August 14, 1953 -
born in Los Angeles, CA, composed during the Contemporary period
James Horner is one of the most famous film composers. He is the son of Harry Horner, a motion picture set designer. When he was quite young, the family moved to England, where he acquired an English accent. He spent his teenage years back in Los Angeles, but returned to England to attend the Royal College of Music in London. His composition teacher there was György Ligeti, a leading avant-garde composer whose music was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Horner's intent was to become a classical composer.
Believing his chances in serious music (which he concluded required getting a university post) were greater in the U.S., Horner transferred to the University of Southern California, where he obtained an undergraduate degree. He took his masters and doctorate in music theory and composition at UCLA and was offered a teaching position there. He wrote an orchestral work, Spectral Shimmer. After a frustrating effort to get it performed, it was played once (for an audience of 400, he says) by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Then Horner received an offer to score documentaries for the American Film Institute and "got hooked" on the process of writing music and immediately hearing it performed by an orchestra. He decided to become a film composer.
He went to work for Roger Corman's company, New World Pictures, and Horner became adept a writing scores quickly. He became known for an ability to obtain a large Hollywood sound with minimal means. The best-known of his scores from the Corman years is Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) but the same year he did his first important film, Lady in Red. After that, he began to work for major studios and drew his first prominent assignment inn 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The score was notable both for its warmth and from its eschewing unusual instrumentation or "spacey" effects. This led to other special effects action films, Krull and Brainstorm, in the latter of which he used a fascinating mix of orchestral, choral, and synthesized sound. He became noted for his touching, warm-hearted music in Ron Howard's Cocoon (1985).
In 1986 he was reunited with another Corman alumnus, director James Cameron, on Aliens. The experience was nearly disastrous -- Cameron gave him only ten days to complete the score, and during that period tried to get Horner to do rewrites, which was impossible. Horner vowed never to work with Cameron again. Nevertheless, Horner received his first Academy Award nomination for that score, which is notable for having a very different musical effect and no common musical elements from the first Alien film (scored by Jerry Goldsmith).
He has composed nearly 100 soundtracks with sounds ranging from Russian (Gorky Park), world music (Where the River Runs Black), and American rural (Field of Dreams) to medieval (The Name of the Rose). He often scores "against type," as in the case of the Civil War epic Glory, noted for its elegiac tone rather than explicit battle music. Other notable films scored by Horner are The Rocketeer, Legends of the Fall, Clear and Present Danger, The Mask of Zorro, The Perfect Storm, and Enemy at the Gates.
But he is best known for his score to Cameron's Titanic, the most profitable soundtrack recording in history. Horner reversed his stand on working with Cameron on reading the script and approached the director, who in the meantime had deeply admired Horner's music for Braveheart and Apollo 13.
Now the rather shy composer (who lives a comfortable distance from Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters) is often recognized and asked for autographs. ~ Joseph Stevenson, Rovi