In Memory of James Horner

There's a scene in Ron Howard's 2001 film A Beautiful Mind in which brilliant mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) – who is doubling as a spy for the C.I.A. - discovers that he's being followed by people who intend to kill him. John leaps into the passenger's seat of a car being driven by his handler (Ed Harris), and a frantic chase ensues. Tires squeal, the characters shout at each other, bullets fly – it's a fairly conventional car chase scene, with one exception: the music doesn't sound like car chase music. It's slow and heavy; an uncertain piano motif trickling down like rain over a low, melancholy string theme. When the film reveals that the whole event was unfolding within John's troubled mind – a nasty side effect of his paranoid schizophrenia - the music suddenly makes sense. We were looking at the surface of the scene, while the music was quietly, urgently informing us of what was going on beneath the surface.

That's just one little example of the genius of composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash yesterday. He was one of the giants of modern film music; one of those names that everyone knew even if they couldn't name more than a handful of film composers. This is partially due to the fact that Horner found mainstream success with the music he wrote for Titanic – one of the best-selling albums of all time. “My Heart Will Go On,” the Celine Dion tune Horner co-wrote for that film, was the most ubiquitous pop song of the late 1990s. I was happy for his success, but a little frustrated that he would probably forever be known to the general public as “the Titanic guy.” Judging by the reactions I've seen on social media over the past few hours, his actual legacy seems to be much broader.

Horner set the musical tone for more than a few beloved movies over the years. His first major success was his thrilling score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a dynamic, exhilarating work that rivals the greatness of Jerry Goldsmith's score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His work on James Cameron's Aliens was so effective that the next few years of movie trailers were filled with endless riffs of Horner's exciting “Bishop's Countdown” cue. The songs he co-wrote for An American Tail foreshadowed and matched the work Alan Menken would deliver over the course of the Disney Renaissance, and his music for Field of Dreams brilliantly mirrored that film's emotional journey (beginning with low-key synthesizers and ending with a full orchestra). He made tremendous use of the Boys Choir of Harlem on his alternately heartbreaking and exciting score for Glory, and gave Mel Gibson's violent Braveheart a certain romantic beauty with his lush, memorable themes.

All of the films I've mentioned were successful and popular, but Horner did equally great work on countless lesser-known efforts. One of my favorite Horner scores is Krull, an unbelievably rich and exciting work written for a stupid Star Wars knockoff. The remake of All the King's Men may have been a disaster, but his music had an anguished beauty. Have you heard his score for Douglass Trumbull's mediocre Brainstorm? Or the gorgeous string themes he penned for Ed Zwick's mostly dull Legends of the Fall? Stunning works. The terrible Angelina Jolie vehicle Beyond Borders features some of Horner's most strikingly inventive (and cleverly-structured) work. Ah, but I could go on and on, and if I simply keep listing excellent Horner scores (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Balto, Apollo 13, The New World, The Perfect Storm, Commando – okay, maybe not Commando), we'd be here all day.

Horner was often accused of borrowing from himself too frequently. He certainly felt more comfortable with recycling themes than any other composer I can think of – music from Searching for Bobby Fischer popped up in A Beautiful Mind, music from Balto appeared in Enemy at the Gates, that infamous four-note danger motif appeared everywhere – but over time, I began to realize that Horner wasn't scoring individual projects so much as he was scoring the entire world one soundtrack at a time. There are specifically linked thematic ideas scattered throughout his entire body of work, and it's entirely possible to listen to everything he's written as a single, satisfying work containing a host of different themes and sounds. His relatively recent scores for Avatar and Wolf Totem play like culminations of this approach; gorgeous symphonies built on assorted pieces from Horner's entire career. He regarded his profession in painterly terms, speaking of musical ideas as “colors” to be applied to a film's canvas. While other modern composers used keyboards and computers to craft their ideas, Horner simply sat down at his desk and wrote notes. You can hear the results of his old-fashioned approach in his music – every single note feels like it's there for a reason.

Permit me to get personal for a bit. When I first began collecting film music back in the mid-1990s, there were three names that towered above all the rest: John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. Not because they were better than absolutely everyone else, but because they were some of the first composers I was exposed to and their work was reliably excellent. Over time, there were other composers I grew to love just as much, but those three have always felt like a sort of holy trinity. When Goldsmith passed away in 2004, I wept and wept – I felt as if I had lost a friend. The same feeling returned yesterday when I learned of Horner's passing, along with the feeling that the world of film music was missing one of its pillars.

During the long, agonizing period of waiting for confirmation on Mr. Horner's death – it was unquestionably his plane, but for a long while, the media was uncertain about whether he was actually the one flying it – I reflected on all of Horner scores I had grown to love over the years. Last year, I spent a few months going through his complete discography – partially to look for more of those connecting threads, and partially because I just loved the music. During that period, my wife gave birth to our first child. I rewatched the video she had taken when we were bringing him home from the hospital. There he was in his carseat, fast asleep as the beautiful opening bars of Horner's score for The Rocketeer began to play.

“What is this music?” my wife had asked, mostly for the sake of those watching the video.
The Rocketeer,” I replied.
“Who is the composer?”
“James Horner.”
“James Horner.”

And then there was simply the image of that innocent baby boy fast asleep, underscored by music that was gentle, hopeful and exciting all at once – the perfect accompaniment to the first chapter of a new life. That's not what the music was meant to capture, of course, but I suspect I'll always think of it as my favorite Horner moment. I'll miss him so much. Rest in peace, James.