Several years ago, I was contemplating writing a book [which will probably never come to fruition] and had a conversation with composer/orchestrator J.A.C Redford to discuss how a composer works; in particular, a composer whom I greatly admire: James Horner. This was a rare opportunity to get an insight into how James worked and how the world around him influenced his compositional process, in the words of someone he worked with closely for 18 years. For those who are interested in exmaining how a composer composes, I think J.A.C’s comments are extraordinarily insightful.
The following is excerpted from the interview that took place in Fall of 2016. Most of the prompts were deliberately vague. I structured the interview in a way to facilitate open-ended discussion into the broad range of factors that influence a composer’s creative process, rather than the "Tell me about a time when XYZ happened" type of interviewing.
[thank you to John Andrews for helping with the transcription]
[James] would spend the lion's share of the time by himself in his room working out the timing. He would always lay out the bars first and count the beats which he'd put at the bottom of a score, sometimes at the top. Once he had the layout together, he would start to fill in bars. He'd always start at the top and sometimes he'd skip around within the cue when he knew where he was going or what he wanted to do with it, and then he would fill in the stuff in between later on.
I was brought in after he had finished a sketch sufficiently to be able to communicate to me what he wanted. He always thought through every single bar, but he didn't always have it sketched out. He sketched on score paper. I would say there's like four levels of the way that he communicated with me:
The first would be, and then that would be the most detailed, where he would have everything sketched out on the score paper, and so it was virtually a copy job for me to put it into the computer. That was the first line.
The second way would be to have it more sketchy, where he would have like melody in the bass line or melody and the harmony suggested on, in sort of a couple of staves in the center of the score page, with verbal indications of which instruments were playing which part and so forth. And we would talk through that, talk about the orchestration. He always talked about the orchestration in a lot of detail. And he told me, when we first began, he told me he liked to work in primary colors. And that told me that he didn't want to do a lot of doubling. And in fact he didn't like to do a lot of doubling. He liked the instruments to have their own, their own identity whenever he used them. So he would be specific about that. And, you know, part of the art of orchestration is to figure out when doubling is appropriate and to use it appropriately, but he didn't often like to do that. Occasionally he would, and he would listen to my suggestions. He always was very, he always listened to my suggestions. And often he would say, “No, I don't really want to do that. I want to stick with the primary color.” But sometimes he'd go, “Yeah, ok. That's an interesting idea, let's do that.”
The third way that he would communicate is with a lot of verbal indication. Sometimes there would be things like, “These ten bars, use a previous cue,” and he would cite the cue and then he'd say, “and modulate it to this, to the new key here, have this be in a different key and redo the orchestration so that it's compelling or convincing in the new key.” Sometimes he would refer to, sometimes it would be just a melody line with chord symbols over it, like finger-bass type of thing. And then we would talk through, we would talk through how he wanted to play it out, but what was actually on the page was the melody and the chord symbol, and he just didn't have time to fill it in and we would talk through what he wanted to do there. You know, by the end of our working time together we had a lot of history behind us. I worked for him for eighteen years. And so he would be able to refer to things that we'd done before and say, you know, “This is kind of like this over here.” And, or we would approach this in the way that we approached this similar problem in a previous score, or something like that.
And then the fourth line of defense is, if he didn't have much time at all, he'd always have the bars laid out. He'd sit down and improvise at the piano or play what he'd been thinking about. We always recorded our meetings so that I could take them home and listen to them as I was orchestrating, so that I could hear what his improvisations were at the piano and listen to how he was describing it should be fleshed out in the orchestra and achieve what he was looking for through that.
He would [always] be writing at the piano. But to get to the piano, you had to walk through a trail between the games and the toys, and the…
Well, he wrote at the piano. I would often go up for our meetings and he'd be composing before I got there. I'd hear him playing the piano and would have to wait for a silence when he was writing down what he'd just improvised, you know, to knock on the door or else he wouldn't hear me and I'd have to stand outside for a while. I mean, in my experience, that's how he wrote. At the piano. I write away from the piano because I'm not a very good pianist, but James could play pretty well. You know, I was a trombonist, and nobody uses the trombone to compose. [Laughs]
The composer’s environment
One of the most interesting things when I first went to visit him was that had this huge collection of classical recordings, which I really enjoyed looking at because every conceivable recording that I ever wanted to own he had, you know? [Laughs] Right above them there were these Russian nesting dolls that were really, clearly top quality nesting dolls, and they always just kind of presided over our meetings sitting up there on the shelf. [Laughs]
Some collections of office things, staplers and so forth, came in five pastel shades. He'd buy all of the shades, all of the sizes and all of the colors. [Laughs]
The building that I visited him in in the late nineties, that remained the same from then until his death, was a big warehouse size [structure] with three rooms in it, I guess, apart from the entryway and the bathroom. There was a big room and his grand piano was in that and then a big giant screen and his gear and so forth.
