Tamsin Hilliker remembers the famous film composer, who passed away in June of last year.
I hold a very special place in my heart for animation films I used to incessantly rewatch as a child. The Land Before Time and An American Tail were two of my favourites and I know that even now, I would recognise their soundtracks within only a few notes. James Horner’s music has always been able to evoke an intense feeling of nostalgia for me, so when I heard that he had passed away, it felt like I had lost an important part of my childhood. Although he is probably best known for his work on Titanic and Avatar, his filmography was phenomenal. He scored some of the most iconic films in history and he was one of the greatest composers.
Even without the accompaniment of the film, Horner’s music can induce goose bumps and bring tears to your eyes. He had the ability to capture a beautifully moving sound that still retained the film’s epic nature. His work is a masterpiece in its own right and he was undeniably versatile – it is hard to imagine that the same man who composed the music for the violent epic Apocalypto, also composed ‘Where Are You, Christmas?’ for the beloved festive film How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In 1995 alone he scored Braveheart, Apollo 13, and Jumanji amongst others – all of which are well known, yet very different.
The condolences that flooded Twitter on the news of his death, following a tragic plane crash, were overwhelming. So many within the film industry reached out to pay their respects, and among them of course, were those who collaborated with him. Charlotte Church, who provided vocals for A Beautiful Mind, tweeted that she ‘was lucky enough to work with him’. Leona Lewis described her work with Horner as ‘one of the biggest moments of [her] life.’ Of course, his best-known collaboration is the Academy Award winning “My Heart Will Go On” with Céline Dion, which to this day has become iconic, and Dion’s most well known song in her repertoire.
He is immortalised through his soundtracks, however most do not know about the man behind the music. I had the pleasure of talking with Simon Rhodes, a recording engineer and friend of James’, who worked with him for 18 years. He believes that Horner should be remembered ‘as one of the Hollywood greats, of course!’ However, music was not his only passion. He had a wide range of interests – flying, mending things, mineralogy, building computers and collecting items from pop-up books to mechanical toys, as well as being a fantastic skier. Horner was clearly a very talented man.
Although every film with Horner was a special experience for Simon, Avatar was the longest, at 11 months. In that time, “Team Horner” set up a studio in an LA house, which he reminisced as being ’like an enormous bachelor pad.’ But what was it like to work with him? ‘Wonderful, challenging, funny, infuriating, but ultimately rewarding’, which essentially encapsulates everything you would want and expect from working with such an accomplished composer. As for Horner himself, he was ‘high functioning and extremely well focused’, and although he was a private person, he did enjoy ‘a little adoration.’ It is their banter that Simon will miss the most, however.
Simon revealed that Horner’s approach to his work differed from other composers. Whereas many use clicks (like a metronome) to keep the music in sync with the film, he did not. This, and the rubato (i.e. the use of varied rather than strictly regimented tempo) made his music ‘more emotional’. While the use of clicks is very useful, and especially helpful for certain types of music, his approach allowed his music to have a more wistful and natural quality, making it particularly distinctive.
Horner’s scores were simultaneously epic yet beautiful. He juxtaposed Celtic and ethnic instruments with synths to create his own unique style, often embellished with stunning choral vocals. These were all elements that Simon recorded for many of Horner’s soundtracks. Simon perfectly captured his music – ‘beautiful simple melodies, unique and instantly recognisable harmonic language’ with ‘big dramatic gestures’ which he wrote with ‘enormous heart’. ‘He loved to make people cry and wasn’t afraid to shed a tear or two himself.’ His death is a loss for us all. It is hard to imagine the next Avatar film without Horner’s work complementing it. Quite frankly, despite the many talented and fantastic film composers, no one could ever take his place.
With Horner’s unrivalled success with Titanic, to composers like Hans Zimmer now selling out on world tours, it seems that more people are beginning to recognise and appreciate a film score as being a work of art in itself, rather than simply an accessory to a film. James Horner has made his mark on film history that shall not be forgotten.