Following several statements from James Horner from his Master Class talk conducted by Matthias Keller, Editor of Bavarian Radio, on 31 October 2011.
How he got into film music:
I studied classical music and first wanted to become a classical composer. For getting commissions and grants you’re told to have a proper so-called power base. So I did the PHD and started writing ‘serious music’ (like Conversations and Spectral Shimmers). And one day I was asked to score a student film. And I agreed to it. I didn’t know anything about film. I wasn’t a great film buff. I was doing music and wasn’t sure I would like it. But I tried it as an experiment and actually fell in love with that kind of composing. I didn’t matter whether it was conservative or avant-garde… I wasn’t labeled… that was how I got into film music. Totally by accident.
Pros and cons of writing for film:
What attracts me is writing music that accompanies pictures. It’s the marriage of picture and sound, that can be so powerful and attractive to audiences today. The bad thing about movie scoring is that I have a boss, the director. I cannot normally write whatever I want. But with different projects you always get different possibilities of composing. Every film needs a different kind of score. If it plays in the past or the future or in the present… all of that needs to be reflected in the score, which makes film scoring such a versatile thing to do. You can do that with ‘serious music’ as well, of course, but it’s very difficult and expensive to get a performance of such contemporary compositions.
[…] It’s true that music for films always has to go along with sound effects and dialogue but with further experience scoring such movies you, as a composer, can quite effectively write around such heave sound effects and dialogue passages or even incorporate those into your music. In the end, sound effects, dialogue, and music as a mix makes up a fair share of the whole movie magic that everyone wants to experience. With sound effects and music together you can do things music alone cannot approach and vice versa.
How do you approach a new film?
First, I always ask for a meeting. I want to meet the filmmakers and talk to them first. I know, it might sound childish, but there are people and filmmakers out there where I felt, that collaboration was going to be difficult or even impossible.
Then I ask to see the film. I doesn’t matter to me if the rough cut is just an assembly or eight hours long or two hours long. I want to see, if the film contains a story and/or characters that touch me, to whom I connect on an emotional basis. If the people are nice and the movie and characters are in some way touching and intriguing, then that’s how I choose a film.
After that I get about five weeks, normally, to write the score. I’m a very fast and intense worker.
I normally work quite abstract with pen and paper. Composing the themes and doing the orchestration really quite detailed on my own. I don’t too often use the piano for playing themes and ideas. I think, if you do that too long, then your fingers get comfortable with certain patterns and it’s important not to do that as it might keep you away from writing a more effective piece for the movie, the scene. That’s why I prefer working more abstractly.
I don’t use a lot of any electronics in my writing, but I use a lot of them for recording. Earlier in my career I simply wasted too much time with trying to incorporate electronics in my writing and composing process. So I got rid of them.
After I’ve written themes and ideas, I play them to the director. For this, I sometimes use the piano but for some musical ideas the piano is not appropriate for demonstrating it properly. For example, in case of Avatar, I mocked the first ideas up electronically. Because on Avatar, so much of the musical ideas were abstract and atmospheric, that you can’t play them on the piano. Sometimes mock-ups just give the filmmakers a better idea of what you would like to do. I mostly use mock-ups for things, sounds that I can’t explain but would like to use and let them know about. I normally don’t have to do mock-ups for orchestral sounds and music.
About European films:
I love working for European filmmakers. It’s a great privilege for me. They often are so different then the Hollywood filmmakers. There’s often so much more artistic freedom for everyone involved that it’s just great to be part of European projects.
The sophistication is greater. Not always, but in Hollywood, sometimes the studio keeps a heavier role of control over the filmmakers and the project. The two most recent projects, Cristiada and Black Gold were European projects. The first one being a Spanish film and the second one a French co-production.
About getting assignments:
It’s not too often that filmmakers come knocking at your door to ask you to do their movie. It happens, but it’s not regularly the case. In my case, I often hear from other people – director, producers, friends, composers, whoever – about new film projects. And quite often I try to get in contact with the directors of projects that intrigue me. Then I ask them do to their film.
