Meeting Horner

March 15, 2010

When I first came to UCLA, many of my colleagues referred to this chap as “Jamie”–a nickname he now supposedly loathes. He did his Masters work at UCLA, was a TA, a classmate of Mark Carlson, and was on the way towards getting a PhD, but the Roger Corman films started coming fast and furious. Juliana was an undergrad with him at USC. My dear friend and patron, Ronnie–who lets me stay in her Palm Springs house to compose and goes with me to new music concerts in LA–is his cousin. And despite all these connections, I had never met James until last Thursday when he came to speak to our composers about his work on Avatar.

He was soft-spoken at first, and as the two hour session went on, he became more forceful and clearly enjoyed talking and teaching these young and eager students–also his biggest fans. Many of them stayed afterwords to have their picture taken with James. He graciously stayed late to pose and speak with them.

Some memorable quotes and paraphrases:

  • He has tremendous respect for John Williams. “In a class by himself.”
  • Cameron was clear that he did NOT want any themes or melodies. “A tuneless score.” [WOW!]
  • JC kept a tight hold on the reins for the entire score.
  • JH graciously acceded that it is JC’s vision, his movie, his world. He pushes until it’s right.
  • He spoke about his collaboration with Wanda in their effort to find a sonic palette “unlike anything we’ve ever heard.” Of the 25 instruments he culled, JC rejected 20 of them. JH ultimately blended these sampled instruments into his orchestration.
  • He seemed proud of that his orchestration, “which I do myself” is rooted in tradition, but adding these new [sampled/world] instruments transforms it.
  • JH, when asked what his favorite score was, admitted that he couldn’t pinpoint one film, rather cues from a variety of films.
  • Juliana asked whether he would ever write an opera; he said ‘no’ but he would LOVE to write a ballet.
  • “I could never make people cry in my concert music. In my music for film, I can. […] I loved having the opportunity [in TITANIC] to help the audience fall in love with two characters; and knowing that they will both die offered me a unique musical challenge.”

I found James to be a true gentleman; a smart businessman; an excellent teacher; an sensitive artist with a big heart; and a composer who loves the art of collaboration, despite not always getting his way.

When the composition area at UCLA interviews perspective undergraduate students in composition, one of the questions we ask them is “Who are your favorite composers?” James Horner has been at the top of that list for five years running. I confessed that statistic to Horner as the session wound down. He was clearly touched. Another student [winner of this year’s Jerry Goldsmith Award] confessed that James was his childhood “hero.”

For someone who had been described as quiet, shy and private, I saw a gracious, generous, sensitive but outgoing and humble man. He promises to come back for a future visit.

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