Beginning in the 1980s, James Horner has composed music for some of Hollywood's most successful films. He was a pioneer in the use of synthesizers along with traditional orchestras to great effect in his early projects like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Krull, Wolfen, and Brainstorm. Later in his career, Horner became identified with Celtic themes, which culminated in his multiplatinum soundtrack album for the blockbuster Titanic and several Academy Award nomi nations. But his talent has not gone unquestioned. According to Filmtracks online, Horner is "at the center of many soundtrack fans' controversies and discussions. His styles and techniques have been questioned again and again about repetition and attribution."
A native of the United States, Horner grew up in England and began studying piano at London's Royal College of Music. He moved to the United States in the early 1970s to earn his music degree from the University of Southern California, then took his master's from the University of California at Los Angeles. By the late 1970s Horner had begun to compose for the American Film Institute, a stepping stone to assignments on small, independent films. "It was like lightning," he told Los Angeles Times reporter Steven Smith in 1995. "I suddenly realized that I could be as expressive as I wanted. Each film was completely different. To me it was no different [than eighteenth-century composer Franz Joseph] Haydn being kept as a court composer, being paid, having the piece performed and given an orchestra." For a while Horner was associated with the legendary "B" movie producer Roger Corman, scoring low-budget science fiction and fantasy tales.
But even in those early days, there was talk of the influences of the young composer. In a 1982 interview by Randall Larson of Cinemascore, Horner acknowledged that some critics had compared his work to that of the established Hollywood composer Jerry Goldsmith. "I'm influenced by a lot of people," Horner remarked. "A lot of people say that they hear Jerry Goldsmith [in my music], but that's only because they know Jerry Goldsmith's music. I mean, other people think they hear Debussy's music or Mahler's music or Strauss's music or Beethoven, it just depends on who one talks to."
Feature Film Scores Propelled Popularity
Homer's high-profile feature debut came in 1982 with Star Trek II. His soaring orchestrations for that film led producers to hire him for such archetypical 1980s Hollywood fare as Field of Dreams, Cocoon, and Glory. With the animated feature An American Tail, Horner added songwriter to his credentials, penning the award-winning single "Somewhere Out There."
Horner continued to rack up movie credits into the 1990s, combining big-budget scores with work for smaller, more serious films. In 1995 he "burst back into the national spotlight with an amazing streak of impressive scores," noted the Filmtracks website. "Hot off the success of Legends of the Fall, Homer was nominated [for Academy Awards] for both Braveheart and Apollo 13wo ethnically opposite, but stylistically elevated scores." But it was one 1997 project that would propel Horner from industry figure to household name. As the composer recalled in a 1998 Entertainment Weekly article, he knew his life had changed when, at a checkout counter in Woodland Hills, California, a clerk recognized Homer's name on his credit card. People began flocking around the musician, who thought he was being accused of shoplifting. But his new fans were merely seeking the autograph of the man who scored the record-breaking hit film Titanic.
Earned Acclaim for Titanic Score
Titanic, based on the true story of the doomed ocean liner, was the second teaming of Horner and director James Cameron. The two had worked together on Cameron's feature debut, Aliens. "It was a very difficult experience for both of us," Horner recounted in a Hollywood Reporter article by Ray Bennett, "because there was so little time for such a mammoth job. I wasn't able to give him every thing he wanted." The two didn't work together again until Titanic. "I got a script and I realized that this was a movie I really wanted to do," Horner told Bennett. As it turned out, Cameron loved Homer's work on Braveheart. "When we finally communicated, we went in for a meeting and the past lasted for about a minute. We just started talking about Titanic."
