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By Daniel Lammin
24th June 2015

Oscar-winning composer James Horner has died in a plane crash at the age of 61 - for a film buff, this is the kind of news that hits you pretty hard. Even if you haven’t heard his name, you know his music from the staggering list of important and blockbuster films for which he wrote the scores. Along with contemporaries Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri and David Arnold, he helped define the cinematic sound of the 80s and 90s, building on the legacy of the greats like Williams, Hermann and Goldsmith.

Horner was something special though. His music was rich and passionate, engaging with the orchestra to create a sound that was highly emotional and quietly melancholic. He was the first composer I remember knowing by name, even before John Williams, and the sound of his music would always send a thrill up my spine. My understanding of the way music can be used in film, and my deep personal love for both the art form and film scores, were founded by listening to Horner’s music. Because of this, I wanted to take a moment to honour the musical genius of this great artist, and acknowledge my favourite scores in his extraordinary body of work.

ALIENS (1986)
James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece was a game-changer for the action genre, but so much of the success and cultural significance of the film comes down to Horner’s score. Loud, bombastic and unrelenting, he rewrote the rules of film scoring for an action film, combining the necessary brute force with the lush sound of a full orchestra and without relinquishing any emotional resonance. What still surprises me about ‘Aliens’ is how emotionally affecting it can be, and Horner’s work just exemplified this. His score is an adrenaline shot to the brain, especially during the enormous finale which Horner wrote in a sleep-deprived desperate frenzy. Its influence is so great that you can hear its ghost in every great action score composed since.

Must Listen: ‘Queen to Bishop’

Horner established a reputation for scoring animated films in the 80s and 90s for Amblin Entertainment, but none of them reach the heights of this score. ‘The Land Before Time’ is an impossibly heartbreaking film, the story of a group of young dinosaurs seeking a new home after losing their parents in a natural disaster. Any lesser composer would have gone for a standard adventure score, but Horner understands something much deeper about the film - that this is a story about loss and grief and finding the bravery you don’t think you have. His compositions are gentle and full of melancholy, yet brimming with immense hope. The melodies and main theme are so gentle and heartfelt that I still can’t listen to the score without crying, and it’s hard to believe that something so beautiful could have been written for a film about a bunch of animated dinosaurs. It also includes the stunning pop collaboration with Diana Ross, ‘If We Hold On Together’. When I heard that Horner had died, this was the score I needed to listen to the most. Personally, I think ‘The Land Before Time’ is be his masterpiece.

Must Listen: ‘The Great Migration’ and ‘End Credits’

TITANIC (1997)
It’s hard to know where to even start with Horner’s score for James Cameron’s monumental film. I played my CD of the soundtrack until it broke. It was the first score I fell in love with, and the first one that made me understand just how important a score can be to the success of a film. Rather than going for the easy route, composing a typical period score, Horner crafted something more modern and haunting, almost like a requiem mass. Combining synthesisers, orchestra and bagpipes with perfect symmetry, he lifted an already powerful film into an intense emotional experience, both deeply romantic and, during the sinking, immense and overwhelming. It’s a formula that no one has been able to imitate or emulate since. Horner won his only Oscars for his work on ‘Titanic’, both for the score and the hit pop song ‘My Heart Will Go On’, but while the song has become a bit of a cliché, the power of the score has never been in contention. It’s easily one of the greatest scores ever written.

Must Listen: ‘Take Her To Sea, Mr Murdoch’ and ‘An Ocean of Memories’

Since I first heard it, I’ve had a deep love for Horner’s score for this Oscar-winning film. Regardless of the flaws in the film itself, there’s something hypnotic about this music, which again finds Horner walking a delicate balance. The score has to somehow reference both the pedantic nature of mathematics, the unpredictable nature of madness and the sweeping power of love, and with the orchestra and the vocal beauty of Charlotte Church at his disposal, Horner strikes gold with delicate ease, composing a score that demonstrates clarity, confusion and heart. This score is one that sweeps straight into your soul with the kind of romanticism that became a trademark of Horner at his best. His work on ‘A Beautiful Mind’ is a stirring listen, and elevates the film immensely.

Must Listen: ‘A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics’

Horner’s score for Terrence Malick’s film is an unusual one, because very little of it ended up in the final film. Malick is notorious for not using the music written for his films, and Horner suggested that his collaboration with the acclaimed director wasn’t an enjoyable one. That said, the music he wrote is some of his most beautiful. There’s a freedom to it, a lush romanticism combined with sounds of nature that sweeps and sours like the wind. It evokes with vivid clarity an untouched America before colonisation and genocide, and a native people at one deeply with their country and culture. Because little of it can be connected to specific images, it excels as a composition of its own that demonstrates the full power of Horner as a composer. If you compare it to his work on ‘The Land Before Time’ and the ‘Titanic’, you can hear the evolution of his sound and texture, ending in a kind of musical reverie akin to classical music. If you’ve never listened to Horner’s score for ‘The New World’ before, I cannot recommend it enough.

Must Listen: ‘The New World’

As someone who grew up thinking of James Horner with immense reverence, to know I’ll never hear a new score written by him is deeply upsetting. Composers like Horner are among my creative heroes, figures whose work I turn to for inspiration and creative guidance. The film world has lost a great artist, who leaves behind an extraordinary body of work. Without him, we couldn’t fight horrific aliens or find the great valley or battle the vicious monsters in our kingdoms or in our heads or stand on the bow of a ship with our arms stretched, gazing at the sunset. Thank you for giving us that, James Horner. Cinema has been made all the better thanks to you.

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