Audio Drome

Mondo Mark's Bernard Herrmann Psycho Spotlight, Coda C

on November 2, 2010 | 1 Comment

Halloween has come and gone, although there are probably a number of parents who’ll still find bits of cotton strands blowing in the mid-winter wind from the tree trunks and hedges they decorated last week.

(If, on the other hand, they forgot to bury the cadaver of that annoying neighbour who never learnt to play the piano during daytime hours, they might want to attend to that pronto, because while he might look even funkier on the porch with the fake skeleton and cut-out pumpkins, the rain and humidity coming this week might make that stiff a bit stinky come dinner time. Tip: if you can’t deal with it because of Billy’s late afternoon ice hockey and Susie’s early evening, full-contact football, cook Brussels sprouts, and leave the kitchen windows open.)

The last Q&A we have regarding Psycho’s music is with Christopher Young, who expressed his sentiments with the passion of a teacher and a fan. It’s the longest Q&A among Part 1 and Part 2, so it made sense to save it for the end.

At the end of the interview, there’s a link you might wish to visit, since it would be nice to read comments about Psycho from the composer himself.

What in your eyes are key reasons Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho has managed to endure as a superlative example of horror film scoring?

Christopher Young: There’s two musical ideas in this score that I think are beyond perfect: one of them has to be for my money the super-tragic theme of that movie, and the second is (of course) the shower sequence, which you’ve gotten tons of input on that one, but there is something to be said about the brilliance behind that

Firstly, Herrmann decided at the onset to strip the orchestra down to its primary essence, which is the string section. He didn’t do it for budgetary reasons, though I know they were tight on the budget; he did it for aesthetic reasons, and a lot of horror films up to that moment had been scored by larger groups for orchestras and ensembles that included electronics and what have you, but he chose to boil it down to the primary ingredient of the orchestra, which has always been and will always be the string section.

On his dissertation on the score, Fred Steiner called it ‘the black & white sound of the picture.’ It was a black and white picture complimented by the black & white sound of the string orchestra, and I understand what Steiner is saying. He’s saying that the minute you add multiple colours into your ensemble – i.e. brass, woodwinds, percussion, keyboards – it adds a sonic colour that is more often associated with colour movies, and so the ingenious decision that Herrmann made was that ‘This is a black and white movie, and I’m going to strip this thing down to black and white sonorities,’ which in his mind were the strings section. That was the first wonderful choice he made.

The second is the famous shower sequence. As you may have heard, Hitchcock originally intended not to have any music in whatsoever. However, Hitchcock went out for what was a Christmas vacation, and Herrmann said ‘Listen, give me some time with this scene, let me show you what I can do,’ and being a horror film composer myself, one thing that I learned after all these years is that what’s most effective in most horror films are simple gestures – things or musical identifications that can be condensed into gestures – and in my own horror writing, that’s the one thing that I have yet to accomplish. I’m a theme guy, Jerry Goldsmith was a theme guy in his spooky movies. Herrmann also was a theme guy, but at the appropriate moment, he’d come up with these incredibly memorable gestures.

In the shower sequence, we have the downward shrieking violins. It’s just a downward motion, a little figure that is repeated and repeated and repeated and it does its’ job. In Jaws, we have the half-step motif ‘Dee-dum, Dee-dum’ which immediately sends this terrible fear amongst the audience that the shark is around the corner. In Friday the 13th, Harry Manfredini’s score, you remember the delayed voice ‘Ha-ha, Kill-kill’ which tells us immediately that Jason Voorhees is around the corner.

Herrmann wasn’t the first person to come across the concept of using simple gestures to create panic in the audience. Going way back to King Kong, Max Steiner used three descending half-steps for the King Kong motif, and he realized that to create fear in the audience, all you need is something extremely simple. He mastered that concept in a score that basically played wall-to-wall. So while it was not invented by Herrmann, by any stretch of the imagination, it was advanced by him.

That’s the second major contribution. The first is the black and white element of the string orchestra, and number two is the simple gesture in the shower sequence. You can walk down the street and go ‘Screech-screech-screech’ to anybody, and they’ll go ‘Psycho!’ The Psycho shower scene has become a pop culture musical imprint. That’s something that every film composer dreams of, and he managed to pull it off in this weird little black and white horror movie.

What scene in Psycho represents the most perfect creation of visceral terror, as well as a sublime marriage of score, sounds, and image?

Christopher Young: Other than the shower scene, I would have to say my favourite piece of music that Herrmann ever, ever, ever wrote is called “Marion,” and it’s extreme tragic piece of music. That cue to me is so tragic in such a blissfully profound way. Every freakin’ film composer dreams of the moment in which God sort of decides ‘Okay, today is your day. I’m going to whisper some notes into your ear, and make this cue extraordinarily profound.’
I think the two moments in which God whispered into Herrmann’s ear and made them extraordinarily profound were the shower sequence, and this cue called “Marion.” I have this ritual of listening to certain film scores and classical pieces every Halloween, and I listen to this cue every Halloween… To me it just goes right to the pitfalls of pain.

I think Herrmann nailed the way Hitchcock regarded the scene where Marion’s life isn’t very joyful, and the only way she can find any love or affection is to have an affair in a hotel room, somewhere in Phoenix, before trotting back to work, and I think that music basically captures her character, so that after she’s killed, we feel the impact of that loss because she’s such a sad, tragic figure.