He never gave me MIDI files to work with, ever, whereas a lot of other composers moved into that. During the time I worked for James, he never did that. Although sometimes some of the guys that were working with him when they were creating stuff on the gear, they would send me MIDI files, but James himself, it was always handwritten sketches with him. And I did handwritten manuscript scores for him up through The Spiderwick Chronicles. It was finally on Spiderwick that I convinced him that I really need to move to Finale scores just so we could keep pace with the changes in the picture.
It's really hard to describe, you know, we were talking about his room, it's really hard to describe the effect of this room, this big, warehouse-sized, well, not a huge warehouse but it kind of looked like a warehouse. It was just a big, open floor. But it was filled with tables and full of whirring machines, like Rube Goldberg kinds of devices, automata they call them, like things that you could turn a crank and they would be made out of wood. Really well-crafted. Some of them were perpetually on, so during the course of our meetings you could hear whirring and buzzing and bells going off, like a toy shop or something, you know? [Laughs] It was crazy. Then one of the other rooms had bookshelves and more of a, like a workshop type of vibe to it. And then I never actually went into the other room. I think he had some exercise equipment in there or something. I don't know. Anyway, it was jammed to the gills with stuff.
Deliberate or subconscious creative choices: the composer’s use of borrowed or quoted musical material
I don't really know what was in his head about that because, he always had a bag of tricks which he would use, you know, like a plumber and electrician has a bag of tools and you don't have to invent different tools every time. His voice, a composer's voice, is made up of the gestures that he tends to use again and again. And that seemed to be one of them that was part of his voice. And he was very well educated in the classics. He would return often to pieces of classical music. He never in my hearing specifically said, you know, “Here I'm doing Bartok,” or “Here I'm doing Rachmaninoff,” or something. He never said that. He would say things like “this should be orchestrated in the manner of” or “this should have the feel of,” and then he would refer to something in the literature. And that was great for me because that's where I live too, so it was a way that we could communicate with each other, by referring to a great work of the repertoire.
He's taken a good deal of criticism over the years for reusing stuff and borrowing things. I think he lived in another era, you know, mentally, in some ways. It's only in relatively recent history that the idea of every piece of music having to be completely novel, and creative. I call it the cult of novelty. [Laughs] And the funny thing is, the more novel the pieces get the more they sound like each other, oddly enough. I mean, look at a lot of the stuff at the end of the twentieth century. I never went into that relationship, working for James, thinking that he was a lesser composer because of his borrowing. He borrowed from the best, and, you know, I spent absolutely zero time figuring out where the stuff had come from. I spent all of my time figuring out how to make it sound great, in the immediate context in which we were working.
I was bothered by the fact that he was criticized at the expense of the things that he was genuinely gifted at. It seems like sort of a little bit of petty sniping given the breadth of his contributions. Really terrific film composer, he had great sensibilities, he never failed to elevate a scene when he was working on it. He had so many gifts that he brought to the party. It seems sort of petty to have to camp on that one [thing] at the expense of all the good stuff that he did. So yeah, it bothered me a little bit.
I did a series of arrangements for Joshua Bell. One of them is called Voice of the Violin. It included the Rachmaninoff Vocalise, which Rachmaninoff himself arranged. He originally wrote it for a singer with an orchestra and then he arranged it for a group of twenty soli violin playing the lead line against the orchestra. We adapted that. Basically, Josh would just play that soli line as a solo violin line. So the entire orchestration was Rachmaninoff. But I was miscredited on the album as the arranger of that one because I had arranged virtually all of the other pieces on the album but one. And so when the album came out, some critic wrote in and said, “Well, as befitting a film composer, the arrangements and especially the Rachmaninoff Vocalise is just over the top, I mean film composers are just so…” you know, blah blah blah. And I hadn't even done the arrangement! [Laughs] But it kind of shows you how critics think sometimes.
