Six Years After His Death, James Horner Lives on…in my Novel
Sources of inspiration for a writer are as vast as they are mysterious. I’ve been writing for decades, yet the things that spark an idea continue to surprise me. I tend to think that they come from actively expanding the boundaries of knowledge, but sometimes I write from places of old knowledge. When this happens, it is most often an accident.
When I started writing my debut novel, Jane of Battery Park, I did not plan for it to be about music. I was writing about a culture gap, which also tends to be a gap in world views/belief systems and the role of pop culture. I was writing to explore extreme faith and also do a little fantasizing about Hollywood and knowing hot actors and GASP, having them fall in love with an ordinary person like me who outside of fashion that she doesn’t bother shaving in summer.
But film music has been part of my life since I was young, and as I was digging through the archives of my life to build my main character, Jane, I used film music to develop and articulate her emotional journey. That journey then found its way onto the page.
Film music becomes the thing that speaks romance to Jane. But more than that, it gives her access to a world outside of her conservative upbringing. Because it is instrumental, it could be a bridge between what she knew and what she wanted to know, without being morally corrupt or suspect in her culture. In a pivotal scene towards the end of the novel, Jane goes to a studio and watches James Horner record an original score for a movie in production.
When I wrote that scene, I admit, most of it was wish fulfillment. I wanted to be Jane in that moment. For a while, I thought it might be a fantasy come true. But then, Horner died on June 22, 2015. In the midst of all the emotions of launching a debut novel this year, I’ve been taking June to think about Horner and what it means to his legacy that he is part of my book.
Many people have been touched by Horner’s music, the most obvious way a film composer lives on. So, here are my five favorite tracks and what writerly me thinks when I hear them.
- The Ludlows from Legends of the Fall
The piano beginning of this track feels like young love, something larger than innocence. About thirty seconds in, the piano fades into a lush full orchestra for the film’s main theme. It builds through the melody to a crescendo that I always think is the ‘reveal moment’, that time in a scenic movie where the camera moves from closed space to a panoramic shot. When you drive around the bend in the mountains and suddenly before you is the most beautiful valley you’ve ever seen.
- Main Title from Apollo 13
This is the music I think about during the meet cute of Jane of Battery Park where Jane and Daniel are in Battery Park and he’s discovering that she’s not quite a normal person (whatever that means) she tells him that his brother’s life (blockbuster movie star) would be scored in perfect fifths, which are also called patriotic fifths and there are a lot of them in this score.
- To the Rescue from The Rocketeer
The sparkly harmonia-like fairy music at the beginning of this track is also used in Horner’s score to Twister. It feels like the introduction to a fable with teeth in it. The opening of the theme is fractures of melody, each one a question posed with a delayed answer. It creates a sense of play, children’s call and response across open fields. The first 2:30 are like this, a prelude, something that feels like its building energy to leave the ground, and then, with a crescendo, a new tempo, and more sound, we do.
- End Credits from The Land Before Time
I probably like this album because it imprinted on me from childhood. Listening to this track, which has all the main motifs in it, I remember scenes from the film, I remember rubber puppet toys from Pizza Hut. And just before the 2 minute mark, when the main theme kicks in, I get a little weepy because this is also the melody for the Dianna Ross song that plays at the end of the movie. I have more feels about this song than We are the Champions from the end of Mighty Ducks. This is the only soundtrack where I insert actual words when I hear the instrumental melody.
- Ocean of Memories from Titanic
At a pivotal scene in Jane of Battery Park, Jane is in her kitchen in Nebraska cheating on her husband with movie soundtracks. She’s crying while trying to cook spaghetti because the music, this track in particular has unlocked something in her that she needs, but she doesn’t know how to get. I chose this track because it is my favorite from the album. It blends the promise of new life with lost love and old memory.
It is also a prototypical late 90’s Horner track in that it utilizes ethereal electronic music with the strong lyrical phrasing and repetition of phrasing characteristic of his early work. At 4:20, is my most favorite of favorite Horner transitions into what I call the ‘Horner quote’ a series of phrases that he put in many of his scores. It’s carried by a melancholy horn solo here, a beautiful addition to the funerial tone.