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James Horner A Composer’s Special [3/3]

September 19, 2015

JamesHornerRIPMuch has been said, by many, about Horner, his music and his untimely passing. And much will continue to be said as people discover, re-discover and continue enjoying his music (and the films they accompany).

There are many things I enjoy about Horner’s music. I described them as unique characteristics earlier. I wish to pay tribute by offering a personal guide to James Horner’s music by summarising his work by year (in order of the movie’s release date). Be sure to check out Part 1 of this Composer’s Special: The 1980s (from “Battle Beyond the Stars” to “Glory”) and Part 2: The 1990s (from “I Love You to Death” to “Bicentennial Man”).

Horner’s first score of the new millennium sounds nothing like him, yet exactly like him. “Freedom Song” [2/5] is a TV-film dealing with the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the 1960s. It’s directed by Phil Alden Robinson, who made “Sneakers”. The album is filled with Gospels songs, with Horner contributing a few atmospheric cues. He collaborated with Sweet Honey In The Rock for the score. The flute is recognisably Horner (it’s his ethnic, forest flute), but the minimalist percussion and chanting is less typical for the composer. There are a lot of vocal sounds here, not just singing. Hissing and clicking, sighing, tutting and throat singing. I wonder if this is where he found the inspiration for the later “Apocalypto”, where he would also rely heavily on these non-harmonic vocal sound effects. It surely shows an experimental side to Horner, but it’s not one that’s particularly pleasant on album. It doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of Gospel to start with.
Wolfgang Peterson, who has directed far fewer films that I thought he had, approached Horner to score “The Perfect Storm” [4.5/5] and Horner did so in grand fashion. He brought his A-game and delivered one of the most aggressive scores of his career, yet never forgetting the lives of these fishermen and the terrible drama that unfolds. A rather simple and humble melody serves as the score’s main theme. I’ve always found that in the 2000s (or possibly since “Titanic”) his themes aren’t as long-lined as they used to be. Instead they often (not always, but more often) seem to rely on repeating figures, much like pop songs, rather than the free-flowing streams they used to be. I’m not saying it’s a good or a bad thing, it’s just an observation. The depth of writing hasn’t changed, and “The Perfect Storm” is arguably one of his more complex works. During the opening cue, Horner presents two key themes and by the end of the cue he’s got them playing in counterpoint to each other. It’s magnificent – and I haven’t even mentioned the exciting bit where the boys go out to sea accompanied by electric guitars! Horner gets plenty of time to really develop his ideas. With the exception of two cues, they all exceed 7, 8 or 9 minutes. It almost feels like a symphony. It’s incredibly dense and intense music, yet always revolving around the various themes. The four note danger motif, the crashing pianos, the noble trumpet are all present. “Coast Guard Rescue” and “Rogue Wave” are two particular highlights, with Horner showcasing some of his most aggressive writing, probably since “Aliens”. And of course there are plenty of familiar characteristics to be found here. This is Horner in grand orchestral mode, so expect a work that shares similarities with anything from “Braveheart” to “Apollo 13” to “Balto” and “Zorro”, though never too literally. And for a change, the song “Yours Forever” is actually really quite nice (see… no Jennings, much better).
Re-teaming with Ron Howard, Horner scored the Christmas comedy “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” [2.5/5], starring Jim Carrey – yeah, remember him? Horner’s score, on album, is such a frustrating experience! There are some grand, bold orchestral Christmassy moments that are absolutely wonderful. Then there’s a sweet, playful main theme that’s really lovely (doubling the lyrics “Where are you Christ-mas?”). But then… the composer addresses the comedy with an array of ‘funny’ sounds. This is Horner in “Jumanji”-mode, or “Honey…”-mode, and it’s not one I’m particularly keen on. It’s a real shame, because large parts of the score are as good and pleasant as anything he’s ever written, but for me it’s overshadowed by the overpowering zany cues. The writing overall is impressive, as are the orchestrations. I don’t often sit down and listen to this score, for the aforementioned reasons, but when I do I’m constantly amazed at how wonderfully complex the writing is. I just can’t connect to it; because every time the rolling strings or the rich brass draw me into it, the whistles, farting noises or snare hits take me right back out of it. Though, that moment where he takes Vangelis’ theme from “Chariots of Fire” and expands it is really quite awesome.

From the madness of “The Grinch” to the seriousness of “Enemy At The Gates” [4.5/5] – talk about ‘the other end of the spectrum’! Horner joined Jean-Jacques Annaud once more for this gritty drama set in Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd) during the second world war. Having been so inspired by the Russian masters, it must have been a delight for Horner to, once more, score a film that’s actually set in Russia. His writing and orchestrations have always owed a lot to Prokofiev and, of course, on this occasion it makes perfect sense. Stylistically it feels as if Horner took all the sturm-und-drang from “The Perfect Storm”, some tender moments from “Braveheart” and the nobility from “Apollo 13” and then added a huge Russian choir. It’s a colossal score, and each cue is a highlight in itself. There is one drawback – and it’s quite a big one: the four note danger motif. It is absolutely everywhere. The score is saturated with it. If you were to make a drinking game out of it, you would not live to hear the end of the score. And that’d be a real shame, because the last few tracks are simple outstanding. That’s where Tania’s theme (or: that longing secondary theme from “Apollo 13” and “Balto”) really comes to the fore. It’s a wonderful theme, one of my all-time personal favorites. There was an outcry and the time, and people kept comparing it to John Williams’ “Schindler’s List”, but I honestly believe it’s nothing more but a fleeting similarity (and certainly nothing deliberate). I love this theme and can never get enough of it. The arrangement and variations during “Tania (End Credits)” is phenomenal. The counterpoint and harmonic writing throughout that cue, and particularly where the choir is concerned, is brilliant and worth paying attention to.
Horner returned to his kaleidoscopic pianos for “A Beautiful Mind” [3.5/5], a film by Ron Howard about the mathematician (and genius) John Nash. The composer employs the chord-shifting piano arpeggios he used previously in “Sneakers” and “Bobby Fischer”, including the cooing vocals (this time courtesy of a young Charlotte Church). There’s an array of familiar Hornerisms here; it really is a remarkably unoriginal work, though it went on to receive an Oscar nomination (losing out to “The Lord of the Rings”, which incidentally could’ve been a Horner score! He was asked, but declined the project). “A Beautiful Mind” is a super-slick score. It’s well written, nicely orchestrated and the recording is great. It’s a very easy score to like. The performances of the genius motif are quite exciting and Charlotte Church’s voice adds a touch of class. However, the underscore feels overly familiar and somewhat anonymous.

