Roughly a year ago, when Titanic Live was first announced, we knew this was an event not to be missed. This is the most popular soundtrack composed by James Horner, and to see it performed live in Royal Albert Hall seemed like it would be a very memorable experience. We were not disappointed.
27 April 2015. It is a little past noon when we enter the Royal Albert Hall, an imposing and majestic concert hall built almost 150 years ago, hosting over the course of decades many music legends: Richard Wagner, Arthur Rubinstein, The Beatles, Bob Dylan…
The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the young singers from Tiffin Boys Choir, Sissel, and Eric Rigler are already situated and are ready to begin the rehearsal. Seasoned conductor Ludwig Wicki, who for several years managed the world tour of cinema concerts for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, provides some instructions to the assembled performers. Suddenly, the famous 20th Centruy Fox fanfare rings out. The magic does its work instantly while simultaneously revealing the complexity of a show of this nature. The synchronization between images and music requires constant adjustments, concentration, and coordination. Throughout sequences, James Horner advises, suggesting more presence in the vocals on some passages, heavier percussion on others. Meanwhile he discusses much with Simon Franglen, who regularly takes to the stage to ensure all the synthesizer levels are working together and with everything else.
At the other end of the hall, we notice the presence of Simon Rhodes in a technical booth, where he is handling the mix. The music is notably put to the fore with respect to the sound effects.
Four hours later, the rehearsal ends. James Horner does not hesitate to take the stage to give some individual guidance to the percussionists. Then he returns to Ludwig Wicki to review one last time some important details. Even if he isn’t conducting the orchestra, the composer is truly invested in the creative process of this show.
5:45 p.m. The room is now open to the public and fills gradually. James Horner is back with producer Jon Landau for a talk show hosted by Tommy Pearson.
James Horner – Tommy Pearson – Jon Landau
Courtesy of Tommy Pearson
It was a fascinating session, covering the process of creating the music for Titanic. Among other things, Horner talked about his reaction to the first rough cut of the film, which ran for a whooping 32 hours:
"I immediately… I didn't go to a piano… I immediately wrote down about six themes, just at my desk. And I decided in my head what kind of instrumentation I had in mind, I wanted to have it be kind of Celtic, I wanted it to be very romantic without reminding of violins – Jim gave me a dictum "no violins" – even though there are violins in the score, (…) He didn't want a schmaltzy score, and I didn't either."
These initial themes were sketched in a timeframe of not more than 40 minutes, according to Horner, and are by and large the same themes that are in the movie today. He continued to talk about his writing process, compared to the more common approach these days using keyboards and computer programs to write music.
"Visually, when I write, it's like painting, for me. I use a paint brush, or in my case a pencil. And I write at a big architect’s table with paper and I sort of paint, or write, my notes horizontally and vertically as I go, and it sort of helps me feel the composition, or feel the painting. Then I'll later check things out later on the piano, but I don't do things in synths and don’t mock up sounds. I need to actually do the process of writing notes by pencil."
Horner also talked slightly about his process of recording and synching music against picture, something we think people less familiar with the movie scoring process found very interesting.
"My process is, I face the orchestra, and I'm conducting to picture. And there are mathematical marks, that go by on the picture, that I have laid out in my score so I always know where I am, in terms of being in synch with the movie. (…) That is how I synchronize, and keep the orchestra where I want them to be, how fast I want them to be during chases, the sinking scenes or whatever the scenes are. That's a process that very few people use anymore. Now it's very much done through headsets where the musicians are all wearing headsets listening to a metronome. The conductor is waving his arms – but quite honestly, no one is watching."
What also was inherently clear in this session was the mutual respect that exists between Horner, Landau and James Cameron. They also talked about the famous story of how the end credits song came to be.
"When you see the movie, there's a lot of music in it. And you get to the end, and as a composer, there are often times when writing the music, I cried. When I write something and watch it to film, privately, I try things and some of them are very emotional. I needed to have something that kept people in their seats and had that effect on them, that wasn't just another orchestral music piece. I had to get very intimate to do that, and felt I couldn't use Irish instruments. I had to use the human voice. And so I started to sketch ideas – themes that I had used in the film, just into sort of a linear form, and tried to see if this could be made into an end credit that people would sit in their seats for nine minutes and watch. I didn't want the magic to stop when the credits rolled. It's very important to me, it's the most precious time to keep an audience in that magic to the end."
