Musings About Music In Film

RIP James Horner

horner I feel sick.

I am sitting here at my desk at 4am contemplating the loss of one of the great film composers of not only our time, but all time: James Horner. Killed in a plane crash, he was such a huge part of any film music enthusiast's life, mine especially. For one to truly realise the impact Horner had, you just need to look at his repertoire. Braveheart. Apollo 13. Field of Dreams. Titanic. Part of the very fabric of Hollywood cinema.

My interest in Horner's music began at an early age. When I was younger, in lieu of having actual soundtrack albums, I would hold a portable tape recorder up to our TV's speaker and record the score, usually the main and end titles. One of the tapes I used to listen to over and over featured Horner's score to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Full of adventure and youthful exuberance, it encapsulated the damn-the-torpedoes heroic vigour of that adventure that so many of us love, but beyond that, it just has absolutely gorgeous music. Horner wrote appropriately for his films in the context of the entire filmmaking process, but his music was just so damn listenable.

As a genre fan, I ate up scores like the swashbuckling Battle Beyond The Stars and the lyrical but terrifying Wolfen. Aliens was a staple of my youth and by extension Horner's score soundtracked my life, not just the incredibly vital action music but also the haunting Khatchurian-influenced string theme that bookended the film. The humanist touch added an extra dimension to what otherwise could have been another standard action film.

And he was still going up until his death. His recent works were wonderful, not only scores like Wolf Totem but concert works such as Pas de Deux. With all the hype of James Cameron's Avatar, the one thing I have taken from that film that I return to regularly is Horner's score, which is not only brilliant in its own right but also acts as a type of greatest hits of the composer, including the four-note "danger motif" that was an icon of his work, sometimes controversially.

Of all his scores, the one I return to most is Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Initially dismissed by many including myself as a rehash of The Wrath of Khan, the score is actually symbiotic rather than plagiaristic, with its use of the B-theme from the second movie for the main theme for III, changing the context from heroism to contemplation. The two films are about mortality and our relationship with it, and while his music for Spock's death is a hallmark in his body work of work, what always affected me the most was his cue for the destruction of the Enterprise, 'A Fighting Chance To Live'. Beautifully soaring, it's not just about mourning but also a celebration of how we face the no-win scenario. That how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.

There is no photon torpedo hidden somewhere, waiting to be discovered. But James Horner's life will be endlessly replayed and enjoyed by all of us through his wonderful music. He's really not dead... as long as we remember him.

James Horner 1953 - 2015


By Charlie Brigden