Not much more original than “A Beautiful Mind”, yet far more engaging is Horner’s eloquent, classically tinted score for “Iris” [4/5], which features solo violin performances by Joshua Bell. Interestingly, the album presents the score in 8 ‘parts’, without cue titles. Horner treats it like a concert work. I does actually work; and you could consider it a very early precursor to his “Pas de Deux” (a concert work for violin and cello). “Iris” is not one of Horner’s grand orchestral works, this shows him at his most intimate. It’s very lyrical and very pretty with horn, winds and piano filling important roles in typical Horner fashion. Its closest relative is probably “The Spitfire Grill”, though it has a whole different colour. There are fragments that remind of “Tania’s Theme”, or “The Perfect Storm” even, and many others. He uses the 4-note motif a lot, but in a gentler way, as a step-up to a melody. He did that a lot throughout his career, it wasn’t just a danger motif, it was a little stepping stone as well. It really is a pastiche of mannerisms, yet it’s impossible to be harsh about this score. It’s written and performed with such conviction. It’s a wonderful, mesmerising work.
A familiar string motif opens “Windtalkers” [4/5], a war film by John Woo focusing particularly on Navajo marines who use their native language to relay coded messages. The string writing towards the end of the opening cue, “Navajo Dawn”, sounds quite unique – with an emphasis on ‘sounds’. The writing is familiar, it’s a variation on “Tania’s Theme”, but the colour is quite different, and I’m not sure how he’s achieved it. Maybe a stronger emphasis on violas than on violins? I don’t know, but it sounds different. And there’s a lot of that in “Windtalkers”… things sound familiar, yet different. I’ve always felt as if Horner went out of his way to make this score feel a bit different, without really leaving his comfort zone. I really like the main theme… no surprise really, as it’s sort-of an inverted version of “Tania’s Theme”. It sounds particularly heroic in “Taking the Beachhead” and the rousing “A Sacrifice Never Forgotten” (which owes a bit more to “Enemy At The Gates”). And because it’s a fairly simple theme, it lends itself easily for all kinds of harmonic variations. The only slightly odd thing about it is its b-phrase, which is taken from “Once Upon A Forest” and I can’t listen to it without hearing the words “where this life will go, I don’t pretend to know”. That said, there’s something very direct about the action music. Perhaps it’s a little more ‘Hollywood’ than Horner’s usual fare, but he handles it with his usual grace. Surprisingly he doesn’t rely on his ethnic flutes and vocals as much as you’d expect, given the synopsis. The album closes with the lengthy “Calling to the Wind”, where the composer gets to use his beloved flute and vocals, along with noble trumpet, a few “Braveheart” moments and one last rousing statement of the main theme. Overall it’s a rather subtle work, and one that is easily overlooked, yet I feel it’s a really strong score from the maestro.
Earlier I mentioned that, at some point, Horner’s melodies changed – and “The Four Feathers” [4/5] is a good example of that. The main theme is much more a motif, rather than a melody. Of course, a motif allows the composer a great deal of flexibility and Horner never disappoints with his variations. He presents a long-lined melody on the piano in “The Dance”. There’s a familiar 4-note motif here, but not that one – something he carried over from “Iris”. Almost inevitably, a lot of the underscore sounds familiar; if not literally then simply because it’s Horner relying on his familiar characteristics. Where this score really differentiates itself is through the collaboration with vocalist Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and the inclusion of many ethnic instruments (winds and percussion). Horner allows the musicians to go ‘crazy’ and produce music that sounds almost random. In a way, it reminds me of Howard Shore’s “The Cell”. It’s controlled chaos. “Sniper” for example consists of excited vocal chants, percussion, flutter tongue effects and Horner’s favorite synth sound. “To Abou Clea” offers a more serene ethnic soundscape, with the main motif echoing between trumpets. Stand-out cue of the album is the 10-minute “The Mahdi”. Ferocious percussion and chanting and disonant-ish wind instruments make for an exciting, hypnotic and somewhat terrifying experience – it is brilliant! “Escape” is another highlight albeit in a more traditional manner. The score concludes with a phenomenal and lengthy 13-minute finale, a trademark all of its own.

