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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Influences and inspirations part 4. (Bernard Herrmann)

Continuing my blog series on musicians who have and continue to influence and inspire me. There is no particular order in my presentation of these and they all are ranked number one for me.

Bernard Herrmann is one of those film composers who broke all rules of instrumentation, instrument groupings, harmony and the "proper way" to compose for moving picture. The Golden Age of Hollywood standard was big, lush film scores. The "Hollywood Sound" they called it.  Brilliant composers like Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomken, Franz Waxman and Erich Korngold wrote in that style with a lot of Leitmotifs (character based themes or instrumentations) borrowed from Opera composers like Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. When you see an English battleship for instance,  Max Steiner wrote a leitmotif to tell you that an English battleship was coming. Bernard Herrmann on the other hand wrote a lot more in colours and textures I found. Very influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky Korsakov.

The opening Main Titles for Orson Wells' 1941 "Citizen Kane" is brilliant and the combination of instruments he chose really made it dark and brooding. Lots of dissonance and clashing harmonic overtones really set the score apart from anything up to that point. It's still one of the best Main Title music to this day. He used four alto flutes along with low, bowed double basses. The brilliant opening five note motif ends with a tri-tone interval.

His score to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 "Psycho" was all strings. No woodwind, no percussion and no brass, just strings. He wanted that sonority and feel for the black and white film because he wanted to reflect the starkness of the film's look and storyline. Wow it certainly worked.

Listen at the 2:00 mark because that is when the theme comes in. Again nothing but strings. Brilliant.

Herrmann also wrote one of the scariest and most influential music cues of all time. It is also one of the most copied and parodied. He uses the most dissonant harmonic intervals ( a minor 2nd) and has the violin section play them. In this cue it's a D and an Eb.

**Notice the flushing of a toilet before she gets into the shower. A first for a movie up to that point. There was never a toilet in any scene of a movie let alone it being flushed before "Psycho" plus a naked woman gets stabbed to death in a shower. That film really pushed the envelope. I feel the only reason the film board let it be released was because Hitchcock decided to film in black and white. Colour would have been too realistic for the time.

The things I loved about Bernard Herrmann and what has influenced me a lot, was his composing music for the task at hand and entering into that with no preconceived rules or concepts. The music is the most important thing and if it breaks rules, so be it. I try to write and improvise with that in mind. Usually my best compositions and my best playing happen when I try to be free of any preconceived approach. I also loved his use of dissonance and that is another thing I've definitely been influenced by. I try to boil down a chord to it's barest form to create space, so I quite often will use intervals that are dissonant. They fatten up the chord and make it sound bigger than it is as I am only using two notes sometimes. Herman also used a lot of space in his music. Watch "Gone With The Wind" 1939 with Max Steiner's beautiful score then watch "Citizen Kane". Both great movies and great scores but Steiner composed music for every single scene. It sometimes even segues from one scene to another. Herrmann's score has so much space. The use of space is another thing that has influenced me.

That's all for now.

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