Film: The man who knew the score

Bernard Herrmann, composer for Citizen Kane, Psycho and Taxi Driver is celebrated in a new exhibition.

Hettie Judah
Wednesday 31 March 1999 23:02

DOUGLAS GORDON is probably best known for 24 Hour Psycho, a vast projection of Hitchcock's film, slowed down to last a whole day. By slowing the film down Gordon also silenced it, removing not only the dialogue but also the famous sound-track, written by Hitchcock's most important musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann. The director himself once described the music as making up 33 per cent of the movie's effect. Herrmann, typically, disagreed: "[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60 per cent; I have to finish it off for him."

For his first London show since winning the Turner prize in 1996, Gordon is redressing the balance and focusing instead on a Herrmann score; this time Vertigo. Gordon insists that the return to a Hitchcock/ Herrmann collaboration is purely coincidental; he knew that he wanted to work with a sound-track; he just didn't know which one.

"In the end, it boiled down to the sound-track for The Robe or that for Vertigo," explains Gordon. "I would let people hear one piece of music and ask them who they thought the composer was. Particularly with Vertigo, it was clear that if people didn't know who the composer was, they certainly knew that it was from a film score. It is almost like the generic film sound of that period; in the way that John Williams is for the Eighties."

From Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver, Herrmann has scored some of the most important films of the century and provided probably the most catchy flashes of sound in popular culture; think eerie and his theme from The Twilight Zone will pop into your head; think of terror and you hear the screaming violin from the Psycho shower scene.

Born in 1911 to a family of East European, New York Jews, Herrmann was voracious in every direction, consuming books, scores and debating partners with equal relish. While his tremendous literary knowledge gave him a remarkable faculty for analysis when working on a film, his physical appearance was more cartoon American gangster - large, overcoated and faintly shambolic. Early on, one of his friends noted that "if he had become an angel, [Bernie] would have had soup stains on his vest after the first lunch".

After an early stint with a group of young New York composers, following in the brilliant trail of Aaron Copland, Herrmann figured that the future of music lay with broadcasting and decided to follow it there. As a radio composer for CBS, he encountered a bumptious, if brilliant, 23-year-old actor called Orson Welles, with whom he collaborated on dramatic live presentations, culminating in the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. Both Herrmann and Welles were thrilled with the havoc they created, and when Welles started work on Citizen Kane, Herrmann came on board to do the sound-track.

The Kane score was revolutionary; Herrmann worked on the project from the start, and the score, like the film, fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, using short bridges and motifs instead of a grand, sweeping, melodic style. Through Herrmann's use of leitmotif it is possible for the attentive viewer to identify Rosebud right from the start.

The score for Vertigo was also heavily influenced by Wagner; in this case, specifically by Tristan and Isolde. It has been said that, unlike Hitchcock, Herrmann saw Vertigo predominantly as a love story and considered the casting of James Stewart a mistake, also suggesting that the film would have been better set in sultry New Orleans instead of San Francisco (as Brian De Palma did with his updated version of the story, Obsession, also scored by Herrmann).

Herrmann worked with Hitchcock on his next two, and most successful, films; Psycho and The Birds, but their relationship disintegrated as the director began to demand more upbeat pop scores, hoping to draw in a new audience. The composer's reaction was predictably violent; a note from Hitchcock at the time implored: "Please co-operate and do not bully me." Herrmann's refusal to write pop and jazz scores, combined with his irascible nature, put an end to his career until his popularity was revived by a new generation of film-makers; Truffaut, De Palma, and finally Scorsese.

Vilified first for following a commercial path into broadcast music, and later for refusing to pen irrelevant but hummable tunes, Herrmann never lost his belief that film was a great art, constructed like a mosaic from its various elements. As he said in a 1973 lecture: "I don't know why, today, a film has to cost $4m to push a record costing 70 cents, but it does... Cinema is only one thing: an illusion of many arts working together. The minute one aspect begins to dominate and subordinate everything else to it, the film is doomed."

'Feature Film': Douglas Gordon with James Conlan at the Atlantis Gallery, Brick Lane, London E1 From 1 April

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