29 April 2015.
With host Tommy Pearson and a small audience, an important 75 minutes was to unfold. It is disheartening to note that this, a typical but always insightful interview with Tommy Pearson, would be the last interview our late maestro would give before his sudden passing on June 22, 2015.
With this in mind, the angelic manners of James Horner's conveyance of thought are ever more heartbreaking as he describes some of his career highlights and passions to Tommy and the audience. His wonderfully unique way thinking and speaking those thoughts will be as sorely missed as the mystical and romantic notes his pencil painted onto his staff paper in the solitude of his home.

The interview begins with his career's inception: the days of Roger Corman and Star Trek.
"I used to hang out at all the sessions [with Jerry Goldsmith] as well as those for John Williams and Elmer Bernstein. They were Gods."
James Horner conveys to the audience the hardships of writing scores for films with no budgets allocated to music, where music was an afterthought–a forgotten idea–and how these inconvenient notions crafted and fine-tuned his skills for the films that were to come; the films the world would never forget. He spoke about his modus operandi for writing as well as the time constraints attached to certain film productions.
"I write at a desk. I work out all the maths. It's all conducted in a process where I am watching the screen, the orchestra is facing you."
"To me, the emotion of what film music can do is the most important thing to me. There's always a quality I go at… which is this thing just under the surface."
Certain clips from films were shown (not present in this interview recording) which featured segments of his memorable melodies and motifs. As was the case with some of his interviews in the past, Aliens and James Cameron were the next topics for discussion. He described the process of writing a film score in just over a week and the demands film companies place on directors.
"You give up certain things being a film composer. You're working for somebody else and it's not my movie, no matter how beautiful I want it to be."
While discussing James Cameron's first proper film, the topic of orchestras arose and, specifically and justly so, the London Symphony Orchestra. One of the world's finest.
"I've only had to do one thing… it was in this movie (Aliens) actually. I had to get the strings; the violins and violas to do something that they just didn't know how to do. It was a very avant-garde type of texture, and it would have taken me two days to write it, easily… and it was such a simple thing. So, what I did was – they just couldn't get it with a description or simple notes – I gave them all bass parts and I had written the stuff out in the bass clef… and gave it to the violins and violas… and I got the effect I wanted because it was a mess. That really is; they're so good. It's really hard to trick them up."
Tommy Pearson then began speaking about director-composer relationships and, of course, Ron Howard (with whom James scored seven films) came up, as well as one of his finest films: Apollo 13.
On Apollo 13:
"My whole ambition for that film was to write something which was very noble, and very simple, and very much from the heart. Almost a hymn-like score… brilliant professionalism and quiet nobility."
Continuing his discussion of scoring the film, he spoke about a methodology he often and brilliantly employed in his writing for a film where we, as an audience, know its denouement:
"It's like Titanic in a way. My job, like Titanic, is to suspend that knowledge in an audience and keep the movie floating so you don't know how it turns out. You forget… and that is one of the most wonderful things about writing film music. Where I can suspend belief and you don't know quite how it's going to turn out. Maybe Leo and Kate won't both die at the end of Titanic, but what makes Titanic work is that you know that it's Romeo and Juliet on a sinking ship."
He then spoke about conducting the most famous cue in the film–The magnificent 10-minute sequence: The Launch:
"All of that stuff doesn't sound right unless it is conducted organically by me. I'm conducting it and they're playing it, and we're bending time, so to speak. They're following me and I'm following the film… and I'm pushing on stuff and holding back on other stuff. I'm very much part of the performance. I'm conducting the whole thing, like a ballet and I stitch it all back together. It's the most musical way to do it."
James Cameron's timeless masterpiece, Titanic, was next on the agenda. With growing enthusiasm, the result, no doubt, of the nostalgia the concurrent live performances of the score brought to his soul, he spoke openly about getting rid of history and the beauty of music.
"We got rid of the past within 10 minutes, hugged each other and told each other we'd never do it again."
Conversing about the post-production nightmares and the ever-mounting pressures on Cameron, James informed the audience that Cameron indeed forfeited his director's salary to add three months to the post-production schedule, preventing the film's pre-defined summer release.
"We liked what we were seeing, but we had no idea that it would be the emotional success that it was."
Answering a question about the 27 million-plus sales of the score album (the most in the history of cinema):
"It sounds so arrogant of me. Yes, I was pleased that people got it the way I got it emotionally. When I finish a project, if I'm crying when I'm working on it I know that I've nailed it, I'm happy. I've done the best that I could do. The fact that it had an afterlife is lovely, and I'm very proud of that fact. But quite honestly, I'm just as proud of it if it had done a quarter of that number. What I was feeling emotionally when I wrote it and what Jim liked about it: He liked it as much as I did, and I liked his movie as much as he liked it. It's those kinds of things which are very intimate for me that I feel are much stronger than total sales."
James then remarked about the Oscars (preceding his win for Titanic):
"I'd been nominated so many times, I sort of gave up on that stuff. You know, the Oscar business is really about momentum, and the most wonderful films never get that momentum and get overlooked. Some things that should get overlooked do have this momentum around them and it doesn't necessarily reflect pure talent. It's a very political process."
The next film was another one of Ron Howard's highlights, A Beautiful Mind.