The friendship between a football coach and a mentally challenged student sits at the heart of Michael Tollin’s “Radio” [2.5/5]. I fully understand why Horner would score this relatively small, but heartfelt movie. Strings, horns and vocals (by India.Arie) form the backbone of this score, which unfortunately feels overly familiar. Although a perfectly lovely score, “Radio” sounds like Horner on autopilot. Beyond this familiarity which renders it a little anonymous, there is nothing particularly wrong with “Radio”, in fact it’s a warm and lyrical score. It revolves entirely around a memorable melody, which does make it a monothematic affair. At 26 minutes it’s a bit short, but in this case I think that’s actually a good thing.
“Zorro”-director Martin Campbell returned to Horner for his Africa-based adventure film “Beyond Borders” [3/5]. This is a score of two halves, really. There are some wonderfully lush orchestral and vocal passages, often led by the magnificent melody that’s introduced in “Ethiopia Part 1” and explored further in “Ethiopia Part 3” (an easy highlight), “Cambodia Part 3 and 4” (that rely on Horner’s ethnic winds) and “Chechnya Part 4” (which combines various melodies and ultimately sounds more South-American than Eastern-Europe, but hey…). These cues are phenomenal, and the main theme has become one of my favorites. The other half shows a very experimental Horner, with harsh electronics. “Cambodia Part 2” for example is a ten-minute exercise in ‘weird synth stuff’. I wonder if he and the director wanted something like Hans Zimmer’s “Black Hawk Down”, where beautiful melodies cues are mixed with harsh, almost random sounding electronics. The trouble with synths is that… well, Horner isn’t particularly great with them. Whilst I appreciate the experiment, the result isn’t particularly pleasant.
The Missing” [3/5] marked the end of the collaboration between Horner and director Ron Howard. The composer would later state that the film was fundamentally flawed and that, no matter what he would’ve done could’ve saved the movie. The score makes for a frustrating album. It’s the kind of score where Horner normally excelled. It’s of a similar scope and ambition as “Legends of the Fall” or “Braveheart” or “Mighty Joe Young”, but somehow it fails to impress. At times it’s a grand work with a simple but lush main theme. The rhythmic pan flutes and the ticking percussion are back, of course, because we’re dealing with Native Americans here. There are plenty of excellent moments and cues to be found, such as “The Brujo’s Storm”, “Rescue and Break Out” (which actually sounds a little out-of-place) and the lengthy “The Long Ride Home” (which, at 16 minutes, may be Horner’s longest cue on album). It’s a score that’s making all the right noises, and yet somehow falls short of leaving a lasting impression.
Promising director Vadim Perelman made his directorial debut with “House of Sand and Fog” [2.5/5], with Horner providing the score. It’s a small, low-key score dominated by strings, piano and soft synths. “The Waves of the Caspian” starts off reminding of the opening to “Enemy at the Gates” before moving into “A Beautiful Mind” territory (and even subtly into “Braveheart” territory). “Old Photos, New Memories” consists of minimalistic piano play, whilst “This Is No Longer Your House” uses a few odd synths sounds (reminiscent off, but not as far-out as “Beyond Borders”). As the score progresses, the string writing becomes more dramatic in a typical Horner fashion, with rumbling piano providing occasional accents. Melodic content is sparse, and what there is sounds overly familiar (I’m looking at you “A Return to the Caspian…”).

It’s a known fact that Horner repeats certain ideas. In fact, my article celebrates that very fact! And yet… sometimes even I think Horner has gone too far. “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” [2/5] is such an example. The score opens with meandering strings, reminiscent of “Enemy at the Gates” and “Braveheart”… so far, that’s perfectly forgivable. Horns come in, as do uillean pipes and the airy synths. Fine… so we’re in for an ‘autopilot’ work. Then a semi-lush string theme emerges. It’s pretty enough, if a bit six of one… you know. A secondary theme appears. Quite a playful one for tuba and celtic pipes. A few cues go by rather anonymously. The uillean pipe becomes more prominent, the string writing picks and by track five things are finally starting to get interesting. “A Win, Finally” sees Horner fully embracing his Scottish roots… (ahem). And then “Playing the Odds” comes along. Is that “Braveheart” I hear, or is it “Deep Impact”? The next cue again, a blatant copy of the main theme for “Braveheart”. Oh dear! It may not have mattered so much if the rest of the score was strong enough to counter that appearance, but it isn’t. A bit like “Radio” and various others before it, it’s a very predictable score – it’s got a nice sound to it and it’s perfectly pleasant, don’t get me wrong, but when they nay-sayers accused Horner of ‘lazy’ writing, this is the kind of score they were referring to.
And then there was “Troy” [3.5/5]. So much controversy surrounds this movie’s soundtrack. Director Wolfgang Petersen first hired Gabriel Yared, in somewhat of a surprise move. Yared worked for a year on the score, recorded it and, by all accounts (none can be named, haha) it was a magnificent work. The test audience didn’t like it, producers got scared (and they probably started realising they had a pretty shitty movie on their hands) and so Yared’s score was ditched and Horner was brought in to ‘save’ the movie. Now, Horner wasn’t too keen. He revealed in later interviews that he was rather disappointed that Petersen, following “The Perfect Storm” didn’t come to him in the first place. Horner took the challenge just to see how much music he could physically write in the two or three weeks available to him. He uttered a few harsh words about Yared’s score, which he later more or less retracted. The irony is that Horner’s score isn’t that much different from Yared’s! He used many of the same soloists (perhaps a case of “whilst they’re on the payroll…”) and he took a similar approach to many cues. All that said… despite having very little time to write a mammoth amount of music, Horner’s score is rather enjoyable. There is a decent theme for Achilles, an interesting brass theme for the city of Troy (which may or may not have been inspired by Benjamin Britten), some quality action music, some clever sneaking-around music and a dramatic finale. Unfortunately, it also houses a million repeats of the 4-note danger motif, which really ruin the score (even more than they ruined “Enemy at the Gates”), and a rather banal song at the end.
Director Joseph Ruben may have worked with Mark Mancina on several occasions, for his thriller “The Forgotten” [2.5/5] he turned to James Horner. Light piano play, strings (which sound sampled) and synths (mostly similar to “House of Sand and Fog”, sometimes akin to “Beyond Borders”) are the key ingredients here. It’s a minimalist and moody score, much light “House…” though it’s probably a little easier to digest for most people. There are some very tense and interesting moments scattered throughout the album, but for the most part I find this to be a difficult album to sit through.