For the music for The Name of the Rose, I wanted to use an orchestra but I also wanted to have a lot of medieval instruments involved. The problem was, that some of these instruments are impossible to play. They are unreliable and it’s difficult to find people who are able to play them. So I thought, it’s easier to sample those instruments. The idea was to have perfect sound samples, digitally, of medieval instruments, so that I could play those instruments by myself. And it worked out really quite well… it was a long time ago and we worked with very early types of synthesizer programs. There I got in contact with Hans Zimmer, who back then was the representative of Fairlight, a producer of synthesizers. He delivered us new parts almost every day.
We had sampling sessions for about two weeks. Players from all over Germany and Europe played wired medieval instruments. Never in an orchestral setting but just to record sound samples for creating a sample library to work with on the score. Sometimes it took the players up to half an hour just to tune the instrument and prepare it for doing recordings.
I normally orchestrate the music myself. They normally come finished or at least very detailed to the copyist, so that they can do the parts for the musicians out of it. If I run out of time during a project, then it can happen that I have to hand my roughly drawn ten lines of a piece for the orchestral sections to some of my orchestrators I work with. They know how I work and understand my ideas and rough sketches of some pieces. So they are able to write a beautiful piece out of my hand writing. So they finish the composition so that the copyist can read and understand it.
Giving a composition away to the orchestrators for me really is just out of technical reasons sometimes. Not out of composing reasons. Orchestrating is about coloring your music and I’m the only one know has the final idea of what colors I would like to be in the music. So I have to do the orchestrations as detailed as possible for every composition by myself.
Yes, I do conduct all the orchestras myself. I try to work my scores out mathematically. I make marks in my compositions wherever something on screen happens that I want to support with the music. So then, when I conduct the orchestra and start to realize, that I might miss the mark by continuing the performance of my composition in the so-far present tempo, then I can just slow the orchestra down or speed the performance up by actively conducting the players. I don’t want do use click-tracks if possible. When the orchestral players have the click-track system, a clicking metronome is in everyone’s ear, then they actually don’t really need a conductor anymore. They just make sure, that they play the right notes at the right places. With this system, who can, as a composer, make a rubato or a ritardando in your performed score? The music becomes less lively, or even dead to me.
About My Heart Will Go On:
The song is based on a melody I’d written earlier in the scoring process. So the melody was already written and played to Jim Cameron and approved by him. I did the song more out of a compositional propose than a commercial one. The whole movie is about 2 hours 40 minutes long so I probably wrote about 2 hours 10 minutes of orchestral score. For the end credits, having just an orchestral end credits suite/epilogue after such a huge amount of score during the whole movie, I found ‘draining’. I wanted something different for the end credits. I don’t think I could have written a lengthy seven minutes end credits piece for orchestra and say anything more as a composer. I thought I used up the orchestra and needed something more intimate. So I wanted to write a song which can be so much more intimate. I’ve worked with Celine Dion before. I’ve probably known her since she was 15 years old and just started off her career. During the time I’d been working on Titanic she was singing and performing in Las Vegas. So I went to her and played her the song on a piano in her hotel room. I even sang her the lyrics by myself [chuckles]. After she heard the song, she immediately wanted to do it. There was no hesitation. The fact that it took quite a while until the song was confirmed to be in the film was simply because I was waiting for the right moment to play a demo version of the song, already sung by Celine Dion, to Jim Cameron. He was so clear at the beginning of the movie, that there is no song going to be during the end credits that I was carrying that demo version with me for about two weeks until I thought, I should risk my head to play it to him. When I did so, I was, of course, tremendously nervous, but when the song had finished, he stayed calm and finally said that he actually liked it and that it might work. So there you go… The fact that the song takes on the same melody that plays during the opening of the film is the fact why I’d chosen that theme in the first place. With this decision, the song and the melody work as bookends of the emotional movie. I did not change the structure of my score during the film after the song got green light from Jim Cameron. The structure of the score was already set up before the whole decision for putting My Heart Will Go On as an end credits song in the movie.
Many thanks to Basil Boehni, for giving us the opportunity to publish this Master Class.