The damp air and the waning light of a late, rainy Saturday in early March 2018 brought both the lightness of renewal and the soft weight of serenity along a tree-shrouded trail that wound from Sara Horner’s home to James Horner’s studio. Three members of James Horner Film Music were the guests of Sara and Emily Horner, and after an afternoon of warm remembrance, we were finally approaching an enchanting space that was the center of James Horner’s creative energy and which today still enshrines so much of what was special and magical about his soul while he was alive.
The Santa Monica Mountains are a transverse range, a momentary deviation from the north-south collision between continental plates, stretching east-west from the strawberry fields of the Oxnard Plain to the eroded spires of the Pacific Palisades, west of Los Angeles. In the canyons that carved regular passages from the San Fernando and Conejo Valleys to the 27-mile strand of isolated civilization known as Malibu sprung enclaves of art and culture and rarified erudition, peaking during the counter-culture of the 1960s, eventually morphing into the secluded sanctuaries of moguls, stars, and artists in the 1980s and beyond.
The Santa Monica Mountains
Nestled off an obscure sideroad not far from the intersection of Mulholland Highway and one of these canyon roads is a property James Horner shared with his wife, artist Sara Horner. Betwixt two residential structures on the sprawling but rugged estate can be found the studio where James Horner undertook a considerable number of his most beloved endeavors. It was place of unimaginable magic when he inhabited it, vibrating still with the echoes of his presence and the essence of his creative force, now nearly three years since the maestro’s pen was stilled and the space bereaved of his musical energy.
The terrain of the Santa Monicas in general is rocky and rolling, the climate quite Mediterranean: golden grass hills clad in dry chaparral and ancient oak trees, peppered with copses of sycamore and eucalyptus trees and vaulted with wide, blindingly blue, unclouded skies from vale to sea. But the day we were invited to converse with Sara and Emily on their remembrance of their man and our legend, the air was damp, the grass verdant, the trees dripping with the renewing vitality of the recent spring rains. We spent the afternoon beside a cheerful fire, engaged in fruitful discourse of discovery and new connections. We knew Sara was eager to show us the studio, but our conversation was so engaging, the afternoon was wearing warmly on. We were eager to see it ourselves, to experience a place that, even frozen in time, represented so much of what colleagues and collaborators had told us was indescribably magical about working with James Horner. We’d seen a smattering of photographs, we’d heard tales. Stacey Pantazis, the Horner Estate chief of staff, had told us that being in the studio was the closest experience one might ever have of standing inside the mind of James Horner. So, the time had come, and we stretched our legs and strolled the rolling path through a stand of trees that led to a forest garden that surrounded the inviting entrance to James Horner’s studio.
Entering the studio with the sound of chimes
Emily confided that this was the first time she’d come to spend time in the studio since her father died. Sara pointed out aerial distribution of giant wind chimes that hung from the trees throughout the woods that enveloped the path leading to his studio. The remoteness, the tranquility, the serenity draped the forest like a quilt of quietude, disturbed only by the swaying of the trees and the music of a million leaves punctuated by dulcet chimes of varying octaves. We couldn’t help but recall selections from The Spitfire Grill, House of Cards, The Journey of Natty Gann, and The New World, perhaps imagining what his concert work, A Forest Passage may have sounded like.
First objects at the entrance
In this setting, under this spell, we came upon the front door. In the forest path and the secluded garden, we were already in James Horner’s world. Yet no amount of discussion, tales, or photographs could prepare us for what awaited on the other side. For this threshold was the entryway into the world within the world that was James Horner’s inner sanctum.
First visual contact with the main room
We walk into the studio and we were speechless. Throughout his life, James amassed a staggering number of collections: Dozens of Russian nesting dolls, mechanical wooden toys, terrestrial globes and intricate kinetic models of the solar system, things that light up, things that fly, things that roll, even several clockwork models literally acting out the flogging of a dead horse (which Emily liked to point out and found especially amusing). According to Sara: “the interior of James’s studio is not like any other space you’ve ever seen. It is full of collections and arrangements of idiosyncratic items…and a kind of art construction.” This space and the things within truly afford an understanding of the composer’s mind.
Find the piano
The studio is composed of 4 rooms: 2 large and 2 small. One of the two smaller is the entrance to the studio with a kitchenette and already a small gallery of fascinating objects to admire. The second, largest main room was stacked from wall to wall with mechanical metal and wooden wonders. Model helicopters and metal model dirigibles hung from the ceiling. Steam lines winding up bookshelves, powering miniature engines.
All among a universe of other trinkets and marvels that it boggles the mind that: a) any of it was there at all; and b) somewhere in the midst of that clockwork jungle was a New York Steinway piano where a musical legend once sat, conceiving passages that have brought uncounted souls to tears. This very space was the birthplace of musical ideas whose intellectual warp and emotional weft have woven together a rich tapestry that brought clarity and definition and at times healing to hearts and minds of so many.
