Does the name Bernard Herrmann mean anything to you? Does it sound familiar for some reason? If you're a fan of movie music it probably does.
Since I've already done a couple posts on heavy metal it's time to look at another form of music, movie music.
I found the name Bernard Herrmann on Bear McCreary's blog, in his post about composing the music for Battlestar Galactica's "Sometimes a Great Notion" episode. Bear mentions the name only twice, once to say: "The orchestral session was a chance to play in the Bernard Herrmann musical soundscape that I’ve adored since my youth," and later to let someone accuse him of ripping off Bernard Herrmann.
I could only associate the name Bernard Herrmann with one work at that time, the original version of the Twilight Zone. I enjoyed that Twilight Zone music so I decided to use wikipedia and youtube to find out what else he had done and... Holy Shit!! He composed the music for a lot of my favorite old movies. Psycho, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, Fahrenheit 451, and Cape Fear to name a few. I had to ask myself "what movie scores didn't Herrmann do that I liked?"
Thus I began researching who composed the music for my favorite old science fiction films. The results follow:
There were many other old science fiction films whose music and imagery left a mark on my psyche, for example, Forbidden Planet. Bebe Barron and her husband Louis composed a completely electronic score for the film and it's hard to tell the music from the background sound effects, they merge into one. The sound of that film, as far as I know, remains unique in its strange and alien sound even today.
Another film with a score that impressed me was Creature from the Black Lagoon. Turns out that was the work of several composers, Henry Mancini being one of them. The three-note leit-motif BAH BAH BAHHHH was originally written by Henry Stein and it was used every time the Creature appeared in a scene in order to give the monster a unique musical identity. Before Jaws came out that theme was the one kids would shout out before jumping on their younger siblings, BAH BAH BAHHHHH!
Mancini was a staff composer at Universal-International and he wasn't really known for science fiction, just good movie music overall. Early in his career he did the Bonzo films, Francis the Talking Mule flicks, with Donald O'Connor, and a few of the Ma and Pa Kettle films, but he was later noted for his work on Peter Gunn and Love Story. I didn't know if he ever did another science fiction or horror ever again, but then I found out he worked on It Came From Outer Space along with Irving Gertz.
Unlike the name Bernard Herrmann you can't drop the name Henry Mancini into a conversation to describe the style of music used in It Came From Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. You'd have to name the film.
Looking further I found John Scalzi's article over at SciFi Scanner,
"Sound + Vision: Scores That Make Their Science Fiction Films," and absorbed some of his information and opinion. He reminded me of John Williams and the Star Wars score, which he called "monumentally and monolithically successful."
Okay, Star Wars had some good music, but in my opinion John Williams' score lacked something that makes composers like Herrmann, McCreary and a few others that I could now name more appropriate for "real" science fiction. Composers like Herrmann, McCreary, Vangelis and Danny Elfman will experiment with sound textures and different instruments.
Recall Star Wars' "Throne Room" scene. Did you hear just a tiny bit of "Pomp and Circumstance," the music they play at graduations, in there? Williams is using a very familiar and traditional orchestra you can find at a high school playing national anthems. Such orchestras come with all sorts of historical and non-science fictiony associations.
Imagine if Star Wars had been done with a different set of instruments. Then the historical associations fade away.
The weird and unearthly sounds from both The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet sent a shiver down my spine the first time I heard them, but The Day the Earth Stood Still still does, though not as much as when I first heard it, the score was, to my tastes, stronger than the one for Forbidden Planet. Could there be anything more effective? What do I know of film and TV music composers? Before I began my research I could only name a handful of film composers after looking up Bernard Herrmann. Aside from Herrmann and McCreary I could name only two others, Danny Elfman and Howard Shore.
I had liked the music for Silence of the Lambs and found out it was done by Howard Shore and again that now leads me to other films he's done, and he too, like Herrmann with Hitchcock, worked with one of my favorite directors, David Cronenberg. Again, some of the qualities I loved in Bernard Herrmann's work are there. Yet Shore also did the music for Lord of the Rings which is good, but not exactly hitting the kind of psychological and emotional buttons in me that makes Bernard Herrmann stand out. Whatever those buttons are I'm still trying to figure out.
Another bit of movie music I liked was Danny Elfman's "Ice dance" from Edward Scissorhands and also the music in The Corpse Bride. In the Bride he mixed up the traditions for characters sake. You got jazz, orchestra, a piano duet and more. He isn't afraid to use a bit of Heavy Metal influence either and he did the music for Batman too.
And another movie score I liked a lot was Blade Runner. It combined a classical composition style with futuristic synthesizers and felt like part of the environment in a way a traditional orchestra wouldn't.
Because of Swashbuckler's comments, and refreshing my memory on youtube, I've edited the above post in regards to Howard Shore and the Lord of the Rings score. I was just dead wrong about him not using ancient instruments like a lute or harpsicord. Shore actually did use unconventional instruments, the bodhrán, cimbalom, monochord, ney, sarangi, hardanger fiddle, taiko drums and hanging Tibetan gongs, but having little familiarity with those instruments at the time I couldn't pick them out. Actually, even after listening to samples linked in this paragraph I would still have a hard time picking them out in a crowded orchestration. And each instrument comes in a variety of sounds and styles it would seem based on what I found on youtube. For example, this is a Sarangi and this is a Sarangi and this too. These are taiko drums, and these, these and these taiko drums sound a bit like bongos to me. This, I think, bad recording of the drums sounds like musical static from a synthesizer. And this is, as far as I can tell, PVC pipe. I have no idea what this is.
Well, those samples weren't hard to find on youtube. Let's dig up Bernard Herrmann's instruments. According to the Golden Scores page on Day the Earth Stood Still Herrmann used:
...a brass ensemble of trombones, trumpets and tubas with a large percussion section and double pianos [prepared pianos according to this wikipedia entry] and harps, complemented by a church organ and two Hammond organs, electronically amplified violin, cello, bass and guitar, and, perhaps most importantly, a theremin. The legendary electronic instrument features prominently all over the score, extremely successfully placing an aura of other-worldliness over the music...
Here are some Moog Etherwave Theremin samples.
If we're really going to guage Bernard Herrmann's talents then we need to look at more film composers to make comparisons. The Golden Scores site gives us some names to look up on youtube, so here is a selection of movie composers I looked up on youtube:
Max Steiner: Except for a couple notable pieces the brief stuff on his youtube "greatest hits" is mostly a mixture of waltz-like and military band sounds. However, at about 1:06 you'll find his music for She, that snippet was excellent. Erie, evocative of things sensual and disturbing. I never saw She but I found this trailer, which doesn't look good. Then at 5:16 you get King Kong, 1933 version of course, and that's one year before 1934 when Herrmann joined the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) as a staff conductor and 8 years before he composed for Citizen Kane (1941). So, Max Steiner's work on King Kong might be an influence and at least a sort of precursor to Herrmann's thriller/sci-fi style.
NEXT I'LL LOOK AT:
Doctor Zhivago, No Way Out (interesting, something I might associate with Bernard Herrmann), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Topaz and Jacob's Ladder.
MORE TO COME