Monday, June 29, 2015

For James Horner

Tributes are best written by those well acquainted with the deaths being mourned. They should also know the field the man being celebrated was associated with. In this sense I am a poor writer of tributes.

The point is that writing about James Horner isn't easy. He is a film composer. Correction: was. He died last Tuesday. His field was music. And I am not musically inclined.

Horner's credits were impressive. Getting two Oscars is certainly achievement, and Horner won both for his most popular score, in James Cameron's Titanic.

There were other credits of course, ones which were arguably more applause-worthy and hence memorable. He never won for them. His music for Braveheart, for instance, has been used and reused on national television so many times. To recount them all would be tedious.

Horner belonged to the "elite". The Guardian's tribute to him places him among Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Bernard Herrmann. In certain respects, this is true. Like them, his music added emotional depth and contour to the plot-line. Like them, his music remained (and remains) indispensable to the films he scored. And like them, he moved well in an industry where art and commerce (it is said) get together all the time.

Yes, he was in the elite. That didn't take away authenticity. That merely added to it.

This would doubtless mean he was prolific. Prolific as in 10 films in one year. He composed that many in 1993 and averaged about five or six every year. Not all of them are remembered well today, but the point is that in an industry where 16-hour workdays are the norm he stood out remarkably. It wasn't just about quality, therefore. It was also about quantity.

I am certainly not equipped to assess the man's musical work. Based on what I have heard and know, I can however say this: in nearly every memorable film he worked in, his work added contour to emotion. This is not to say that all his scores were perfectly aligned with the respective actor's emotional tenor, of course. He could conjure tunes which offered contrast too. But in his ability to connect tune with emotion, he was comparable to the "cream" of his field.

There were soundtracks that jarred sometimes, though. These were more idiosyncratic. Like in Mark Lester's Commando, where the image of Arnold Schwarzenegger combating mercenaries like a wild animal was reinforced by an almost testosterone-laden musical score. These jarred not because they were poorly composed, but because he linked film and mood too strongly with music in them.

Was this a problem though? Not really. Horner's greatest strength was in how subtle he could get in his work. Commando in this sense (for me at least) was an exception. Not so with his other credits. The main theme from Braveheart, to give an example, beautifully toned up the conflict of emotion in William Wallace – between his love for his wife Murron MacClannough and his love for Scotland – and how this is resolved through the uprising he leads.

Titanic offers another example. Horner's composition, which as with much of his other work used Celtic music, caught the protagonists' love for each other set against a harsh, unforgiving sea (and Billy Zane's repulsive Caledon Hockley). That is why, when we remember the final sequence of Rose dangling the "Heart of the Ocean" and dropping it into the sea, and all that poignancy welled up till then which erupts subtly in her dream of returning to the Titanic with Jack Dawson, it is Horner's haunting melody that comes into mind.

That melody was no "Lara's Theme". Thankfully. Titanic was epic, yes, but for a story which compressed time and space there was no need for a larger-than-life score. Horner knew this. That is why his work in it remains with us after all this time.

I never got to appreciate music because I wasn't interested. But I loved films. Somewhere down the line, I realised as time passed, the two get together. They are linked. I believe we have some names to thank for that. Like Bernard Herrmann. Maurice Jarre. Premasiri Khemadasa.

We also have James Horner. Unique, yes, and yet among all those giants who made us understand how indispensable music could be to films. For that, we are grateful.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 27 2015