If you read Part 1, you probably noticed that each composer’s views are tinged with admiration, respect and sometimes excitement for what a single score managed to contribute towards film and horror music as art forms.
Once again we posed the same three questions, and got some wonderful answers.
Rue Morgue: What do you think are the key reasons Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho has managed to endure as a superlative example of horror film scoring?
Michael Wandmacher: I think foremost it was one of the first scores that made dissonance really work within the genre. It was something that was so brazen at the time, but was so correct for what was on the screen that it established the use of really non-standard articulations, especially in strings for horror films and for thrillers. The shower scene became so iconic with those scratching strings, and those big rips way up high on the violin.
No one had really done that before; you can find bits and pieces of that thing in the older classical repertoire with certain modern composers, but in terms of using it in film, that was one of those moments where it was a leap forward, so people remember it.
Austin Wintory: There’s so much that’s there, but I can tell you a couple of things that have always stood out for me. If you look at a modern day, quintessential horror film – Chris Young has certainly written half of them – there’s a large reliance on extended technique, unusual orchestral effects, and what’s so amazing about Psycho is it is utterly conventional and 100% traditional. With the sort of exception of the murder shower scene, the score relies on completely normal musical technique, and it’s all just straightforward there. In other words, he’s able to take the dramatically pure notes themselves, and turn them into something horrifying.
There’s no reliance on effects and wild gestures and dissonance, which to me is awe-inspiring… The complete lack of effect and the use of just pure dramatic notes are to me remarkable. Very, very few, if any horror or otherwise scores can get away with that today, because to find the perfect notes is obviously what we’re all searching for. Bernard Herrmann did that to utter perfection, especially with that score.
RM: I think even his fellow composers described the way he developed a theme as very simple; it’s the way he kept repeating a theme and re-applying it and reinventing it during the course of a score that was really remarkable.
Austin Wintory: Absolutely. He was the quintessential magician because it was all slight of hand with Bernard Herrmann. Big, kind of ridiculous gestures was not his thing, which is fascinating because that’s so par for the course of music of that era.
There’s so many big, sweeping gestures – big fanfare here, and sweeping love theme there – and by today’s standards much of that music is a extraordinarily melodramatic feeling of that time; it’s wonderful music, but in terms of the language of cinema, we’ve become far more subtle, and of course there are exceptions, and Psycho is a blinding example of that type of exception where he made something truly special.
RM: What scene in Psycho represents the most perfect creation of visceral terror, as well as a sublime marriage of score, sounds, and image?
Michael Wandmacher: Again, I have to go back to the shower scene. It became so iconic. It’s still scary to watch it in the way it was cut, in the way it was scored; everything about it was put together perfectly. If you go back, especially in the time that film came out, that scene was so out of control for most people who went to movies regularly, yet somehow Hitchcock was able to fit it into a context that was safe to go see in theatres, but it shocked so many people.
Like I said, it was one of those moments where it wasn’t just a step forward; it was a huge leap forward, in terms of the genre and how you could take all the elements of filmmaking and blend them in such a way that really moved people, and in this case, scared the hell out of them.
Austin Wintory: My favourite cue [that] represents the brilliance of that score is the temptation scene, where she’s at home and there’s the money sitting on the bed, and she’s walking, and we just have this repeating series of notes, and the music is driving her to steal the money!
If it were scored any other way, it might feel like ‘Wow, what a sudden breach of character,’ but we absolutely feel it coming, or we feel the tension, and the rising tide of what starts off being against it… to eventually going through with it, and it’s 100% Bernard Herrmann that takes us through that process of her mind.
I absolutely think that scene has a corollary in Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart is following Kim Novak around, and they go into the museum and they’re staring at the painting. That’s a scene that’s structured the same exact way; he just keeps this quiet eloquence going, filling in all the gaps of the subtext.
I mean, it’s absolutely like the film was like a few stones in a jar and Bernard Herrmann is pouring in this sand which is filling in all the gaps and all that negative space with subtext, and very few people have ever been able to achieve what he did in that scene. Of course, very few films set the composer up so well; it’s not like he took a bad film and made it brilliant. It’s one of the all time great films.
Austin Wintory: Oh yeah! It’s haunting.
RM: It’s terrifying because the subtext affects your sentiments towards her from the violins; there’s the intense voyeurism and the sense of perversion that’s also being reflected in the music from Norman’s side, but I think my favourite cue is as Norman is cleaning up the mess that he’s created and then putting Marion’s body in the car. There’s this constant spiralling motif that Herrmann uses; it’s a beautiful cue because he then brings in these incredible bass patterns that spiral up from the bottom and keep encircling the already whirling quotes on higher strings.