The composer and the director agreed on some salient points: "Jim and I both did not want a Hollywood 1940s type big-drama score," said Horner. "I also desperately wanted to avoid that precious 1912 English sound, which has also been done many times. The voice, or the color, that I decided to go with was primarily [synthesizers] and vocals because I could do so much with them." Titanic notably employed the Celtic sounds that Horner had developed in Braveheart and other films. "I'm a fanatic about Irish music," he was quoted on the Filmtracks website. "I love its moody, modal and timeless quality." As for his use of vocals, Horner revealed in a 1997 interview for National Public Radio that he preferred voices for their "tremendous human quality I wanted, in Titanic, to give the sense of voices without being a choir. I was scared to death of it becoming like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a sort of holier-than-thou type of church sound." He synthesized the voices to achieve a "sort of quasi-electronic [sound]," noting that in the scenes of the ship's sinking, "there's this whole sort of wailing moaning like a wind, this weird thing. It was sort of the culmination of all of this human quality that I wanted to give it."
The film's three-hour-plus length necessitated a long score of 138 minutes, minus the period music played by the ship's onboard combo. Still, Horner was compelled to add an original song "lullaby," as he put it in Hollywood Reporteror the end credits. "It was more of a compositional decision than a commercial one," he remarked. "I never really thought of the commercial side of it." Homer's tune, set to the lyrics of Will Jennings, became the ballad "My Heart Will Go On," a hit for singer Celine Dion. The Titanic soundtrack, featuring the single, hit record stores in time for Christmas 1997 and quickly soared to the top of the Billboard 200 list. By February of 1998 the Titanic album had gone triple-platinum and became the best-selling film score to that date after ten weeks in stores.
Continued Feature Film Success
Horner released a follow-up album, Back to Titanic, in 1998. This collection featured new orchestrations on the Titanic themes arranged for the London Symphony Orchestra, plus previously unreleased songs from the film. John Puccio of Sensible Sound listened to the collection and pronounced Horner a success. "I can't remember when I last sat through and reviewed a movie soundtrack recording. I usually find them repetitive and dull. But I thoroughly enjoyed this second album." Horner returned to watery themes in 2000 with his score for the fishing-boat disaster epic, The Perfect Storm. With the new millennium came new films for Horner to score. Director Ron Howard, who had worked with Horner in Apollo 13, called on him again for How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Beautiful Mind. Horner also scored the acclaimed sleeper hit, Iris.
Asked by Smith about the secret behind his continuing popularity with directors, Horner replied, "I think people hire me for the slightly weird angle that I bring. Part of the trick is keeping it sort of simple; you have to give the impression of not that much music playing when there's really a lot."
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Crescendo, 1982.
Cocoon, Polydor, 1985.
An American Tail, MCA, 1986.
Aliens, Varese Sarabande, 1987.
Field of Dreams, BMG Novus, 1989.
Glory, Virgin, 1989.
Legends of the Fall, Epic Soundtrax, 1994.
Apollo 13, MCA, 1995.
Braveheart, Polygram, 1995.
Titanic, Sony Classical/Sony Music Soundtrax, 1997.
Deep Impact, Sony Classical, 1998.
The Mask of Zorro, Sony Classical, 1998.
Back to Titanic, Sony Classical, 1999.
The Perfect Storm, Sony Classical, 2000.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Interscope, 2000.
A Beautiful Mind, Decca, 2001.
Enemy at the Gates, Sony Classical, 2001.
Iris, Sony Classical, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, January 9, 1998, p. 67; February 6, 1998, p. 60; July 14, 2000, p. 51.
Hollywood Reporter, January 1998.
Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1995.
People, February 16, 1998, p. 26.
Sensible Sound, January 1999, p. 103.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, http://www.oscar.com/legacy (April 28, 2002).
"A Conversation with James Horner," James Horner, http://www.hornershrine.com/interviews/interview1.html (April 15, 2002).
Filmtracks, http://www.filmtracks.com/composers/horner.html (April 28, 2002).
"James Horner," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com (April 15, 2002).
"National Public Radio Interview 12/97," James Horner, http://www.hornershrine.com/interviews/NPR.html (July 29, 2002).
Sony Classical, http://www.sonyclassical.com (April 28, 2002).
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