Christopher Young: The brilliant thing about that cue is that it makes us sympathetic, so that when she is killed, we care about her. There are so many movies in which the heroine is killed and we don’t really care; thank the lord this cue makes us completely sympathetic for her plight. Without that cue, I don’t think Psycho would be as moving a movie as it is; we wouldn’t give a crap about her.

I think it also enhances the scene because if I recall correctly, the dialogue deals with their own levels of unhappiness. Even their sparse dialogue doesn’t impart what their characters are about, so the music helps a great deal.

Christopher Young: I guess it does.

In your own work within the horror genre, have you sometimes found inspiration from Herrmann’s writing?

Christopher Young: You know what? I think it’s so hard to shake the influence of Herrmann off your back if you’re working in horror movies. It’s really, really hard because he redefined the concept of how to handle horror films. Say what you will about his music. You may or may not like it – that’s fair game – but one thing’s for certain is that you cannot dismiss the complete command that he had of how to write for an orchestra.

I think his greatest attributes in movie music were:

A) He came on the scene and realized that there’s absolutely no reason why we have to maintain the concepts that film scores have to be scored by late Romantic orchestra.

Most scores prior to Herrmann’s arrival could have been performed on the concert stage; they were written for conventional exotic-romantic orchestra. When Herrmann came on the stage, he said ‘Wait a second: I’m in LA, and if I want 12 harps and 15 French horns, if I want 12 contra-bassoons, they’re all here to be had. So why not write for them? I don’t care if it’s not going to be performed on a concert stage. I want to come up with some incredible sonorities in a city where there are so many who can play these instruments.’

I think that’s his greatest contribution: the classical chords, the sonorities… He managed to sell records, such as the collection of suites from his science-fiction films. His concept of colour is profound; it’s inescapable.

B) His music doesn’t pussy-foot around: it’s extremely forward, it’s extremely clear in his dramatic intent, and to that end he’s always one who would, whenever given the chance, blast you with excessively dramatic music, which I happen to love. So in horror films, he was one who had no problem in being extraordinarily aggressive in his choice of how to handle scenes.

That’s what I love, and I’ve definitely absorbed that and tried to honor that in what I write.

Special thanks to Christopher Young, and at Costa Communications, Ray Costa and Alea coordinating the interview.

Christopher Young has written a substantive body of work in film and television. He’s taught film scoring classes at USC, and has been a 2-term President at The Film Music Society. To some film music admirers, particularly those fond of his musical endeavors in the horror genre, he is a God, or has been tapped on the shoulder by Big Buddy him / herself far more often than he ever expected.

His finest work in the horror realm includes Drag Me To Hell (2009), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Grudge (2004), Urban Legend (1998), The Fly II (1989), Haunted Summer (1988), Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), Hellraiser (1987), and the delicate Flowers in the Attic (1987).

His most achingly beautiful portrait of internal horror is Hider in the House (1989), which probably very few have heard, but should. (Someone just needs to re-release this gem after a 20-year absence. Ahem.)

Whereas today it’s less difficult to read, see or hear composers discussing their work in various media formats, for the icons of the Silver and Golden Age of film scoring, that’s not so easy.

Dimitri Tiomkin wrote the music for Howard Hawks’ The Thing (from Another World), but there exists mostly TV appearances where he’s Dimitri Tiomkin: Celebrity! (His funniest appearance, however, was on The Jack Benny Program in 1961, where I think he wasn’t enamored by Benny’s fiddling.)

Bronislau Kaper was a giant talent (and lovely pianist), but Them! was just another project in a busy career, so there’s no making-of featurette where the composer discusses how he managed to make yak-covered robo-bugs so real that 10 year old adults avoid flying balsa wood planes near storm drains, and never keep large bags of sugar in the cellar.

And one suspects Paul Dessau would’ve shrugged off his involvement with House of Frankenstein if a journalist had shoved a digital recorder in his face at the premiere of a concerto for violin, hazelnuts, and a live bazooka round. (He could’ve written one. Germans can do these things with great sincerity.)

Herrmann is a bigger conundrum because according to biographer Stephen C. Smith, he wasn’t the easiest person to work with, and one can only imagine his response if the interviewer tried to sway him into discussing a score Herrmann felt was less important. (Then again, Herrmann probably felt everything he did was important, and regarding a particular score as weak among others signified an interviewer with a mush-brain. Worst case scenario: the interviewer would’ve walked home with a brass lamp wrapped like a bowtie around his head, and eaten cream of wheat until Ted the Handyman dropped by with his hacksaw.)

Perhaps the only Q&A with Herrmann talking about his work with Hitchcock was done by the CBC’s Telescope series. That 2-parter (“A Talk with Hitchcock”) has done the rounds on Canada’s Bravo, but in case you missed it, and can’t find the DVD released by Image, there’s an edited transcript of Herrrmann’s brief segments.


Tags: Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann, christopher young, harry manfredini, horror scores, horror soundtracks, Jaws, jerry goldsmith, King Kong, mondo mark, Psycho

One Response to Mondo Mark's Bernard Herrmann Psycho Spotlight, Coda C

  1. Pingback: Christopher Young talks Psycho |

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