Austin Wintory: It really is. The obvious facets of Psycho that get gloriously celebrated are the obvious fact that it was specifically written just for strings, and the fact that Hitchcock famously told him ‘Don’t score the shower scene,’ and he did anyway, and it’s what made the film.
There’s all these famous stories that are well and good, but what you’re talking about right now is for me the real magic of it, and the real sort of reason why it has become an enduring classic, and kind of the benchmark against which we all shall be judged, and harshly so.
It really established a level of sophistication through the bare minimal touch. His music says not one whisper more than it should, and it says so much at the same time, and it’s just through sheer craftsmanship – but the intelligence with which he approached it is to me just astounding.
It’s all those little details that for me make me watch it again and again, and I’m on the edge of my seat as if I’ve never seen the movie before, and I think Herrmann’s music more than any other detail is what’s making for that fresh experience each time.
That can be said of a lot of scores. I just had a recording session this morning on a film, with a bass clarinet, just doing some solo work with this guy, and talking about when you start venturing into that world of quasi-unusual instruments, like bass clarinet and contra bassoon.
The first thing everyone always asks is ‘Are you doing a Bernard Herrmann homage?’ because that was such his staple, but for me the answer is almost always ‘No,’ because the real homage to Bernard Herrmann is going to be found in the notes themselves and not in something so (I hate to say) superficial.
For Psycho, [writing for just a string orchestra is] a very smart choice, but the exact pitches that he writes and the way in which he handles a scene and by keeping the temptation scene at that very soft pianissimo for essentially the entire cue, that’s the real magic; that’s where the real true brilliance of Bernard Herrmann is revealed – it’s in those dramatic choices, and in those compositional choices, more so than just purely orchestration or the famously shrieking strings of the murder sequences.
RM: In your own work within the horror genre, have you sometimes found inspiration from Herrmann’s writing?
Michael Wandmacher: Oh, all the time! He went down so many different paths. I especially like listening to his use of brass. I listen to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) all the time. I listen to that score at least once every 6 months, if not more often, just to hear how he was combining instruments – especially the fact he’s one of the few who actually got away with using a Theremin in a score that actually worked.
His brass writing to me is still some of the best that’s ever been on film, or period. Any brass writing, anywhere. His complete mastery from a horror standpoint or a genre standpoint. His complete mastery of the use of dissonance in a way that makes sense is something that I find perpetually interesting.
Dissonance is not just hitting on the keys on the keyboard all at once; in terms of making it work within any particular scene, it’s a very thought out thing. It’s as much what I call music math: to figure out dissonance that works as to figure out consonance that works. He was the first one in my opinion to really, really make it work. Since then, dozens, hundreds, thousands of composers have studied his work. You can hear it in especially in someone like Danny Elfman; you can really hear it in his writing.
Austin Wintory: Well, it’s hard to avoid inspiration from Bernard Herrmann, you know. It’s like your daily vitamin. He just becomes a part of your vocabulary, I think.
I try to avoid deliberate references or deliberate homages… For me the inspiration is ‘How would he have thought to score a scene?’ Never mind what he would’ve written; that’s his business. I’m going to write what I’m going to write, but how would he have psychologically interpreted a scene?
Like when I was doing Grace (2009), which is probably the best-known horror film that I’ve done, that was always the question: What’s the underpinning psychology and the subtext with which to approach this?
Ultimately, I would say I learned that lesson probably from studying Herrmann’s scores more than anyone else,because he was so amazing at scoring what’s not happening, what’s beneath the surface or around the corner, what are they actually thinking about.
Of course on Grace I did do an ensemble at Abbey Road of 8 bass and contra-bass clarinets, and even though the music itself doesn’t sound like Bernard Herrmann music, it is unavoidable to draw comparisons between his scores, and that’s because that’s the kind of thing on The Day the Earth Stood Still that he did – those kind of crazy gestures… You can’t beat him at his own game so it’s best not to try.
Special thanks to Austin Wintory, and at Costa Communications Ray Costa and Alea coordinating the interview; and Michael Wandmacher and Beth Krakower at CineMedia Promotions.
Austin Wintory has written music for a huge array of films (and many, many shorts), and his best-known works are Grace (2009) and Live Evil (2009)
Michael Wandmacher recently composed the score for this summer’s 3D thriller Piranha 3D (2010), and is currently scoring another 3D film, Drive Angry 3D, slated for a 2011 release. His other genre works include My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009), Train (2008), The Killing Floor (2007), the U.S. version of TV’s The Night Stalker (2005), and Cry_Wolf (2005).
COMING NEXT! A review of the newly ‘restored’ Psycho, which begins its exclusive run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 28, sporting a crisp new picture, and a controversial 5.1 soundtrack remix.