Things don’t get much easier with “The Chumscrubber” [2.5/5]. Horner’s contribution, on album, is limited to six cues and approximately seventeen minutes. It opens with atmospheric sounds before a Strauss-like Waltz for saxophone enters the fray. The saxophone may vaguely recall “Sneakers”, but it’s “Dolphins” that really gives the composer away, with its shimmering sounds and piano arpeggio.”Digging Montage” is quite a nice cue that relies heavily on soft piano and that breathy synth sound. The final cue opens with a classical-sounding piano melody, turns to atmospheric synth pads and ends with a strange electric guitar riff.
It’s immediately evident that “Flightplan” [3.5/5] is a thriller – the deep rumbling piano, a distant woodblock and another mallet-like sound that has been present in Horner’s thrillers. The opening cue is very atmospheric and doesn’t provide much of a theme (other than familiar motivic movements). Interestingly, the story shares a similarity with “The Forgotten”, as both revolve around disappearing children who may, or may not, have ever existed in the first place. Whilst “The Forgotten” was a rather minimalistic work, “Flightplan” sees Horner employing a full orchestra. With arpeggios for piano and winds, searching strings, ticking woodblocks, thundering toms, it owes a lot to his early 90s thrillers and a little bit to his later ones. Despite relying on many familiar techniques and motifs, Horner offers a nerve-wrecking score. It’s not an easy score, it’s not meant to be, but it is easy to admire the avant-garde writing. The album concludes with Horner’s traditionally lush string writing, though there’s still something uneasy about it all.
Just as I’m about to think that it’s been a while since we’ve had a really great Horner score, “The Legend of Zorro” [4/5] comes along. As nice or lovely or adequate as his last few scores have been, it’s great to hear him having a tonne of fun again with “The Legend of Zorro”. All the themes from the first score return and Horner does well to write a satisfying score that isn’t just ‘more of the same’. “Legend…” is every bit is playful and exciting as “Mask…” and at times it’s arguably even more frenetic! All the Latin sounds are back, along with Horner’s typically rich writing. A highlight and fan-favorite is the 11-minute “The Train”. It’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s borderline insane – with stellar performances from the strings and brass sections particularly (and I especially love the trumpet around the 8:40 mark).

The New World” [3.5/5] and “Apocalypto” are really two sides of the same coin. We’ll address the latter in a moment. “The New World” opens with birdsong before a synthesized (but very rich sounding) choir comes in. It’s all about the colour, though melodically it reminds at once of “Sneakers”, “Titanic” and “Spitfire Grill”. It’s such a rich sound (it feels very wide, from a stereo point-of-view) it actually comes as a bit of a surprise. A simple but again very rich melody for strings and horns follows. The rumbling pianos are never far away. The horn theme heard in “First Landing” follows a familiar pattern and thus reminds of probably a dozen other things, whilst “A Flame Within” relies on multiple descending and overlapping voices before Horner’s beloved bamboo flute makes an appearance amidst all kinds of glittering sounds. It’s incredibly pretty, and some of it reminds again of “Titanic”. The composer’s trademark fluttering piano is heard in “An Apparition in the Fields”, whilst birdsong accompanies Horner’s music in “Of The Forest”. The circular string writing in “Pocahontas and Smith” reminds of “Braveheart”. Every time I listen to “The New World” I’m surprised by how pretty it is and by how rich the overall sound is. It’s clear that Horner felt inspired and wanted to write a score that matches the beautiful visuals. It’s a very artistic sounding score, very impressionistic. And yet, on the whole it fails to really impress. Melodically it’s just a little too derivative.
Sandwiched between two ‘otherworldly’ scores, is the much more traditional “All The King’s Men” [4/5] from “Bobby Fischer” director Steven Zaillan. A lush, somewhat Russian sounding melody for strings is introduced during the “Main Title”, which also features an accelerandi on the timpani… which may make British listener think they’ve tuned into “Eastenders”. Joking aside, what follows is a beautifully lush score that does exactly what most of us want Horner to do. One of the highlights is “Give Me the Hammer…”, in which Horner offers a beautiful (and typical) Americana theme… only to kinda ruin it all by quoting “Braveheart” (again) for no apparent reason. That motif of an accelerating timpani or snare features a lot in this score. There are some wonderful melodic cues here, such as “Anne’s Memories” and “Adam’s World”. Piano plays a pivotal role in these cues. “Only Faded Pictures” and “Time Brings All Things To Light…” showcase Horner’s beautiful dramatic string writing, as well as his counterpoint writing.
I wrote earlier that “Apocalypto” [3.5/5] is the flip-side to “The New World”. The score opens in a very similar fashion with birdsong and overlapping descending figures (this time for strings). Once the vocals come in, the difference becomes clear – these male vocals (courtesy of Nasrat Fateh Ali Khan, remember him?) are much darker and more ominous than the females ones in “The New World”. Soon, that vocal turns to growling and is accompanied by lively percussion and Horner’s familiar fluttering flute effects. Where “The New World” celebrates the beauty of the land, “Apocalypto” emphasises the brutality of the people (although admittedly, it’s set in a different country… but that’s really irrelevant). “Apocalypto” too is a an impressionistic work. It’s about colours and moods, and less about melody. As such it’s a difficult score, because you’re not sure what to hold on to. The sound is absolutely fascinating though (and proved to be a precursor to “Avatar”). Most of it will be acoustic and some of it is likely synthetic, but it’s nearly impossible to tell what is which. It’s really every bit as good as “The New World” though “Apocalypto” is much, much darker and therefore much tougher to digest. Both scores are best enjoyed through headphones, to really appreciate the depth of sound and the detail that went into the mixing… as both are not so much about melodies as they are about atmosphere.

Horner’s second and last film with Vadim Perelman (and the only one this year) is “The Life Before Her Eyes” [3.5/5]. It’s every bit as atmospheric as their previous collaboration, though I personally find this one more pleasing. Perhaps Horner learned a few thing between then and now, especially through the equally minimal yet rich-sounding “The New World” and “Apocalypto”. Piano and strings lead throughout “The Life Before Her Eyes”, though sampled vocals and synths also appear. Despite various Hornerisms, melodically it feels a little different and the synth-sounds are well-integrated. Some of the synths remind a little of Mark Isham’s “Crash” – they’re quite outlandish, yet still have a natural quality to them (as a sidenote: towards the end of the album, the very composition itself  begins to resemble “Crash”). During the closing cue “Young Diana’s Future” Horner also seems to employ sampled strings and brass. I’ve noticed this on several score and I can’t quite work out why he does it. Sudden budget restraints? Late re-writes? Artistic choices? Same for the obviously sampled female vocal. I understand it’s only to add a colour, nothing too fancy in terms of performance… but surely James Horner could hire a real vocalist even for a less challenging part like this? Nonetheless, this is a fascinating score. Again, very much an impressionist’s work. When Horner compared composing to being a painter, it’s scores like these that really help explain what he meant.

