June 23rd, 2015

NCC-1701 Nebula 2

James Horner, 1953-2015

Film composer James Horner has died in a plane crash. He was 61.

It's almost tough for a filmgoer who's been going to movies these past few decades not to have heard music by Horner. He wrote for films that became phenomena: think of the impact Avatar had on audiences in 2009-early 2010, and his music was a large part of that. Think of the impact Titanic has still, not just its impact in 1997-1998; his music was a huge part of that. I remember the years circa late '80s where it seemed every third film trailer used the penultimate cue from 1986's Aliens, "Bishop's Countdown," because of its urgency and drive and oh-shit-we-must-get-out-of-here vibe.

He was prolific and, when needed (as it often is), quick. Plenty of times he'd deliver an entire score, like for Aliens or Troy (2004), in a week-and-a-half. Or less. He'd regularly score eight to 10 films a year, especially in the Eighties. Having the one-two punch of his score CDs for Braveheart (1995) and Titanic, the first among the most popular score CDs of the Nineties and the second among the most popular score CDs ever, meant that he could have gone away from film scores and lived off of his earnings; he certainly calmed down and chose fewer projects, but still applied his skills to films. And more eclectic films, too, things like 2005's The Chumscrubber and not just blockbusters. He certainly didn't shy from the work; he'd throw himself into it.

Horner was mercurial: often defensive in interviews, with shifting explanations of why he often repeated his music, and other composers' music, nearly note-for-note. (He claimed he had a bad memory for music he'd written or heard before; he'd cite that there are only so many ways to combine notes into melodies; he'd note directors who wanted music to only sound a certain way; he'd bring up time constraints. All true, but often boiling down to a subtext of It's not my fault!) I also think it bothered him that it took a long time for his work to earn major rewards and acknowledgment; he never won an Oscar until winning two for Titanic, nearly 20 years into his career.

It's an odd job in an odd business, to compose music that fits, and plays off of, the images and sounds of films. James Horner did this for a long time...and often in long cues; most film score cues are a few minutes at most, but he was known for nine-minute, 11-minute, even 15-minute single cues. He compared his work to "weaving carpet"; it's insanely anal-retentive and detail-focused. And what he did, much more often than not, worked. My carping and complicated feelings about him and much of his music won't change that. He has never been my favorite film composer, but he created so many moments that I treasure nonetheless. Apollo 13's "The Launch," which I once air-conducted so vigorously that I hit my own face; the joyous and energetic score to The Rocketeer, some of my favorite driving music; the alien yet still emotional sweep of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Sad and frustrating, to think of how much work Horner had already given us but still feel a loss at what he won't be able to give us now. To think of the love he gave his family and other loved ones; I can't imagine their hurt, with that love of his suddenly gone.

Rest in peace, James Horner. Inadequate words, but death is bigger than words.