James Horner, an Academy Award-winning composer best known for scoring the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” has died after one of his planes crashed in Southern California on Monday.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the crash occurred near Los Padres National Forest about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara. “A single-engine S312 Tucano MK1 crashed under unknown circumstances near Cuyama around 9:30 a.m.,” the FAA said in a statement. “The pilot was killed.”
Horner’s agents, Michael Gorfaine and Sam Schwartz, confirmed Horner’s death in a statement late Tuesday published in the Los Angeles Times. He had been missing and presumed dead on Monday.
Horner won two Oscars for writing the soundtrack to “Titanic,” which included the hit song “My Heart Will Go On,” co-written with Will Jennings and sung by Celine Dion.
Horner was one of Hollywood’s leading composers and scored other blockbusters, such as “Braveheart,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Avatar,” “Apollo 13,” “Field of Dreams” and “Aliens,” for which he received his first Oscar nomination in 1987.
Actors, directors and fellow composers took to Twitter to express their sadness at the news on Monday.
Horner described his composing process during a 2009 interview about the movie “Avatar” with the Los Angeles Times.
“To me, writing and composing are much more like painting, about colors and brushes,” he said. “I don’t use a computer when I write and I don’t use a piano. I’m at a desk writing and it’s very broad strokes and notes as colors on a palette. I think very abstractly when I’m writing. Then as the project moves on it becomes more like sculpting.
“My job — and it’s something I discuss with Jim [Cameron] all the time — is to make sure at every turn of the film it’s something the audience can feel with their heart,” Horner said. “When we lose a character, when somebody wins, when somebody loses, when someone disappears — at all times I’m keeping track, constantly, of what the heart is supposed to be feeling. That is my primary role.”
Horner was born into the movie business. His father, Harry Horner, was a Hollywood production designer. But James grew up wanting to be a classical music composer.
“I had no interest in movies at all,” he said in a video interview on YouTube. Instead, he attended the Royal College of Music in London before receiving a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Southern California.
“When I first did my movie … it was by accident,” he said in the 2010 video interview, part of an oral history of Hollywood. “I was having a piece performed and in attendance was the director of the American Film Institute, and he asked if I had ever done a movie before … I said sure, I’ll give it a try.”
To his surprise, he found composing for movies to be “liberating.”
“Once I had written my first piece against picture, I sort of fell in love with it,” he said. “It was like lightning hit me. I found that I could write anything I wanted to write and there wouldn’t be a label attached to it. I was no longer considered conservative, I was no longer considered avant-garde or anything in between.”
Horner, who lived in the hills to the northwest of Los Angeles, said he deliberately “shunned people” in order to have the peace and quiet to compose.
“I made a solemn vow to myself that if I could ever afford a piece of land it would be way out in the country … living on a dirt road with lots of trees,” he said. “It’s just my way of feeling like I’m not working in Los Angeles even if I have to be here.”
In the oral history interview, Horner lamented the recent shift toward more formulaic, computer-aided music, both in movies and pop culture.
“I think I was one of the first people to make the change of being in grad school to moving into B movies,” he said. “Now I think that’s what everybody is doing. I don’t even think people are necessarily even bothering with going to music school or grad school. I think a lot of people are simply taking a minimum of music education but immediately trying to get into commercial music in one way or another, and there are now tens if not hundreds of composers writing music. When I was starting there were two or three.
“Now the lines are going around the block for some Dutch DJ,” he said. “It’s totally strange to me. And it’s the same thing that I feel happening in film music in that the technology has taken over the person in a way, the enabling technology.”
Horner said he preferred the sweeping soundtracks of classic movies, like “Star Wars.”
“It was very operatic,” he said of John Williams’s famous “Star Wars” score. “You had a theme for bravery, you had Luke’s theme, you had the Empire’s theme, you had Leia’s theme and then maybe more, and they were all intertwined. They were really significant themes, and you could tell what was going on. That type of writing is gone.
“I think that the stories being written don’t subscribe themselves to something quite that operatic. But the filmmakers don’t want that. They find it old fashioned.
“On several occasions on films I’ve worked on, I would write a theme to express an idea and I’d be asked to take the theme out and just do it with chords or somehow imply it,” he said. “They did not want a theme in the film. I don’t really know of another way to say something from the heart except by how I orchestrate it and with a theme.”
Horner said that he had “cut back” on writing music for major motion pictures because of the rise in predictable action movies.
“I look for very small things, gems that are probably not that commercial but things that I like to do for my heart and the filmmakers want that kind of approach, and every now and then a big film will come along,” he said. “But so much money now is being put into big films that follow a set of instructions, and whether it’s called ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Green Lantern’ or blah blah blah, they all sort of have a spectrum of sounds and approaches that are expected.”
But Horner, who was working on “Avatar” sequels with friend and frequent collaborator James Cameron, said he would never stop scoring movies altogether. He was hooked.
“Having the music as part of a multimedia experience, film and music, resonates much more with an audience emotionally than just music by itself and just film by itself,” he said. “The marriage of the two is what makes it magic. And that is something I just sort of felt and realized early on. And that was something that I had been missing in my own music, or going in to see Beethoven, just walking into a dark room, the lights go out, and you hear a Brahms symphony. It’s very beautifully performed and you walk out and that’s that.
“But to have a piece of music married to a piece of film, that’s a special sort of relationship.”