out of dozens and dozens of scores, and many of them make for great stand-alone albums that can be appreciated apart from the films. Most of Horner’s scores are available to listen to on Youtube. I recommend doing a search for some of his music and spending a bit of time reliving some old childhood memories while taking a moment to remember and honor a wonderful human being who spent his life creating music and sharing it with the world, making his mark like the best of them.