Horner returns to the fantasy genre with “The Spiderwick Chronicles” [3.5/5], but it’s a bit of a frustrating score and ultimately one of his least interesting in the genre, bar one or two cues. The vast majority of the album passes by without drawing too much attention. It’s all very well written and orchestrated, of course(!), but it’s just Horner doing what Horner does. It’s lacking a strong central theme to hold it all together. There is a main theme, but it’s just so slowly paced. For me, it’s not until “The Flight of the Griffin” that this score springs to live. All of a sudden the score is soaring with lush strings, noble horns, Williams-esque woodwind flourishes (and even a wink to “Troy”). Approximately 4:20 into that cue, Horner once again tries to kill the brass section, but once again they survive! And from this cue onwards, the score is (or: feels) much more vibrant and interesting.
Later that year saw the release of the war drama “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” [3/5], about young Bruno who makes friends with Schmuel who wears striped pyjamas. Only to find out that Schmuel is a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi prison camp. I know a lot of people that love this score, and it works great in the film. As an album though, I’m not a fan of it. In part because it is quite derivate, with some elements going back to the “The Life Before Her Eyes”, “Swing Kids” (makes some sense) or even “Brainstorm” and various other scores. The score prominently features the piano; mostly melancholically but ocassionally more playfully as in “Boys Playing Airplanes”. This score is even more ‘Horner doing what Horner does’ than “Spiderwick”. Still, it’s perfectly lovely, but you have to look past the numerous self-references. And as big a Horner-fan as I am, even I’m struggling here.

Over a decade since “Titanic” and James Cameron is finally ready to unleash his latest film: “Avatar” [3.5/5]. It’s Horner’s sole entry this year and that’s because he spend a huge amount of time writing the score. Well, that and the fact that he deliberately embarked on less and less Hollywood productions. A big deal was made about the music sounding like nothing we’d ever heard before. I know that’s just the usual PR hype train, but it just couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a very typical Horner score. What’s surprising is that the studios let Cameron get away with such a large and lush orchestral soundtrack. Horner brings out his forest flutes and parts of the score resemble “The New World” and “Apocalypto”. Elsewhere, one of the secondary themes is derived from 1989’s “Glory”. The main theme is the one that gets the song treatment in “Eye See You” (the less said about that song the better, though the theme itself is pleasant enough). What really brings the score to live are the percussion (a lot of focus on wooden / stick sounds), the numerous bell-like sounds and the odd vocals. Highlight of the album is the lengthy and agressive “War”, which shows a clear influences from orchestrator Nicholas Dodd. Various themes come together, augmented by electronics and percussion; and the whole thing carries quite an emotional punch, particularly towards the end. That cue alone is worth five stars, but not so the rest of the album. Clearly a lot of work went into the creation of this score, yet I don’t feel the album does it much justice. There is too much uninteresting filler music present at the expense of some genuinely exciting (and often more original) action material. I also can’t help but think that the performance feels rather bland. Truth be told, it’s not until I saw the live performance from the “Hollywood in Vienna”-concert in 2013 that this score really came to live for me. And I will still rather watch that video than listen to the CD release. You will find that performance on YouTube if you’re not yet familiar with it.

Although I’m not convinced that “The Karate Kid” [3.5/5] needed remaking, it at least gave us one Horner score in 2010. Horner wrote a pleasant and somewhat interesting score that features some familiar Horner elements (some of it sounds like “Deep Impact”), but that also contains some new and refreshing material. A cue like “I Want to go Home” actually has an air of Thomas Newman about it, and as a result sounds quite fresh for Horner. “Han’s Kung Fu” sounds very modern and integrates synthesizers very well (better than is usual for Horner) and seems to serve as a precursor for “The Amazing Spider-Man”. I’m just flabbergasted that “Ancient Chinese Medicine” relies more on ambient synths than on Horner’s beloved ethnic flutes. The composer does use ethnic instrumentation, but it comes primarily in the form of mallets and percussion, sometimes vaguely resembling “Avatar”, as does the main theme actually. I don’t often revisit “The Karate Kid”, but when I do I’m always surprised at how much fun this score is; how playful and colourful. But what ultimately slightly disappoints me is that this is the only score he wrote this year, and it’s still so derivative.

Only one score in 2011, again, and it’s for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Black Gold” [4/5], also known as “Day of the Falcon”. The main theme is quite lush, but is clearly derived from “Tania’s Theme” with a hint of “Zorro” and a few other influences. The orchestrations are typical for the composer, with an emphasis on strings, winds and horns. Ethnic colours come courtesy of Fahad Al-Kubaisi’s voice. A comparison to “The Four Feathers” may seem obvious, but “Black Gold” is much smoother. The vocals and woodwinds create a beautifully spooky atmosphere in “The Blowing Sands”, whilst racing strings turn “Fresh Water” into the album’s most energetic cue. Solo violin adds a solemn tone to “One Brother Lives, One Brother Dies”. Up until this point, it’s been a fairly understated score. The brass and snares come out to play in the slow-paced but still exciting “Battle in the Oil Fields”, before the lush “A Kingdom of Oil” concludes the album. As said, it’s a lyrical yet somehow understated score. It is really quite beautiful, but it does take (and needs) its time to grow on you.