"I wanted to find a sound that reflected the beauty of mathematics and… how do you do that with music? I always sort of find a visual for myself that to me is an analog of the sound that I'm after. I was thinking of what mathematics really sounds like to this person, this character… and it's like looking inside a kaleidoscope to me. You're looking down and you're slowly twisting the thing, and the glass is slowly changing patterns. I wanted to write something that had exactly that quality. I chose to write something for four pianos; a texture primarily for four pianos and orchestra. It's a very mathematical, very precise texture. The harmonic section has a very particular, unique sound to it. That's how I sort of conveyed Russell Crowe's [playing the mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr.] inner-mind, the beauty of what he saw when he smiled on screen, when he's looking around the room. He sees beauty in numbers. That's what I was trying to portray."
The next clip Tommy Pearson played and spoke about was a clip from a recent but unknown film by the wonderful French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, perhaps one of James Horner's favourite collaborators. Indeed a visual painter himself, the film is Black Gold.
"I'm attracted by people that allow me to do… to bring something different to what the movie audience might expect, and Jean-Jacques knows that I'm going to try find some weird combination of colours. You know, Western colours–or exotic colours; or Middle Eastern colours–in the case of this movie. I try and fuse them. I don't like to stick to, you know, the normal colour palette. I'm always trying to find things that narrate events in a more mystical and a more magical way. Jean-Jacques is just one of those guys that allows me to do that."
Talking about the two vocalists used in Black Gold, Dhafer Youssef and Fahad Al-Kubaisi:
"I love it when you can… when anybody (non-Western singer or vocalist) says to me that they can't read music. It's like magic to me. I believe so strongly in their musical abilities and their improvisational skills–some of the wonderful artists that I meet–and when you juxtapose that on Western music, it's just stunning; it's just magical. Only in cinema can you kind of get the money to mix these worlds. I can never ask a producer or a record company to make a record with uilleann pipe and trumpet, for instance, but in film I can do that. That's one of the magical things of storytelling in movies."
The next part of the interview involved a short question and answer session with the audience, of which two are presented below. What is admirable and wonderful, and has always been the case in an interview with James Horner, specifically this one, is his unrelenting and quiescent humility. An encouraging aspect of any master or legend of a craft with a great career, is that person's ability to share the successes and failures that led to that pivotal moment of grandeur in life. How do they view the world and the people within the world, good or bad? With James Horner, it was always the same. He was willing to accept questions, always answering them delicately and frankly, without arrogance or fear. The quality of any genius is based upon how the knowledge within his or her mind can move or invoke change within those people who believe in less than the said genius does. James Horner could make anyone believe in all the good of the world or themselves in the notes that he painted. He did this endlessly and his magnum opus will continue to do so for many decades to come.
Q: I just have two very short questions. My first one is – I absolutely love your Braveheart, which was just the soundtrack of my life, really, and it's so scratched I keep having to buy it. And I just wondered: If you had to grab a movie soundtrack that wasn't your own work–that has been so powerful in your life–what would that be? And would you ever consider doing Braveheart live at the Royal Albert Hall?
Well, Mel [Gibson] is brilliant and it makes me feel so dreadful–the stuff you hear in the media. He's this unbelievable director, and some of my best experiences–Mel is just like Jim and all the other guys I talked about tonight–he's passionate about what he does and… he and I have worked on four films together. I think if enough people remember Braveheart and wanted a concert, maybe. It's such a great movie and I have such fond memories of working with Mel on that from being invited to the casting sessions, which is so unusual for a composer to be involved so early–and working on his first movie–and convincing him that his big speech to the army needed music when it had no music on it originally… There's some unbelievable memories that I have working with Mel. I'd love to do it again.
My favourite soundtrack… I don't really have any one favourite. I don't listen to movie music and I don't listen to much commercial music. I'm into a lot of world music. I would say, if I had to just grab one soundtrack really randomly… The Mission is very much my aesthetic and it's such a beautiful score put against images that one would not expect to have that… and that again is the magic of what we sometimes get to do. The Mission is an extraordinary score.
Q: I'm hugely fond of Field of Dreams and I'm sure I read a long time ago that there wasn't ever a written score because you sat with a group of musicians and improvised. I was just wondering whether that's true?
Yeah. (Laughter from the audience) I do it a lot. I did it in the sequence we just saw from Black Gold. I did it on the piano. I do it because I can't get intimate enough conducting somebody else… and I have to do it myself. It's not an ego thing, it's just an intimacy thing, the way I bend time in the way I play it. In this particular thing, it's very unusual for me to write a tune in a minor key… And this tune initially is in a minor key, and in this very gentle way it becomes a major key. And it's when Dhafer, the singer, sings this high third of the chord. There's just certain things that I have to do myself. It's just the way that I paint. It's just like painting for me, this process. Conducting is part of it. I can't imagine handing it over, a black and white sketch to somebody, and saying, “You colour it.” It's all part and parcel of how I grew up musically and sometimes you just have to do it yourself.
The final questions of the evening were asked by Tommy himself, and the answer James gave drove home the realisation of the horror of last month.
TP: What's next for you? What are you working on? Are there any movies on the horizon? I know you have a horn concerto coming up but what about movies?
Um, I'm supposed to do two films. Funnily enough I'm going to do–and it's extremely important to me historically–Mel's next movie. He's going to direct a film and it's hugely important for him. He's so brilliant and I want to be there in that moment in film history because I think Hollywood is so shallow, and what's been done to him is so dreadful, and as a filmmaker he's so brilliant… and it'll only take one film–I just know how this stuff works–all he has to do is make one film and he'll be re-embraced, whether it's about the Maccabees or whatnot… And that's what I'm working on next.
May you fly with the angels, dear James Horner, as you made our souls soar within the notes of your music.
Rest in peace, forever and always.