Horner then had lyrics written and secretly contacted Celine Dion who agreed to demo it, after Horner himself sang the song to her. He then kept the tape in his pocket for weeks, trying to find the right moment to play it for James Cameron. The day he played it for him, Cameron had just received the finished special effects shot where the wreck of Titanic morphs into full splendor in 1912 Southampton. He was in a very good mood, and Horner decided it was time. Cameron liked the song, but didn't decide to include it in the movie until right before a preview in New York. The rest is history. After a short break, the main event was about to begin. The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the Tiffin Boys choir, Sissel Kyrkjebø, Eric Rigler and the Celtic musicians all took their place up on stage, before Ludwig Wicki arrived shortly thereafter.
Already from the first note, leading into the enchanting vocal and horn solo, set against the sepia shots of Titanic leaving port, it was clear this was going to be something special. Having the musicians right in front of you, with the movie playing in the background created a whole new atmosphere.
Interestingly, from time to time you almost forgot the orchestra was there while the movie was running. This demonstrates how effective the marriage between the picture and the score is and how it works on an audience. It is also a good example of the great sound mix at the event, with the score in the foreground, but still not drowning out the sound effects or dialogue.
Image credit: Paul Sanders
The music of course dominated the soundscape much more than when watching the movie at home or in a regular theatre. As a result, the intricate details of the score became that much more apparent. It was captivating to hear how all the different themes and motifs were weaved into the score, and hearing it with such clarity from the musicians on stage. Ludwig Wicki also did a great job conducting, hitting practically every synch point, and still letting the music breathe and flow within the confines of synchronization and timing.
The choir also did a fantastic job, replacing the synth choir from the original score. In many scenes this was even more effective. This writer would like to mention the sinking scene right after the windows on the bridge breaks under the pressure from the water, sealing Captain Smith’s fate. The film then proceeds with several shots of the panic starting to unfold on the ship. The music here is partly from the cue The Sinking on the original score album, and A Building Panic from Back to Titanic. In the latter cue, there is a melodic motif that appears twice, once with the camera panning along the sinking ship, and then reprised when water floods the grand staircase and washes through the corridors of the ship. This kind of angelic, almost triumphant motif, with the live choir set against the contrast of the panic and chaos unfolding on board, had such a tremendous emotional impact, even more than when watching the film at home.
After the movie ended, the credits started and Sissel Kyrkjebø gave a beautiful performance of My Heart Will Go On. Her voice is different from Celine Dion, but no less beautiful and heartwarming.
If anything demonstrates how the audience felt afterwards, it’s the endless applause. Joining Ludwig Wicki on stage to receive a standing ovation was not only James Horner, but director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau. The ovation lasted several minutes, while audience members were quick to retrieve cameras and smart phones to capture images of the guys on stage.
The evening concluded with a VIP cocktail that lasted until the middle of the night. It was an opportunity for us to converse with James Horner, Eric Rigler, Sissel, Clara Sanabras … Wonderful finale to a memorable evening. An Ocean Of Memories.
Jon Landau, James Cameron, James Horner, Ludwig Wicki, Simon Rhodes, Sissel Kyrkjebø, Simon Franglen, Eric Rigler.
Note: If you attend Titanic Live, do not hesitate to avail yourself of the superb souvenir book of the show which includes interesting interviews with James Horner, J.A.C. Redford, Jim Henrikson. We learned particularly of the long and challenging work that was necessary to adapt the score to the versions present in the film.
"In the final version of Titanic, less than a handful of the music cues in the film are exactly as they were recorded on the scoring stage. A new written score had to be prepared for each cue as edited".
The upcoming Titanic Live concerts are not to be missed:
14 June 2015 Prague
15 June 2015 Munich
16 June 2015 Berlin
17 June 2015 Hamburg
18 June 2015 Vienna
20 June 2015 Brussels
21 June 2015 Luxembourg
22 June 2015 Cologne
23 June 2015 Rotterdam
26 June 2015 Paris
27 June 2015 Paris
28 June 2015 Paris
Special thanks to Rick Burin, Maggie O'Herlihy, Pierre O'Reilly, Tommy Pearson, Kim Østenfor Spildrejorde, Olivier Soudé and David Hocquet.