The main theme for “For Greater Glory” [4.5/5] sounds quite familiar and contains, at least, hints of “Zorro”, “Windtalkers”, “The Four Feathers” and probably a few more. Horner utilises a zig-zaggy melody that he’s used on numerous ocassions (probably most notably in “Windtalkers”). Elsewhere it recalls “The Missing”, whilst the 4-note motif and Horner’s signature snare riff also make appearances. So, we’re in for a pastiche score… and yet, from the start there is something very compelling about this one. He may be relying on a set of familiar ideas, but they’re performed with such conviction and passion that it’s hard not to be moved by them. This passion is enhanced by the Spanish vocals (e.g. “Jose’s Martyrdom”), the occasional guitar and trumpet. When it’s lush, oh my goodness is it lush! Thick, gloopy strings the way only Horner can arrange them (“The Death of Padre Christopher”). Yet, when it’s dark it is gut-wrenchingly dark with deep, snarling brass hits (“Jose Saves Catorce”). One of Horner’s most exciting action cues for many years comes in the form of “A Bullet on the Floor”, which nicks a melody from “The Missing”, but it’s easily forgiven, because… well, because it’s just so friggin’ awesome. It’s a very powerful, almost forceful score. It wouldn’t surprise me if some might even find it a little overbearing. If it wasn’t for the re-usage of familiar elements, this could easily have been another “Legends” or “Braveheart”. It is every bit as powerful, passionate and epic; it’s only every so slightly let-down by the over-familiarity of various elements. And still I’m wondering whether I should just go ahead and give it five stars after all…
The tone changes dramatically with “The Amazing Spider-Man” [5/5]. At the time, it was quite surprising and terribly exciting to learn Horner was scoring a super-hero movie. And he did not disappoint. In keeping with similar movies, and particularly Danny Elfman’s “Spider-Man” scores, Horner applies a fair amount of electronics. You may have gathered by now that I’m not hugely keen on Horner’s electronics, but here they work wonderfully well. It’s the best integrated use of synths (by Horner) that I can think of it; and at times (particulaly during the action cues towards the end) they do some crazy things that I’d never have associated with Horner. That said, this is an orchestral score first and foremost. Horner presents a bold (and original) super-hero theme for trumpets. It’s noble and yet playful. Naturally it returns several times throughout the score and each time it’s an absolute joy. The writing, the harmonies, the counterpoint, the orchestrations… it’s all so rich and complex. And to top it all off, there is a really heart-felt love theme for strings and piano, “I Can’t See You Anymore”. Horner may have done only one of this kind of super-hero movie, buy he made it count and blew almost every other one out of the water.

After a three-hiatus, partially self-inflicted, Horner returned to the big screen with “Wolf Totem” [5/5] directed by his long-standing friend and collaborator Jean-Jacques Annaud. An extraordinary main theme leads this score. It is noble and powerful; and it’s very fluid. I love the racing strings in “Wolves Stalking Gazelle”, and the ominously paced “Wolves Attack the Horses”, but above all I adore that noble and graceful main theme. Although it’s not his last score, for me this is his epitaph. This score and the movie represent everything that Horner stands for me. Beauty, nature, love, parental instinct. “Wolf Totem” is a grand, sometimes brutal, and always sweeping orchestral score with a truly majestic main theme. I did review this at length when it came out, so I will refer you to my original review.
The last score Horner wrote, literally, is “Southpaw” [3/5], a gritty film about a boxer, directed by Antoine Fuqua. Initially Harry Gregson-Williams was due to score this film, and in some ways I actually think he would’ve been a better fit. Quite how Horner got involved with this, I’m not sure. In my original review I wrote: I am baffled that Antoine Fuqua sought out a composer as unique as Horner and then asked him to write this score. And I’m even more surprised that Horner went along with it! It is likely he really believed in the film and its director; or he may have simply fancied doing something totally different (though we all know that ‘totally different’ in Horner’s world isn’t usually quite as different as it is here). It begs the question whether this would’ve been another step into uncharted territory – but we’ll never known.

To be released, hopefully some time soon…
Living in the Age of Airplanes” and “The 33“. Antoine Fuqua revealed that Horner secretly wrote a score for his next movie “The Magnificent Seven“. However, it is yet unclear how Horner devised that score, presumably based on the script, and whether Fuqua will see a chance to use any of it. Horner also wrote music for the short movies “First in Flight” (I wonder what attracted him… though it’s a synthesised affair that resembles anything from “Deep Impact” to “Cocoon” and “The Mission”) and “One Day In Auschwitz” (which can be found on YouTube and proves to be a very minimal, piano-led effort).

Non-film Works

It goes without saying that Horner loved flying. He loved it, lived it and died doing it. Around 2010 he was asked by aerobatics team The Flying Horsemen to write a piece of music that would accompany their show. He was told to write what he feels when he’s flying… he was told to write his soul. And that he did! “The Fourth Horseman / Write Your Soul” [5/5] comprises of a lush, but never over-the-top cue that runs for 3:58, followed by the grand and simply epic “Write Your Soul”, which runs for over twelve minutes. Heralding brass and woodwinds invite you into Horner’s world, and this motif is repeated a few times during this lengthy track, serving as a bridge between various sections. The first section offers a lush, string-driven rendition of the main theme (let’s just call it that). A tiny little nudge to “Mask of Zorro” aside, it’s a pretty unique theme in Horner’s career. A secondary theme for strings is introduced, accompanied by rolling pianos and that breathy synth. Here a hint to “The Rocketeer” can be detected. At 4:30 we move into the second part, which reprises the main theme and is as glorious and romantic as anything Horner has ever written (think “Cocoon”). As the theme dies down, breathy synths, glittering sounds, a high pitched piano arpeggios and slow string chords take over. We’re clearly in Horner’s fantasy world, until the heralding brass mark the transition into the third movement at around 8:00. The glittering sounds and high-pitched string chords are now accompanied by horn arpeggios, giving off a distinct “Star Trek”-vibe. Slowly trumpets comes in. They play counterpointed repetitive patterns that go in and out of sync, gradually become more intense and ultimately morph into the finale from “The Rocketeer”… but it doesn’t stop there! “The Fourth Horseman / Write Your Soul” is one of the best things Horner has ever written. It beats most of his film scores by a mile, and that is saying something. It’s hard to believe, but I’m actually holding back with the superlatives, as I don’t want to sound too emotional, but this work is simply utterly fantastic.