  1. Once more I am writing to thank all of you at JHFM very much, this time for providing the Bafta Royal Albert Hall event which, unfortunately, I could not attend. It is so interesting to hear this amazing musician talking in such a sincere way about his career. I can imagine the night in the Elgar Room – and visualize his talk before the Titanic event, where my seat was right in front of him. I am so thankful for that, even though it would have been the icing on the cake to witness James conducting. Also for your latest piece on the Rose. I very much appreciate the amount of work you are all putting into giving James the most wonderful memorium of his treasured music. I look up JHFM every moment I can, thank you all so much, he must have been so proud of you all – and also his family if they are reading your pieces. Pamela.

    1. Byron Brassel

      I am glad you find enjoyment in visiting our world here. JB and the rest of us regard this as an important part of our lives and so maximum effort is always put into all that we write. Thank you for your kind words, and may you continue to find solace in re-living the remnants of James Horner’s beautiful mind upon your returns here.

  2. I finally got around to listening to the whole interview plus questions by the fans.

    A few of my questions were not answered, and for us young musicians I think a lot of us are wondering this: Where can those of us who want to compose start on our journey to become a great composer, that people may or may not look up to one day, like James Horner?

    1. Jean-Baptiste Martin

      The beginning of an answer:

      Finally, one last person requested the composer if he would recommend a classical education to someone who wants to work in the film industry. James Horner asserted:

      “No. I don’t think classical. I came at that angle because I’ve been playing the piano most of my life and it was just a natural thing to go into a conservatory, to study music. I would not say, going into being a film writer these days that’s at all important. I think it is important to have an artistic vision that’s appealing or attractive to somebody, but I don’t know whether the education matters like it used to. You are talking to somebody like–I feel so over-educated for where I ended up. I vowed never to get back into to classical music, and here I am reexamining it. But I do think audiences now, (as I said earlier) the world has changed, and classical music has not changed so much, and that’s why classical music is very difficult and why so few new pieces have been written, why so few pieces are being commissioned. Because the audiences have gone down, younger generations don’t necessarily want to hear Brahams played in dark room. They want to hear, as I said, multi-media–to have music mated with something else going on, and I think that film does that, dance does that—stunningly–and it’s very important to whatever you do as a composer works with these new media.”

      He concluded by saying:

      “I think for a composer coming out of the world, whether it be a school, streets or whatever, if you want to do something, it’s either for commercial use, via the radio, or visual use, in film. I think that’s the most viable outlet for a writer. But, I don’t think you have to have this crazy education to get there. I think people I’ve met are brilliant have no education at all, they just had a gift.”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top