Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Somewhere Out There

Quick! Name your favorite film composer!! Don’t think, just react. Who?!”

Well, if you know me at all, you know that my instant answer is That Guy From The Star Wars Films.

I first banged into Mr. Williams’ score for the first Star Wars film pretty much when everyone else did. “Everyone else”, for the record, includes the Hollywood filmmaker types, who forcibly re-learned that American music history is littered with fine pieces of symphonic music created specifically for film. Williams (and his co-conspirators, some otherwise unlikely fellows named Lucas and Spielberg) kicked that door back open, after some years of the movie orchestral music tradition having lain fallow.

And a number of new composers barreled through that door.


Sad news yesterday, that began in an odd way. First came reports that a small airplane that was registered to motion picture composer James Horner had crashed. There was a short period of dogged resistance to declare that he had actually been in the thing (somewhere between responsible journalism and not wanting Horner to have been in it, perhaps). Finally, Horner’s publicist confirmed that he had been in the crash.

Since the online world allows for such things, tributes have been popping up madly. I would like to join the rush.


Horner Thought #1: with respect to the justly-famous Jerry Goldsmith, I have felt that Horner’s Star Trek theme was the best of the movie-franchise music. If Star Trek was originally thought of as Horatio Hornblower in space, then Horner’s unabashedly naval score launched the USS Enterprise out of drydock in high style in “The Wrath of Khan”, and made some of us forget that we were watching stock footage cannibalized from the first movie.

That’s where I first became aware of James Horner – because it was probably where the very most people became aware of him. It was arguably his first work for a “major” motion picture. He was not quite 30 years old when he wrote the Trek II score.


Horner Thought #2: According to sources cited by Horner’s Wikipedia entry, he “has been criticized for writing film scores that incorporate passages from his earlier compositions and that feature brief excerpts or reworked themes from other classical composers, [including Sergei Prokofiev, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Carl Orff] [although honestly, what composer in the last two decades hasn’t gone all “Carmina Burana” at least once?]. The movie-soundtrack review website Filmtracks said that Horner was “skilled in the adaptation of existing music into films with just enough variation to avoid legal troubles.” (And yes, the eight-note Trek II title theme is unquestionably hiding somewhere in Mr. Prokofiev’s catalog.)

I’m not here to tell you this is not so. There is a particular passage that I first heard at the end of the Trek II main title, a rhythmically-active sequence of rising harmonies that is very exciting and very effective and very Horner … and very prone to reappearing often in the remainder of Horner’s scores (all the way to his work just a couple of years ago in “The Amazing Spider-Man”) … such that when I hear them, it does take me out of the cinematic moment. But John Williams also has taken flak for sounding a lot like Wagner, Gustav Holst, and Erich Korngold. I’m not advocating for plagiarism; but at what point is it poaching, and at what point is it merely homage or influence?  And at what point does it become in the style of Horner?


Horner Thought #3: I would suggest that an undeniable truth about James Horner is that he was successful as a film composer because he knew what to do musically that supported – and sometimes greatly enhanced – films’ visual moments.

From the destruction of a flying American entertainment icon to the creation of a set of spacegoing American heroes to the launch of a flying comic-book jetpack-wearing hero, he was particularly good at getting movie audiences airborne.

Even amidst the bloated budgets and overwhelming visual effects of the two highest-grossing movies ever released, Horner managed to find ways to allow audiences’ imaginations to be carried away … by using musical conventions that those audiences were all too familiar with. And made those conventions work.

He even made grown men weep, contributing to a scene that, minus music, might have been somewhere between cheesey and truly odd.


But, although Horner was often tasked with adding musical accompaniment to bombastic, grandiose and fanciful images, he did manage less sweeping but equally memorable movie moments. From a movie that is best remembered for this tear-jerking little number, featuring a six-year-old boy voicing an animated mouse …

this little item might be my favorite of all.

June 23, 2015 - Posted by | entertainment, movies, music | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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