In 2015 Horner premiered his concerto for Violin and Cello, “Pas de Deux” [4/5], in Liverpool. It was commissioned by violinist Mari Samuelsen and her brother cellist Hakon Samuelsen. It was performed by them, accompanied by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and conducted by Vasily Petrenko. It marked the Liverpool Philharmonic’s 175th season, as well as Horner’s first foray on to the classical scene since the late 70s. Critics weren’t too enthused by Horner’s work, saying that “it outstayed its welcome”, “almost nothing happens” and “what the work failed to do was develop”. Needless to say, I rather love it. Many of Horner’s typical characteristics are presents, and an obvious comparison could be drawn to the similarly orchestrated “Iris”. Horner presents a dreamy work. It’s music to sit back with, and reflect. Horner has often compared himself to a painter, and has often remarked how he is much more about colour than about melody. This work illustrates that. It’s an impressionistic work. Does it really need Mari and Hakon? No… aside from the fact that they commissioned it. It’s not a virtuoso, showing-off type of work. Instead it’s quite mesmerising… until the third movement, that is. That’s when percussion blows the doors off, the strings start racing (oh my, this is glorious) and Horner offers a variation on that old-time favorite finale from “Star Trek” and “The Rocketeer” and “Write Your Soul”. It’s still as exciting as ever.
Horner also wrote and premiered “Collage: Concerto for Four Horns and Orchestra“. The piece was commissioned by the Houston Symphony and the International Horn Society and premiered in March 2015 at the Royal Festival Hall in London. It was conducted by Jaime Martín and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with soloists David Pyatt, John Ryan, James Thatcher, and Richard Watkins Unfortunately I have not heard it, nor have I read many reviews of it. Hopefully it may one day get a release.

James Horner’s non-film music works include:

“Collage” (Concerto for Four Horns and Orchestra)
“Pas de Deux” (for Violin and Cello)
“The Flying Horsemen” (Flight Demonstration Music (The Fourth Horsemen) (dedicated to the acrobatic pilots (The Horsemen (Airshow Buzz) Watch ‘the making off’
“CBS Films Logo Music” Watch/Listen
“CBS Evening News” (themes for the information broadcast CBS) Watch/Listen
“Icon Productions” (theme for the logo) Watch/Listen
“THX – Cimarron” (theme for the spot THX “Cimarron”) Watch/Listen
“Universal Pictures” (theme for the logo 75th anniversary used between 1990 and 1997) Watch/Listen
“Imagine Entertainment” (theme and logo) Watch/Listen


And that concludes my 3-part James Horner: A Composer’s Special. The man’s music is very dear to me, and I will miss his voice sorely; but if this editorial proves anything it’s that he has left a vast and often magnificent musical heritage behind, for us to enjoy, revisit and explore afresh. Thank You, James Horner.

Below is an overview of James Horner’s original filmscores. The list below is taken (and re-arranged) from IMDb. For a detailed discography (including compilations and detailed album information) I recommend you visit the extensive database at Soundtrack Collector.