The Evolution of Process
I think one thing that changed is, he got tired. I think he was weighed down by changes in the film music business. He would often speak about the discouragement of having to fight for the type of music that he loved. And how changes in technology, you know, he refused to do computerized demos. He would play, he would still play things on the piano to demo what he was going to do in terms of a theme. He just hated doing that. [Simon] Franglen would sometimes do stuff for him, maybe a lot [of people] would do stuff for him to demo material. I don't know exactly how much [Simon] did, but James hated that. He didn't want to have to do a demo. He wanted to be trusted and he wanted to have his work in the past speak for him, speak for itself. To have a filmmaker trust him as a collaborator, someone who would come in with an artistic vision who could achieve at a high degree of aesthetic and technical competence and deliver a great score. But as that trust, he rode it through new techniques of film composition and it was a source of great discouragement to him. And I think it helped, not helped, but it contributed to his sense of exhaustion.
I'm not commenting about the quality of his music when I say that he was tired, I'm commenting about a change [in spirit] that occurred. He was less energetic in his work habits, I guess, in a sense. But it was harder for him to put his butt in a chair and I think part of that was just, it was a new paradigm and he felt it deeply. The industry sort of moved somewhere where he was being drawn outside of his circle somehow, or not completely, but in part maybe because of the way the methodology ot the aesthetic and standards had changed. He just didn't like where it was going. Didn't want to see the type of music that he loved completely marginalized. So he felt that.
He asked me once what life would be like if he was doing concert music. Because I work a lot in the concert music field, he asked me what that would look like. I told him some things that he could expect would be very different. Some positive things, like creative trust for the composer to deliver a score that he wanted to write rather than be told what to write. But then some negative things too, like you wouldn't make nearly enough money to maintain your lifestyle. I don't think he was convinced that that was a viable alternative to film music for himself. And I think it was so wound-up in his identity of who he was that he couldn't have retired without losing an essential part of himself. I don't think he was able to conceive of who he would be if he were not working in film regularly. Although, that said, I think what he loved the most was to be out in his airplane. I think he enjoyed that more than he enjoyed the battleground that film composition had become.
Being a film composer, apart from the money and all that stuff, was just wrapped so tightly around the core of his self-conception of who he was to himself that I don't think it could've been extricated without him losing a big part of his life. Looking at it from that standpoint, it was, for him, a blessing that he died in the saddle, as it were. He never had to face old age, and not being able to do the things that he had done so well for so many years.
I think he was trying to make some concessions to the new mode of composing that, in particular, were really painful for him to do. It was painful for him to sit in a meeting with an [executive that didn't know as much about film as he did] who would be staring down his music or critiquing it or asking for different things. James knew that they weren't going to make the film better. That was painful for him. I think one of the things that made him really great, there were many things, many gifts that he had. And there were some deficits too. Everybody has that combination. The things that he did really well, he just came up with great melodies. I think it came easily to him, because he didn't talk about that as anything that like work that he had to do. I asked him about this, because my theory was that you could follow one of his scores: just take the melody, apart from anything else. The way he treats the melody, you'd know where you were in the film just based on how he was using the melody. I said, “Is that the most important thing to you? The melody of the film?” And he said, “No, it's not. It's the color. Color always inspires a good melody.” I thought back to some of the scores that were defined by their colors, like Braveheart or Titanic. I think, you know, melody came so easily to him that once he came up with a color, that immediately inspired the direction of the melody. He could just spin out melodies for a long period of time and the melodies were always really soulful. They really communicated with people emotionally, which is odd for somebody who was so not able to communicate emotionally in a lot of ways in his actual person.
Would you agree that filmmaking has become less soulful in recent years?
I would agree with you. I think the soul has been leached out of movie-making somehow. All of my favorite movies are older movies and the things that really speak to me in an artistic way are not generally current films, although there are some current films that have those elements, they're few and far between. Maybe a couple every year that really rise above the baseline for me. I think that is something that was in James' music. However it got there, his scores were always really soulful and they always communicated emotionally and they always made you feel that you were experiencing something important. They always made you feel that you were being put in touch with something that was significant. They had an epic quality and I even mean in his small scores, in the sense that they made you feel as if something of substance was taking place.
Yeah, whether [or not there is] counterpoint at all. In current scores, they're just, they're big blocks of sound. There's not even a tune sometimes. They're big fat chords. Part of that is technical too, because the means of achieving a score now is essentially non-soulful. It's pre-sampled material. The guy who is best able to use those elements and still create soulful scores is Tom Newman, the guy I'm working with most often. He really manages to make these hybrid scores sound soulful, and he pours a lot of stuff into that in order to make that happen. But yeah, it's a rare person that can do what James or Tom does.