What I Learned from James Horner

Like so many others, I was shocked and terribly saddened by the untimely, recent passing of James Horner, a consummate film composer, wonderful man, and dear colleague and work friend.

I had always been one in the legion fans of James’ wonderful music, storytelling ability, and of course his distinctive composing voice. His stirring scores for films like Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Titanic, Apollo 13, Field of Dreams, and so many others, deservedly place him in the top tier of the greatest composers in film history. I was privileged to have the opportunity to work with James on a television project (not a film), and to participate in his creative process and to lead collaboration with him and his wonderful production team. But even more so, I was honored to get to know a bit about this very private yet warm, lovely, talented gentleman and learn some life-changing musical and personal lessons from him about being a creative person in the world. Lessons that I will carry with me always.

James and I worked over the course of a few grueling weeks, then intermittently over several years to bring his theme for The CBS Evening News to fruition, and continued to develop the works for all the needs of the CBS News division during the Katie Couric years. My role was as producer for the full soundtrack, as well as arranger and collaborator for some of the music over the ensuing years.

My first encounter with James was at his home in Calabasas, California—more precisely his ‘studio,’ which was in a large building adjacent to his house. Instead of state-of-the-art electronic music-making tools, the large building was a wonderland filled with perpetual motion machines—propeller-driven toys and whirligig contraptions of all shapes and sizes—all spinning and whirring in various physical planes and at different rates. It was like walking through a playground of the mind. Knowing his work, I didn’t have to ask why they were there.

Much further toward the back of this studio building was the only apparent music-making device—a fairly modest grand piano and next to it an architect’s drawing table with a stack of blank music manuscript paper. James went on to explain to me that he had long since disassembled his studio and sold it off in parts because he found himself frustrated—increasingly spending more and more time twiddling knobs and clicking mice rather than making music.

James was a true master of melody and film scoring—certainly one of the greatest ever—with two Oscars and numerous nominations to his name (not to mention five Grammys), and more than one-hundred films scores to his credit. By the time I got to his home he had already written the theme for the broadcast and it had been accepted—an expansive, optimistic journey and lovely ‘Americana’ melody with sweeping and evocative touches and just the right amount of gravitas for CBS News. But when it came to working on all of the other musical needs for the project James readily admitted that he was just a bit out of his element. Actually, he told me he didn’t even own a TV—or have any idea about how to put together the soundtrack for a news broadcast. His candor was so refreshing, and his self-effacing humor so charming—in short, we clicked. So perhaps it was chemistry or maybe necessity, but he immediately trusted me to lead him through the creative discussions and the process. We set to work talking about music, storytelling and the musical architecture of television news—discussing similarities and differences from the architecture of music in film. We also discussed his amazing opportunity—to reach millions of people every day with his work, and to give a voice to the venerable CBS News organization—the home of Paley, Murrow and Cronkite.

But there would be no seven-minute cues to write like in films, no intricate thematic development or multiple motifs to weave together. This was a bit of an alien world for this wonderful film composer, but he took on the challenge with great enthusiasm and relish. There were election themes to write, a wide variety of news stories to compose and arrange for, many short elements would play on CBS Radio and online.

But perhaps the most unfamiliar aspect for James was ‘scoring’ for picture that had not yet been created. A film composer might develop themes and motifs before seeing the picture, but the final music cues would always be scored to visuals and dialogue. In this project, all the music had to come first, because the show is broadcast live. We had to anticipate all their possible needs, and James had to write the whole score before the show even existed. We sat at the piano together, and I helped him navigate this world.

But while James was learning a few technical things from me, I learned so much more from him. It became apparent from the beginning of our discussions that James’ compositional world was full of limitless possibilities. In his mind, there were always ‘a million’ ways to musically solve any creative or storytelling problem, and a million, million more ways behind those. He created musical ideas in a moment and then let them go effortlessly, over and over. It was refreshing and liberating. And of course, inspiring. There was a fluidity to his approach that was joyous. In every music project since, whenever I felt stuck, I’ve reminded myself of James’ cornucopia of musical solutions. To recognize that the world is literally brimming with music, and as long as I can be open, that the ideas would flood in. What a gift.

The CBS project required rapid turnaround—just a few days—an army of orchestrators to complete, and allowed little time for refinements in advance. In a few short days, when we got to the scoring stage with eighty musicians, it became clear that most of the pieces, except the theme (which James wrote first), were too densely orchestrated and that a lot of adjustments would need to be made live from the conductor’s stand. Throughout dozens of changes I suggested in a short six hour session, he never balked or protested. He let it all occur and he made just a few suggestions and adjustments as we went. But he was incredibly open. He trusted.

Needless to say, this was not at all how James was used to working—this creative giant was not only a remarkable film composer, but an accomplished and Grammy winning producer in his own right. He was not accustomed to being ‘produced’ in this way. He was used to being in his element and crafting his own vision. Yet he let it all flow. It was extraordinary. And the results were satisfying for us both.

What I learned from James that day was how—even under the greatest pressures—to trust your collaborators and the process. He had much on the line, but he quietly made space for the experimentation, again and again, letting go as we went. To allow things to unfold. To be quietly fearless.

James and I hadn’t spoken in the last few years before his passing, but nonetheless our work together had created some kind of residual bond, at least for me. I had always imagined that I might have the opportunity to work with him again one day. I am so sad to know now that day will never come. For me and millions of other fans his legacy is bittersweet. We are left to revel in wonderful music he wrote and be moved by the films he elevated and brought to life. We will always remember his incredible gifts and accomplishments and how he touched us all—but we are also left to mourn for all the music that is never to be written.

Good journey to you James. You’ve left us far too soon. But our lives are all richer because you were here.


Joel Beckerman is Founder and Lead Composer of Man Made Music. Talk to him on Twitter @joelbeckerman.

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