Seeing all of the James Horner music posts and tributes filling my FaceBook and Twitter feeds for the last couple days has been heartwarming but bittersweet. I think about all the passionate conversations I've had with friends and fellow composers about his music and his enormous influence on me over the years and it seems fitting that he be celebrated this way. I only wish it was under different circumstances. As I've said many times before, his music has been a huge influence on me over the years and he is one of the main reasons I decided to become a composer. Getting to meet him and watch him at work early in my career was a defining moment in my life and I am grateful for that. It's still hard to believe he's actually gone. While this and all of the tributes I've read from my colleagues are fitting and well deserved, they come much too early and with a finality that is heartbreaking. Most importantly, my thoughts are with his family and friends. He was first and foremost a father, husband and friend to those closest to him and for them, his enduring musical legacy is of little consolation right now.
If you'll permit me this semi-autobiographical telling, I wanted to share my own personal connection with Horner's music and it's enduring influence on me. I've been reminded these last few days how many of my colleagues had also been influenced in a big way by Horner and while I hoped I would never have to tell this story under these circumstances, I do so as a tribute to the legacy he has left all of us.
I don't remember the exact moment I became a fan of James Horner. His music permeated my childhood and was a huge part of the magic of movies that would eventually lead me to want to be a part of them myself. John Williams most likely first planted the first seeds for me with STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK but James Horner's prolific output at the time grew that early love of movie music into the passion it would eventually become. Was it STAR TREK II? STAR TREK III? They were some of my favorite movies at the time and their music remains for me among the best sci-fi scores ever written. Was it SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES? WILLOW? KRULL? It might have been ALIENS that I first noticed his name. When I was 12 I watched that movie 87 times on VHS with my friend Courtney and studied every detail of the production. He scored so many of my favorite childhood movies that it would be pointless to name every one.
By the late 80s/early 90s I saw just about every movie that came out in the theaters and never missed a Horner score. FIELD OF DREAMS, HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, GLORY, THE ROCKETEER, SNEAKERS, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER were some favorites at that time. Though I hadn't yet found my calling as a composer I was writing a lot of instrumental music and listening to a lot of soundtracks. Horner's always stood out to me for their colorful textures, sweeping melodies and emotionally charged dynamics. His sound was instantly recognizable and his musical vocabulary became synonymous with movie music. His music was simultaneously complex and accessible and his work with ethnic instruments both transported us and spoke directly to our primal emotions. He was a master at developing themes and bringing them all together for a deeply satisfying and emotional payoff at the end of the film. He could find his way to the emotional heart of the story like few others and was as gifted a storyteller as any of the great directors, even if his stories were told through music. Sure he had certain musical signatures that would pop up in a lot of his scores but try to imagine his work and the movies he scored without them.
Then, in the mid 90s, something happened. It was a perfect storm of sorts. I was in college studying art with a little bit of music on the side when LEGENDS OF THE FALL came out. It was and remains to me one of Horner's crowning achievements as a composer and it completely blew me away. Around this time, right as music was beginning to take over my life and my studies were shifting dramatically in that direction Horner released a series of career topping scores one after another. BRAVEHEART, APOLLO 13, COURAGE UNDER FIRE were just a few. It was impossible not to notice how much of an influence movie music had on my own music and at that time especially, Horner's seemed to resonate with me the most. It didn't hurt that I grew up listening to my dad's celtic music collection and hearing Horner's cinematic take on it with his score to BRAVEHEART was stirring on many levels.
As my studies shifted fully into music Horner's prolific and increasingly masterful output continued to fuel my enthusiasm for orchestral and cinematic music. My college friends Jason, Robert and I formed an unofficial James Horner fan club of sorts and even wrote articles for a French James Horner fanzine called "Dreams to Dreams". While interning at the Paramount music library one summer I got to study some of Horner's scores and even used the ones from Braveheart to practice conducting.
At some point in there I decided I wanted to be a composer myself. I hadn't quite figured out how but I knew that I wouldn't be happy unless I was spending all of my time writing music and I wanted more than anything to write for orchestra. That summer as I finished school and found myself in need of a job, I took a chance opportunity to do some cartage which involved delivering instruments to and from studios and setting up equipment at scoring sessions. Though I didn't know it at the time, that job was the best things that ever happened to me and opened me up to a world of opportunities.
