The zombies of Brad Pitt’s new movie may have left Glasgow but there are going to be some traumatised souls wandering around the city centre again next Saturday. Why? Because – as part of a weekend centenary celebration of the music of film composer Bernard Herrmann – the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock chiller Psycho is being screened at the City Halls, with its iconic, nerve-jangling music being performed live by the BBC SSO.
The tension in the audience is likely to be tangible according to conductor John Wilson, whose last visit to Glasgow was with his own orchestra and their joyous concert of songs from MGM musicals. Raising his arm as if about to impersonate the knife-wielding psycho of the film, he explains: “I’ve done this before and during the build-up to the shower scene, the tension was absolutely palpable. I could hear people whimpering behind me when I was poised to give the downbeat to this shrieking, stabbing violin quote.”
Even seasoned viewers of the film are likely to feel renewed tension from the live performance of the score. And there’s certainly plenty of stress involved for Wilson whose job it will be to synchronise the orchestra’s playing with the action on the screen. He’ll be relying on an analogue clock to keep him right. “I prefer to do it that way,” he explains. “You have a timecode on the score and you have a clock which is synchronised to the film.” Which is exactly how Herrmann probably recorded the original score with his studio orchestra? “Yes, but they had lots of attemps at it till they got it spot-on. We’ve got one!”
Won’t he be a nervous wreck, especially given how unsettling and edgy the music is? “It is stressful,” he admits, “but it won’t be anything like as bad as when I did The Wizard of Oz – and I had Munchkins to deal with! There was no margin of error there because I had singing as well as dialogue to synchronise with, and only an eighth of a second to play with. It takes that time for the eyes and ears to notice that if the music and the image are not in synch. Psycho is more straightforward – and the music is less technical, though very effective.”
Indeed, there are few Hollywood composers whose work is as effective or as integral to a film’s artistic success as Bernard Herrmann – especially where his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock are concerned. In those films, a Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is almost always a partner to the action onscreen. It’s impossible to recall Vertigo without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme or its eerie arpegios (recently quoted in – of all things – the hit TV cop show New Tricks), or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest, or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho, without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.
So integral was Herrmann’s contribution to his films that Hitchcock would tell him: “I’ve left reel three for you”. And the composer would fill it with music which, as Wilson says, gave you everything you couldn’t see. “He seemed to have an unerring instinct for catching the mood of a film, right up to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his last score, and he was so technically adroit in so many different styles that he could pinpoint musically exactly what the subtext of a scene was. He never took you in the wrong direction, as it were.”
You only need to watch Janet Leigh’s car journey in Psycho to understand this element of the power of a Herrmann score. If you play the scene without sound, Leigh could be en route to the supermarket or to pick her kids up from school; turn the volume on, and it’s immediately apparent that something very, very bad is going to happen. The music unnerves and unsettles. “It’s that unresolved harmony,” says Wilson. “It’s completely ambiguous. There’s lots of that in Herrmann’s music – you get shifting blocks of unresolved harmony, harmony that can never go anywhere.”
Herrmann – who started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane – used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters and help the audience understand their troubled minds. Did he change the function of film music?
“I think he did, in a number of ways,” says Wilson. “He was so determined and serious-minded, such a craftsman, that he raised the status of film music. Don’t forget Herrmann was a very, very highly regarded conductor and he had a career as a legitimate composer for the concert hall. He viewed the art of writing film music very seriously and he was a perfectionist. He was completely uncompromising in his choice of timbre and choice of instruments and he wouldn’t be dictated to by directors. He talked himself out of many jobs. But he fought for the cause of film music and was very erudite and articulate about it. He dragged the art of composing for the movies up a notch.”
At the same time, argues Wilson, Herrmann moved film music on from “that very opulent, late-romantic, Wagnerian/Straussian sort of sound” that the first generation of Hollywood composers, led by Max Steiner, had established. “I guess Herrmann was the first to incorporate into that style a leaner, more angular, more sparsely scored, less generic sort of sound.”
Wilson was first captivated by Herrmann’s music when he was a student at the Royal College of Music. “In my first year, I got all these LPs out of the library – LPs by Charles Gerhart and the National Philharmonic. He recorded a series on RCA of Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and Miklos Rosza – all those film composers – and there was a Herrrmann one in there called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef or something like that. It had nine harps in it. Then I read about one he’d written with five organs.. and I was intrigued. Round about the same time I saw Vertigo for the first time, and I loved it. I love all those Hitchcock films.”
The best of those Hitchcock scores will be played in the second concert of the Herrmann centenary celebration weekend in Glasgow, along with music by some of his colleagues, among them David Raksin (Laura) and Alfred Newman (All About Eve). Wilson explains: “Herrmann is the singlemost effective composer of music for films but it doesn’t always stand up as well on its own in concerts – it’s too repetitive, it hasn’t any organic development in it and it’s so married to the films. Things like Vertigo occupy such a unique sort of sound world that you can give them an airing because people have the images in their heads already – but a lot of film music doesn’t stand up on its own in concerts.”
Having said that, Wilson remembers that he’ll be conducting some music from Marnie, the only Hitchcock film which is outclassed by its score. “Oh, the music in Marnie is sumptuous. I love the unrestrained romanticism of it,” sighs Wilson. “It would be difficult for any film to come up to the level of that score. It’s one of my favourites.”