I was sad to hear that James Horner died this week in an aviation accident. His music has been an inspiration to me. I was browsing YouTube listening to his old scores when I found this interview he gave a few years back. Several parts of it stood out to me.
First, you can see the kindness and gentleness that some of the eulogies mentioned. Being an artist almost demands having strong opinions, and that pressure breeds arrogance and cynicism. That Horner could maintain his generosity is special. His fellow film-scoring legend John Williams is like that, too.
You can see some of that generosity in how he talks about his peers. I always thought it was neat how much musical training he received before moving into the film world. Many film composers don’t have bachelor’s degrees, let alone master’s and doctoral work in music (as he mentions at 10’19), but throughout the interview he makes room for other film composers regardless of their training. “I’m very cautious to make talent judgments,” he says just before the 11-minute mark.
Trends in Film Scoring
Second, I appreciated his comments about film scoring style. As a teenager and young composer, I listened to a lot of film scores. I collected the special edition soundtracks for the original three Star Wars films, and when the new soundtracks were released, it was interesting to note how John Williams’s style had shifted in the intervening twenty years. The orchestral palette is a lot darker. The style is more 20th-century and less late-Romantic. Overall, the textures and melodies are more subtle and subdued.
I also noticed that Williams wasn’t the only composer to trend that direction, so hearing Horner’s comments about that shift was interesting. At 13’53, Horner notes that “the style of writing has changed.” Although that shift comes somewhat from composers, Horner ascribes “a lot of it” to “the composers’ employers.”
“They’re not looking at hollywoods golden years and looking for a score that’s full of melodic gift. Those kind of things are very rare,” he explains. “Most composers are looking for action-oriented, pulse-oriented, rhythm-oriented scores that propel the movie. The whole thing is about propulsion. As an afterthought, there’s love and there’s emotion and there’s other things but the main thing is pure adrenaline.”
Freedom to Compose
For Horner, the shift from classical composer to film composer occurred both because of the musical freedom that film scoring offered him and because of the unique power of film and music in combination.
“The marriage of the two (music and film), to me, is what makes it magic,” he says. “That’s a special sort of relationship, and that had a much more profound effect on me” than hearing music by itself in a concert hall.
In addition to the power of that combination, Horner was also attracted to film scoring for how it freed him from the expectations then prevalent in academia. At 31’40, Horner explains:
Once I had written my first piece against picture, I sort of fell in love with it. It was like lightening hit me. I found that I could write anything I wanted to write, and there wouldn’t be a label attached to it. I was no longer considered conservative, avant-garde, or any values in between. I was just writing to a project, and as long as it was appropriate to the project, it was valid. And I found it very liberating.
This quote raises an interesting question: What makes a piece of music valid?
Horner’s valuing of appropriateness over labels is an answer that resonates with me. I picked it up while studying editing at BYU. There I learned then that word choice is often not a matter of “grammatical correctness” but situation. Academic papers, magazine articles, public speeches, and informal conversations all have different needs and conventions.
Likewise, when I compose, I try to base my aesthetic choices on the performer’s needs and the performance situation. All the labels and the techniques they represent are just tools to be recombined and used toward that end. At a concert, people want to be entertained and are willing to hear more outlandish sounds, so the music should be more engaging. Over headphones or in the car, the music needs to be more stable. And many worship settings require music to be even more modest.
Meeting such situational needs is for me a more direct artistic path then envisioning an artwork then trying to find a venue for it. I think both approaches are valid, but I tend to find more inspiration from the first than from the second. I appreciated that Horner was a kindred spirit in this attitude.