Last week, I was devastated to learn of the untimely death of James Horner, an extraordinarily prolific film composer, and my personal favorite composer since I was twelve years old.
Second only to John Williams, James Horner is likely the most well-known film composer of all time. And even if you do not know the name of James Horner, you are most certainly familiar with his music. “My Heart Will Go On” from his hauntingly beautiful Titanic score. “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. The scores to hundreds of films, including Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and Avatar. James Horner’s music blended the hauntingly ethereal with the emotionally available, creating scores that brought me and millions of others movie and music fans to another level, and often another world.
The goal of the film composer is to walk the delicate line between serving the visual story and existing independently – between guiding an emotional journey and not being noticed. I can’t think of a single composer who mastered this line better than James Horner. I have loved every single film that he composed – and yet in every case, I discovered the soundtrack months, and more often years later. Yet the themes were there, latent in my subconscious, so that when I listened to these albums for the first time, it was with a sense of blissful familiarity.
There is one notable instance where James Horner failed in maintaining this balance – a failure that led to the creation of what I believe to be the most beautiful piece of music ever written. When composing the score for Avatar, James Horner wrote a piece called “Night Iridescence” (have a listen below; note how he introduces the simple theme in an ethereal Dorian mode, and how this same theme re-enters with incomparable beauty, driven by the soaring melody and accompanying chimes, at 1:53.
If you watch Avatar, however, you will notice that the aforementioned segment is not in the movie. The story goes that this piece of music was so good that it needed to be taken out of the film, and replaced with something less noticeable. “Night Iridescence” was distracting from the visuals of Avatar; quite an accomplishment, as Avatar pioneered the use of visual mastery never before seen on film. And yet James Horner’s music was more powerful. The piece was taken out of the film, and moved to the menu of the DVD instead. And of course, it is on the soundtrack, where even now, on probably my 1,000th listen, I still get chills.
The world of film and music will be different without James Horner, and all the scores he was yet to write. But I am so grateful for the hours upon hours of musical legacy that he has left behind, for the inspiration I have received from his music, and fpr the countless times that his work has brought me comfort and calm. I would like to say that in his memory I will be setting my Pandora station to him, but honestly, I already do that more days than not. So if you feel so inclined, I would urge you to do so yourself, and experience firsthand the beauty of James Horner’s music.
Rest in peace, James Horner – and thank you for your many, many gifts.