The Steinway piano
In our earlier conversations, Sara had told us that James preferred tall ceilings in his creative space. So much so that she had to rein him in when working with architects who designed and built the studio. Even within the restrictions of reason, Horner’s preference for cavernous, almost cathedral-like spaces was clear upon entering the main studio, the tall, angled ceiling stretched high above us, giving yet another dimension into which Horner’s riot of kinetic things could proliferate. Elaborate model airplanes dropped in from the air above and shared space with boats, helicopters, and large mobiles suspended in mid-air. A bank of windows just below the ceiling let in natural light.
To the right, old recording equipment
To the left, vinyls and Russian dolls
Man-made noises from the road or nearby properties were an infuriating distraction while he worked; he would be known to confront workmen who made too much noise. Yet Horner found the regular, predictable sound from his mechanical contraptions a welcome ambiance in which to center himself and immerse his attention into his work. Walking around the room and seeing his empty chair by the piano, his erasers right where he had last left them, all the devices still and silent, the room itself became a metaphor of its own of James’s absence from the world. Imagining how vibrant this room must have been with its spinning, whirling, whirring, tick-tocking, blinking and glowing. All the whizbang whirlygigs densely populating the space no longer being in motion was especially poignant. The silence, rather than being oppressive, imbued the air with a sense of reverence. What was once the center of creative energy had become some hybrid of an empty museum and an unvisited shrine. And yet there was an electric hum in the background, which in its own way represented the a lingering but palpable magical energy, echoes of that creative force evident at every turn and saturating every corner.
View from the annex room
The wall between the second and third rooms is a vast library filled with documentary books on various subjects. Sara shared in exasperation that he seemed to never read for pleasure, but the many subjects represented in this tall wall of books was a mirror of what fascinated him in life.
Schostakowitsch, Schubert, Strauss, Tschaikowsky, Stravinsky, Wagner
Above the portal between rooms was a full shelf of what appeared to be first edition volumes of Jules Verne. One’s attention is strongly attracted to the scores of classical works that James Horner had elected to maintain in his possession. There was Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, which signaled memories of Joe Gore, a 16-year old composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist studying at UCLA in 1975:
“I attended school during the last gasp of modernism. The focus was avant-garde 20th century music, from Arnold Schoenberg to such then-leading lights as Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, and Witold Lutosławski. Post-Romantic music was considering hopelessly tacky. No one studied Richard Strauss. But I remember Jamie walking around with Strauss’s Alpine Symphony score under his arm. He was smarter than everyone else.”
The third room
This third room was equally amazing with models, old computers, a rat’s nest of electrical connections sprawling on the floor behind one assemblage of many monitors and components. Lava lamps and signs that spell words in the air. The fourth, smallest, and last room was a place of storage of unused furniture and large colored glass panel art installations.
A collection of recollections
All throughout the studio were personal reminders of a life lived, and a life being lived: photographs of family in younger years, notebooks and memoirs. A dry erase board with a note from one of his daughters to wake her no matter how late he arrived from wherever he was missed. These personal effects reminded us not only of the musical legend who occupied the space and brought so much of himself into it, but also of the man who held in sway all whose path he crossed, and of the persons who people his life. The studio represents not only a career halted, but a life interrupted, a journey frozen forever in midstep.
From behind the piano
As afternoon stretched into evening, time came to depart. It was difficult to leave. This place at one time was the factory that spun out tapestries of emotionally rich music that brought, as evidenced by the testimonials at his passing, clarity and definition and at times healing to so many souls. So rarely does one have such a concrete chance to encounter the wellspring of one’s own ineffable quietude—this ultimate source of creative tides that have forged a foundation for the regular and abiding stillness of the soul.
Into the Horner world
Meandering through the walk-spaces carved through gears and cogs and blinking lights, luminescent facets, and constellations of uncountable clockwork oddities was like stepping into a silent mirror whose other side was the summation of every sound to which we’d ever ascribed meaning. We probably each had braced ourselves against the folly of worshiping a hero. James Horner was just a person, the mementos of his most personal connections amplifying this fact. But exploring this inner sanctum of his creative world was an almost unexpectedly insightful and personal journey for each of us.
It was a beautiful privilege.
The visit left an indelible memory. We came in late afternoon and walked out under the blanket of early eventide darkness. Behind the door that Emily locked behind us, we were still amazed by so many objects to admire, so many intricate details to discover. This profusion of elements could satisfy our curiosity for long hours without feeling weary. But it was time to retire, to leave James’s family to their evening and their lives. Knowing what a gift it was to wander this space, we were reluctant to leave, nonetheless profoundly grateful to be here at all. We walked away from James’s kinetic inner world couched within a quiet outer one, reminded of James’s presence still by the tinkling of chimes and the ever-swaying of the trees.
Article by Tom Hudson, Kim Østenfor Spildrejorde and Jean-Baptiste Martin.