One of the first sessions I did cartage on was TITANIC. We were delivering and setting up a synth rig at the infamous Todd-AO scoring stage and you can imagine my complete and utter shock when James Horner walked in. Considering how much I had studied his music up until that point I couldn't have been more star struck. I don't remember exactly when it happened but at one point I gathered up the courage to introduce myself and tell him not only was I a big fan, but that he had inspired me to become a composer myself. I was probably supposed to leave him alone but to my surprise he was extremely warm and gracious. I had heard stories all kinds of conflicting stories about him but he was nothing but kind to me and always gave me a smile when he saw me.
Thanks to cartage clients like Ian Underwood (Horner's main synth programmer) and Nick Vidar (Jerry Goldsmith and Marc Shaiman's synth programmer) I got to attend the Titanic sessions and many others. Getting to watch Horner and most of my all time favorite composers at work in the studio was an incredible experience and the best real world education I could possibly have hoped for. It was through these experiences and through meeting these people who all seemed to love their job so much that I began to see a career in composing as a real and tangible thing, regardless of how far off it may have seemed.
It was incredibly eye opening to see how much time and detail went into the recording of a Horner score from the ethnic soloists, synth and percussion overdubs to the full orchestra session. I was always amazed that he would record these epically long cues in single takes. Amazed not only by the writing and his ability to make changes on the fly but by the skill of LA's finest musicians who would play each take perfectly. I vividly remember watching him conduct the climactic cue of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. So many shifts of emotion, tempo and dynamics in that 10+ minute cue from the huge orchestra to Tony Hinnegan's delicate quena solo which was recorded right there in the room. Getting to watch it unfold live beneath the big screen was unforgettable.
After Horner won the Oscars for TITANIC I got to congratulate him at one of the sessions. I'm sure I was the millionth person to do so but he thanked me with the same warmth and humility. At some point after that I got to help deliver a writing table to his house. I remember that the walls of one of the two large rooms that comprised his studio were lined with shelves covered with thousands of wooden toys. I've never seen anything like it. The other room, where we put the table, was filled with books, most notably full size leather bound copies (or most likely original sketches) of what I assume was every score he had written to that point. I was practically salivating at the thought of going through and studying each of them. In the corner of the first room was an unassuming little keyboard setup that didn't give the impression of being used very much. It was clear by the massive stainless steel top writing table that we had delivered that he did and would continue to do his writing with a pencil and paper and save his synth work for the scoring stage.
I continued to follow his music as I began my own composing career, often visiting his early sci-fi work while I was working with the late Joel Goldsmith on the Stargate series. As Horner's music and dramatic sensibilities matured, so did mine, learning valuable lessons in subtlety and subtext from his work on A BEAUTIFUL MIND and the dramatic scores that followed. Speaking of Joel, he was a big Horner fan himself and had supposedly even mixed one of his first films. Joel knew I was a huge Horner fan and decided to bring him up to his father Jerry Goldsmith one time when we were at his house which led to a very interesting conversation about their supposed rivalry. Jerry had mentored Horner early on and while there may have been some issues along the way, he couldn't deny his talent. My friend Nick Vidar put it best when he said "Jerry didn't waste his time with no-talents".
12 or so years after I helped deliver that table to his house, I got to say hello to James Horner one last time at the Society of Composers and Lyricists Oscar reception where he was being honored for his score to AVATAR. I was amazed that he not only remembered me but was as warm and gracious as he had ever been. I told him again that he had inspired me to be a composer and had continued to be a huge influence on me over the years. I'm grateful to have had that opportunity to tell him that and deeply saddened by knowing that it was the last time I would be able to do so. It might have been his music that helped inspire me to be a composer, but it was getting to meet him and watch him at work that helped turn that dream into a real and tangible thing.
Through their art and music those who have touched us with their creative gift live forever in our hearts and minds. For all the joy and inspiration your music has brought us over the years, I thank you, Maestro and bid you a fond farewell.