I returned to London and the Royal Albert Hall only two days after being blown away by Titanic Live in Concert. This time though, it was a much more intimate and personal affair. I was not led into the Main Hall, instead I was directed to the quaint Elgar Room; a small squared space with seating for around one hundred people only. I took my place on the first row, a mere five feet from two empty chairs and a striking red piano.
After everyone had taken their seats, the lights dimmed and people fell silent as Tommy Pearson, a Radio host, Film Score enthusiast and the interviewer for the night, introduced one of the greatest Composers of them all; James Horner. A simple thank you from the man himself to the audience got it all going, and we all sat eager to hear his stories.
Horner is a very honest man. You can hear that in the way he speaks. He doesn’t hold back. He answers you in the best way he can. He began by addressing where it all started for him in Film. “Roger Corman was very significant in my career. He was the American version of Hammer Horror. I did a few films for him. You know the type; the monster movies with the girl on the beach getting killed,” he joked. “I met a lot of the people there that I still work with now. Ron Howard was there and Jim Cameron was a camera man.”
His big break however came when he was presented with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “I don’t want to sound ruthless but I didn’t want to use Alexander Courage’s original theme because I thought it was dated. We thought the film needed a fresh adventurous theme.” Pearson then showed us a scene from The Wrath of Khan. “A very technical scene to write,” described Horner. “I had to hit so many marks like key pieces of dialogue, the two ships facing off, and the explosions.” He then went on to detail his process when scoring action scenes, “I write my music like a painting. I see the notes as brush strokes. I have a huge piece of paper in front of me where I sketch the outline of the painting, then with Orchestrating and with Conducting I add the finishing touches, adding all the colours to the scenes. I hate using click-tracks (when the musicians in an Orchestra have a click sound in their headphones to dictate the speed of the music), I always have the movie on a big screen and I conduct to picture. That means I can control it much more and hit the details.” He clearly is a man of tradition. He said that he suspects only he and John Williams still use pencil and paper, and no mock-ups or computers.
Another scene was then shown. ‘Bishops Countdown’ from Aliens. Tommy Pearson then asked about Horner’s Orchestration choices, like why he used sharp, aggressive percussion like anvils and snare drums. We all expected a very eloquent answer that details the metaphorical use of metallic percussion to match the raw and metallic nature of Aliens, but he surprised us all; “I do it so my music gets through the sound effects.” There was a loud laughter throughout the room. Horner is very philosophical and artistic, so for him to say the reason for a musical choice was because it’s just very loud, it really did show his killer sense of humour.
As Pearson continued with his detailed questions and Horner continued with his insightful answers, it was clear to us all that the interview was being conducted in chronological order, from the beginning of his career to now, hitting all the major and breakthrough Scores along the way. Next on the agenda was Apollo 13. Horner spoke very passionately about it, like it was a truly important piece of work for him. Two clips were shown from the film; the moment Tom Hanks’ character saw the Moon Landing, and also the famous launch scene. As the clips rolled, I watched Horner instead of the screen because what other time can you witness the Composer himself listening to his own work? I was surprised to notice that every few seconds he was wiping tears away discretely. I could feel the meaning behind his music more than ever before. It was a pleasure to see him so emotionally effected by his own creation. “I don’t like writing short cues of a minute or two. I write in longer form because of my classical background. You’ll notice my Scores have eight, nine or ten minute pieces. When recording, if something isn’t right or if I want to change something, I don’t record the small section and insert it in on a computer later. I always re-record the whole piece again. I want the musicians to be organic, so just recording separate instrument sections and sticking them together doesn’t work for me.”
We all sat there enthralled, Tommy Pearson included, and didn’t want it to end. It ran over the ninety minute schedule and we all still sat there, glued to our seats, hanging on every word from this master of his craft. “We have run over our time, but this is James Horner, so I don’t care,” confessed Pearson, and we all cheered and clapped, acknowledging our wish for it to continue. Horner was happy to continue and opened the floor to questions. Some were standard questions like; would you consider doing any more concerts of your work? Which he replied with an enthusiastic yes after being so touched by the response the Titanic concert had received. Some were more curious like what his favourite Film Score was. “I don’t listen to Film music. I like to listen to World music. But if I had to choose I would say The Mission. What Morricone did with that film was beautiful.”
He then gave us an insight into his own influences, “John Williams, Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith are Gods to me. John is just living up here at the top,” he said as he raised his hand above his head. “Elmer was what I loved about adventure writing, and Jerry was at the forefront of inventiveness. They are Gods.” We all clapped in our highest approval at his admiration for his fellow greats.
As the night wound down, Horner felt more comfortable to give us the “Juicy Gossip,” as Pearson put it, and he had chosen the right Composer to do so with, as Horner is known for being outspoken. “Your Amazing Spider-Man theme is easily the best theme from Marvel Superheroes,” said the man sat to my right. “why didn’t you do the second film?” Horner didn’t shy away from the question as some more politically correct Composers would with an answer describing the ‘creative differences’ cliche. “I wasn’t asked. If they would have asked I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway because we were confident of the story direction and the fate of the characters, following the romance, but they changed that in favour of action and spectacle. Contrary to what has been written in the media, I haven’t even seen it (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), so I have no opinion on it.” His honesty was welcomed and a breath of fresh air to find out things from behind the scenes of the very secretive world of Film Scoring, like how The Imitation Game was temp-tracked with his Beautiful Mind Score, which explains the similar approach Alexandre Desplat had at “Capturing mathematics and intelligence in musical form,” as Horner described it.
After all those wonderful stories and sincere and honourable answers, it was time to end the over two hour journey into James Horner’s beautiful mind. He stood up to a deafening applause and made his way to the back of the room, where a crowd quickly formed around him. It was late at night yet he stayed to meet anyone who wanted to meet him. I stood in the line for well over an hour because he spoke to each and every person thoroughly, had a photo with everyone, and signed anything we wanted. He was a very approachable and gracious man. It was a joy to talk to him and to tell him the effect his music has had on my life.