 1978 The Watcher AFI
 1979 Up from the Depths (uncredited) Charles B. Griffith
The Lady in Red Lewis Teague
 1980 Monster (Humanoids from the Deep) Jimmy T. Murakami & Roger Corman [2/5]
Battle Beyond the Stars Barbara Peeters & Jimmy T. Murakami [4/5]
 1981 Angel Dusted (TV Movie)
The Hand Oliver Stone [2/5]
Wolfen Michael Wadleigh [2.5/5]
Deadly Blessing Wes Craven [3/5]
A Few Days in Weasel Creek (TV Movie) Dick Lowry
The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper Roger Spottiswoode & Buzz Kulik [3/5]
 1982 A Piano for Mrs. Cimino (TV Movie) George Schaefer
Rascals and Robbers: The Secret Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (TV Movie) Dick Lowry
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Nicholas Meyer [5/5]
48 Hrs. Walter Hill [1/5]
 1983 Something Wicked This Way Comes Jack Clayton [3.5/5]
Space Raiders (from “Battle Beyond the Stars”)
Krull Peter Yates [5/5]
Between Friends (TV Movie) Lou Antonio
Brainstorm Douglas Trumbull [4/5]
Testament Lynne Littman [3/5]
The Dresser Peter Yates
Gorky Park Michael Apted [2/5]
Uncommon Valor Ted Kotcheff [2.5/5]
 1984 The Stone Boy Christopher Cain
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock Leonard Nimoy [2.5/5]
 1985 Heaven Help Us Michael Dinner [1.5/5]
Surviving (TV Movie) Waris Hussen
Faerie Tale Theatre (TV Series) (1 episode: ) Nicholas Meyer
Barbarian Queen (from “Battle Beyond the Stars”)
Cocoon Ron Howard [4/5]
Volunteers Nicholas Meyer
The Journey of Natty Gann Jenny Kagan [3/5]
Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (from “Battle Beyond the Stars”)
Commando Mark L. Kester [1.5/5]
Alamo Jobe
Amazing Stories (TV Series) (1 episode)
In Her Own Time (Documentary)
Let’s Go (Short) Douglas Trumbull
 1986 Off Beat Michael Dinner
Aliens James Cameron [5/5]
Where the River Runs Black Christopher Cain [2/5]
Captain EO (Short) Francis Ford Coppola
The Name of the Rose Jean-Jacques Annaud [2/5]
An American Tail Don Bluth [4/5]
 1987 P.K. and the Kid Lou Lombardo
Project X Jonathan Kaplan [2.5/5]
*batteries not included Matthew Robbins [3.5/5]
 1988 Willow Ron Howard [5/5]
Red Heat Walter Hill [2/5]
Vibes Ken Kwapis [3/5]
The Land Before Time Don Bluth [5/5]
Cocoon: The Return Daniel Petrie [3.5/5]
Andy Colby’s Incredible Adventure
 1989 Field of Dreams Phil Alden Robinson [3/5]
Tummy Trouble (Short)
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Joe Johnston [2.5/5]
In Country Norman Jewison [3.5/5]
Dad Gary David Goldberg [3/5]
Glory Edward Zwick [5/5]
 1990 I Love You to Death Lawrence Kasdan [2/5]
Tales from the Crypt (TV Series) (“Cutting Cards”) Walter Hill
Another 48 Hrs. Walter Hill [2/5]
Extreme Close-Up (TV Movie) Peter Horton
 1991 Once Around Lasse Hallström [2.5/5]
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys Stuart Rosenberg
Class Action Michael Apted [2.5/5]
Rocketeer Joe Johnston [5/5]
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells [5/5]
Norman and the Killer (Short)
The Shell Game
 1992 Fish Police (TV Series) (1 episode)
Thunderheart Michael Apted [1.5/5]
Patriot Games Philip Noyce [1.5/5]
Unlawful Entry Jonathan Kaplan [2/5]
Sneakers Phil Alden Robinson [4/5]
 1993 Swing Kids Thomas Carter [3/5]
A Far Off Place Mikael Solomon [2.5/5]
Jack the Bear Marshall Herskovitz [2.5/5]
Once Upon a Forest Charles Grosvenor [4.5/5]
House of Cards Michael Lessac [3/5]
Searching for Bobby Fischer Steven Zaillian [4/5]
The Man Without a Face Mel Gibson [2.5/5]
Bopha! Morgan Freeman [2.5/5]
We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story Dick Zondag [4/5]
The Pelican Brief Alan J Pakula [3/5]
Hocus Pocus (Sarah’s Theme only)
 1994 Clear and Present Danger Philip Noyce [3.5/5]
The Pagemaster Pixote Hunt [4/5]
Legends of the Fall Edward Zwick [5/5]
 1995 Braveheart Mel Gibson [5/5]
Casper Brad Silberling [3.5/5]
Apollo 13 Ron Howard [5/5]
Jade William Friedkin [1/5]
Jumanji Joe Johnston [2/5]
Balto Simon Wells [4.5/5]
 1996 The Spitfire Grill Lee David Zlotoff [5/5]
Courage Under Fire Edward Zwick [3/5]
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday Michael Pressman [3/5]
Ransom Ron Howard [2/5]
 1997 The Devil’s Own Alan J Pakula [3/5]
Titanic James Cameron [4.5/5]
 1998 Deep Impact Mimi Leder [3.5/5]
The Mask of Zorro Martin Campbell [4/5]
Mighty Joe Ron Underwood [4.5/5]
 1999 Bicentennial Man Chris Columbus [3/5]
 2000 Freedom Song (TV Movie) Phil Alden Robinson [2/5]
The Perfect Storm Wolfgang Peterson [4.5/5]
How the Grinch Stole Christmas Ron Howard [2.5/5]
 2001 Enemy at the Gates Jean-Jacques Annaud [4.5/5]
A Beautiful Mind Ron Howard [3.5/5]
Iris Richard Eyre [4/5]
 2002 Windtalkers John Woo [4/4]
The Four Feathers Shekhar Kapur [4/5]
 2003 Radio Michael Tollin [2.5/5]
Beyond Borders Martin Campbell [3/5]
The Missing Ron Howard [3.5/5]
House of Sand and Fog Vadim Perelman [2/5]
 2004 Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius Rowdy Herrington [2/5]
Troy Wolfgang Peterson [3.5/5]
The Forgotten Joseph Ruben [2.5/5]
 2005 The Chumscrubber Arie Posin [2.5/5]
Flightplan Robert Schwentke [3.5/5]
The Legend of Zorro Martin Campbell [4/5]
The New World Terrence Malick [3.5/5]
 2006 CBS Evening News with Katie Couric (TV Series)
All the King’s Men Steven Zaillian [4/5]
Apocalypto Mel Gibson [3.5/5]
 2007 The Life Before Her Eyes Vadim Perelman [3.5/5]
 2008 The Spiderwick Chronicles Mark Waters [3.5/5]
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas Mark Herman [3/5]
 2009 Avatar James Cameron [3.5/5]
 2010 The Karate Kid Harold Zwart [3.5/5]
The Fourth Horseman/Write Your Soul The Flying Horsemen [5/5]
 2011 Day of the Falcon (Black Gold) Jean-Jacques Annaud [4/5]
 2012 For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada Dean Wright [4.5/5]
The Amazing Spider-Man Marc Webb [4.5/5]
First in Flight (Short) Brandon Hess
 2015 One Day in Auschwitz (Documentary) Steve Purcell
Wolf Totem Jean-Jacques Annaud [5/5]
Living in the Age of Airplanes (Documentary) Brian J. Terwilliger
Southpaw Antoine Fuqua [3/5]
The 33 Patricia Riggen

All the directors Horner has worked with on two or more occasions:

Ron Howard 7
Jean-Jacques Annaud 4
Walter Hill 4
Edward Zwick 3
James Cameron 3
Joe Johnston 3
Martin Campbell 3
Mel Gibson 3
Michael Apted 3
Nicholas Meyer 3
Phil Alden Robinson 3
Alan J Pakula 2
Christopher Cain 2
Dick Lowry 2
Don Bluth 2
Douglas Trumbull 2
Jonathan Kaplan 2
Michael Dinner 2
Peter Yates 2
Philip Noyce 2
Steven Zaillian 2
Vadim Perelman 2
Wolfgang Peterson 2

And finally for some Ratings analysis:

Star Rating Number of Scores with
that Star Rating
1 2
1.5 4
2 14
2.5 15
3 17
3.5 16
4 16
4.5 8
5 14
Average Star Rating 3.3

Article by Peter Simons

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