Sunday, 16 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No. 81 The Day the Earth Stood Still

Top 102 Albums. No. 81 
The Day the Earth Stood Still - Bernhard Herrmann

Reading Trevor's post at Hissyfit on Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in America got me thinking on soundtracks. I have a few in physical copies and others tied securely to the films they accentuated. Years of watching rough cuts of films taught me that you can get away with poorly shot images in a film but bad sound just doesn't work. Music is a big part of this, of course although sound can be carefully composed for film without becoming music.

It seemed to me that if I was to include soundtracks I would have to include something from Bernard Herrmann. I may include another soundtrack or two in this list but Herrmann could easily have four or five soundtracks included on his own. He is unquestionably the most important soundtrack composer of the twentieth century. He started with Citizen Kane and ended with Taxi Driver. Can't say more than that. Or, yes you can. He soundtracked Hitchcock's greatest period: Vertigo*, North by Northwest, Psycho... Hitchcock apparently took advice from Herrmann on the length scenes would need to be to fit his musical ideas into. Hitch didn't take advice from too many people. With Hitchcock he also worked with Oskar Sala on the soundtrack of The Birds, which involved no music but an electronically created soundtrack using an early electronic instrument similar to the Theremin called the Trautonium. I was tempted to list this as a favourite, which it is, but that was even too contrarian for me.

However it showed Herrmann's understanding of the use of sound. He wasn't afraid to experiment with different instruments and to reorganise the orchestra to get the sound he wanted. Indeed his early work with Orson Welles included the famous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, where he used existing music to create the soundtrack.  Picking just one of his scores is a bit like playing pin the tail on the donkey. I'm choosing The Day the Earth Stood Still because the soundtrack has stuck with me since I saw the film as a teenager. I loved the film then and think that the soundtrack was a huge part of this.

Herrmann's use of a suite of theremins to represent our fear of alien cultures makes him one of the midwives of a cliché but it wasn't a cliché when it came out. Given the Cold War foundation of the classic science fiction films of the fifties it is very appropriate that an instrument invented by a Russian should represent the fear of the alien**. They say music can take you anywhere. Travel with this to THE FAR REACHES OF THE UNIVERSE!

*So when Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound's poll of the greatest film ever Herrmann was still the composer of the soundtrack of the top film.

** It also just struck me that the Theremin could be called music from space..

1 comment:

  1. And many contemporaries use the Theremin to add an otherworldly nature to their music; Hawkwind and Flaming Lips come to mind; maybe the Beach Boys were the first to use it in pop on Good Vibrations?
    I also remember it being used to back track the wobblies in Lost Weekend although that always seemed uncomfortably mis placed to me as I was always looking for little green men at that point. Amazing what music does with our expectations. A mate of mine Mike Gibbs used to write a lot of film music and I was invited to a couple of first views on Wardour St; often the film would have some stock synth template in place until the score was finished. I remember the synthesized drone in 'House Keeping' caused me to drift off; I awoke with my head on the shoulder of the guy sitting next to me; I was dribbling into his sheepskin jacket. Mike took me to the bash afterwards where he introduced me to Director Bill Forsyth who was still wearing the sheepskin...
    Although his would have been a more comfortable shoulder, I'm glad it wasn't Hitchcock...