Friday, January 23, 2009

Have I been a big Bernard Herrmann fan all this time without knowing it?

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.

Maurice Jarre:
Doctor Zhivago, No Way Out (interesting, something I might associate with Bernard Herrmann), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Topaz and Jacob's Ladder.



Swashbuckler said...

A very interesting post, and I am quite glad to see more people get interested in the music of Bernard Herrmann. If you liked The Twilight Zone and The Day the Earth Stood Still, may I also suggest his scores for the Ray Harryhausen films such as Mysterious Island, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, which also often feature experimental orchestrations and effects.

I do have to point out that a more experimental score wouldn't have worked for that Star Wars, for while it often appears to look like science fiction (semantic level of genre), it actually has the structure and function of other genres, most notably the swashbuckler (syntactic level of genre). As a result, the score hearkens back more to the classic Erich Wolfgang Korngold scores of the 30s and 40s. Science fiction generally emphasizes the intellectual, which is why experimental music often works so well in that genre; Star Wars is first and foremost an adventure film, and the score announces that to the audience as soon as it appears.

I was a bit surprised at your comments about The Lord of the Rings; while the scores were indeed based in more traditional forms (wholly appropriate considering Tolkien's employment of traditional European mythologies in the creation of the books), Howard Shore used an enormous battery of unconventional instruments and harmonics in those scores, including some much more ancient than lutes or harpsichords such as the bodhrán, cimbalom, monochord, ney, sarangi, hardanger fiddle, taiko drums and hanging Tibetan gongs. He varied the soundscape based upon the location of the characters at the time.

normdoering said...


Those were some very smart and well informed comments.

I've only recently taken an interest in film composers and all my comments are based on my subjective impressions formed from memory and youtube. It has been awhile since I saw Lord of the Rings and I did enjoy the movie, but my subjective impression was that the music didn't feel like it came from the world of Lord of the Rings. This may be because I've been to a couple renaissance fairs and got it into my head that hobbits would play music something like this.

Part of science fiction and fantasy is creating new worlds we've never experienced before and music can help by sounding like a part of that world. Music that doesn't do this isn't bad, but it does not serve that one purpose it could aid in.

And even when you try it could fail because people like me have weird subjective quirks.

Swashbuckler said... subjective impression was that the music didn't feel like it came from the world of Lord of the Rings...

Again, I'm surprised at this impression. Howard Shore did very extensive research into both Tolkien's novels and their creative influences in order to come up with the most appropriate sounds for Middle Earth. The starting point was to align the cultures that Tolkien was referencing in his work so that the music would resonate both historically (e.g. the hardanger for use in the Rohan scenes) and with respect to the fictional universe Tolkien created. As I said, the primary basis for his music for Lord of the Rings was fairly traditional European forms, but that a reflection of how Tolkien rooted his stories in traditional European mythology.

Lord of the Rings can and does get really weird when scoring some of the more exotic aspects of the books. The music for the Elves is written in unusual scales and includes both Indian and Southeast Asian instrumentation, the Watcher in the Water is illustrated with taiko drums and snarling, atonal brass clusters, etc.

Interestingly, the Hobbit source music heard in the first Lord of the Rings film was by Plan 9 and was called "Flaming Red Hair." It is not too dissimilar from the sample you posted.

If you're interested in more experimental music, may I suggest both Jerry Goldsmith's scores for Planet of the Apes (get the Varese Sarabande edition) and Alien (Intrada Records).

Swashbuckler said...

...and John Corigliano's Altered States...

normdoering said...

Swashbuckler wrote:
"I'm surprised at this impression. Howard Shore did very extensive research into both Tolkien's novels and their creative influences in order to come up with the most appropriate sounds for Middle Earth."

The problem there might be that I didn't do extensive research when I first read those books, long, long ago. I had only my little fragments of poor history and experience to go by when imagining that world.

My impression is indeed probably quite wrong and I agree, your facts contradict my impression and I should listen again and revise it. Facts always beat subjective impressions.

Maybe it's that old problem with turning any popular book into a movie. I recall when David Lynch made Dune that I actually hated Lynch (I don't know the guy) for about a week (it was awhile ago and I was very young) because the movie so contradicted my impression of the book. "That's not Dune!"

I may be unable to fully appreciate movies based on books I've read when younger. I can't even recreate the experience by rereading the original books again because they usually disappoint me too.