In Conversation With James Horner at Royal Albert Hall

A week ago on Wednesday I traveled up to The Royal Albert Hall in London to attend BAFTA Conversations with Screen Composers featuring the composer of the best-selling film soundtrack of all time, James Horner. (If you’ve been living in a hole for the last 20 years, that soundtrack was of course the Soundtrack to Titanic.)

Held in the beautiful Elgar Room with the backdrop of Echoes 6 from the main area of the RAH, the stage was set with a bright red Markson grand piano, two seats and a projector screen, which would be showing clips of some of the film that the composer would be talking about. The audience was a mix of young professionals and slightly older film music and film enthusiasts with the dress code leaning towards the smart casual side – the RAH does feel like something of a palace so it does feel right to dress up to a certain level when going there for an event. I certainly did not feel out of place in my blazer, shirt and suit trousers.

With a career which has already spanned longer than my life-time, I certainly felt a little under-prepared when reading the liner notes that were helpfully left on each of the plush seats in the room. Having not heard of let alone seen half of the films which Horner had notably scored, the talk was definitely an educational experience for me in the not just the film music the composer but also of films from the 80s that I should probably get around to seeing sometime soon.

Even within my life-time though, I had seen a number of films scored by James Horner which I wasn’t even aware of: A Beautiful Mind (2001), Troy (2003) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) to name just a few. And then going back to other classic films which had somehow evaded my memory such as Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Apollo 13, Jumanji and The Mask of Zorro, I realised that I had seen and heard a lot more of Horner’s music than just Titanic and Avatar as I had initially thought.

With his background in classical music, having a doctorate in Musical Composition & Theory and having studied at Royal College of Music in London as well as the University of Southern California and UCLA, it was interesting to hear that he, like many others, chanced his way into film composition through an acquaintance, which led to the next thing and the next thing, eventually leading him to where he is today.

During the interview, Horner spoke passionately and with a clarity of mind about his early works – an impressive feat for a man with as long and expansive career. He spoke very fondly of a number of directors with whom he has worked, including Ron Howard, Mel Gibson, James Cameron and Jean-Jacques Annaud, expressing a desire to work with Gibson again in a new film and talking about how he overcame his differences with Cameron to form a close friendship over time.

For a man who does not interview very often, Horner seemed quite a natural at it, keeping the audience all waiting on his next story or interesting aside. It was fascinating to hear how he still scores everything ‘by hand’ and does not rely on click tracks when recording live with an orchestra, preferring to conduct along to the picture – alongside John Williams these are a very rare breed in today’s technological era of composition, particularly with film scores. Horner described Bernstein, Williams and Goldsmith as being the “Gods of the time” who were all influential in one way or another to Horner’s career.

The hour and a half session flew by, with a short Q&A section at the end, as usual dominated by other film composers of some degree and film music enthusiasts who wanted to share their admiration for the man amongst a group of 100 or so people who undoubtedly all felt the same.

Having attended a few of these sessions before, including talks from George Fenton (Frozen Planet, Planet Earth, Blue Planet) and David Arnold (Casino Royale, Godzilla, Sherlock), I always find the insight into a composer’s mind very fascinating. It is clear from what I have seen and from what I have studied that all film composers have a unique way of working, and that the best advice for any aspiring composer is to find their own way rather than attempt to use the well-trodden path of their idols. If anybody needs me, that is where I shall be.

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