Psycho and the art of horror with the Toronto Symphony

For Halloween the Toronto Symphony presented their latest film with a live accompaniment, namely Psycho. A film buff might call it “Hitchcock’s Psycho.“ A film-music buff might prefer “Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho” which is closer to how I see it.

Without Herrmann? You lose one of the most distinctive moments in cinematic history, namely the shower. Hitchcock visualized it as a silent sequence. Herrmann saw it differently: not for the first time.

Yes it was a fun evening, verging on a happening, just like previous films in this series (Back to the Future and Vertigo). Some of us accepted the challenge to dress in costume for the occasion, as did members of the TSO. There were at least two Norman Bates’s, wearing a gray wig, one portrayed by yours truly.me

In the orchestra not only did we see several distinctive characters, but one player even came as the shower, complete with a curtain & curtain rod plus something resembling a shower head; and miraculously the “water” didn’t hit her instrument as she managed to keep playing.

At one time horror films were normally “B” pictures, the trashiest of the trashy. And yet, in the latest British Film Institute poll (in the Sept 2012 issue of Sight & Sound),  Psycho tied for # 35 in the poll, one of four Bernard Herrmann films in the top fifty (Taxi Driver is tied for #31, Citizen Kane is #2, and Vertigo is #1). While I don’t believe Psycho will ever displace Vertigo at the top of that list, I actually think it’s a far better film, and that Herrmann’s score for Psycho might be the best score of all.

How is it that the score for this black and white film can seem to be scored in black and white? (although come to think of it that’s literally true of all musical notation). Herrmann used only strings, severely limiting his expressive vocabulary and in the process, perfectly matching Hitchcock’s film. The dry astringent music was so much more than a commercial product, a daring piece of art that never gets old. Vertigo is a sentimental relic in comparison.

Psycho gives me one of my favourite moments in the film music course I teach at the Royal Conservatory.  We watch the shower scene the way Hitchcock watched it at first, which is to say, silently.  And just like him, we observe that it doesn’t work terribly well without the music.

Cinematic Music: How We Hear Film (click for more information)

Cinematic Music: How We Hear Film (click for more information)

We also do the opposite: listen to that music without any shower or knives. It’s a curious thing, that this music can actually be beautiful and abstract, when lifted out of its Bates Motel context.

Watching this live performance of the Psycho score was hugely instructive. It’s a chamber orchestra this time, a much smaller & tighter ensemble than for either Vertigo or Silvestri’s Back to the Future. In fact the sound is powerful yet never very loud. Wow, amazing that the effects are every bit as powerful –that is, terrifying – as ever.  At the opening it sounds quite a bit different from what I’m accustomed to on the DVD, because in the big Roy Thomson Hall space the balance is slightly different. The basses are more clearly audible than they are on the DVD. The violins are not nearly so edgy, their treble tones sucked up by the hall. I wonder whether the sound on the DVD (and the film) has been corrected, the treble boosted. There is extra presence on that recording, and I suspect it’s an artificial effect, now that I’ve heard the score played. This music is very pretty.

I can’t help noticing similarities to other shows & works I’ve seen lately.

  • The last scene with the psychiatrist is a prototype for so many scenes, so many forensic investigations up to and including the harrowing scene with Allegra Fulton as the lawyer in The Trouble with Mr Adams, and Owen McCausland’s observer in the Canadian Opera Company’s Pyramus & Thisbe.
  • Melodrama is far from dead, I am realizing. There seems to be no choice by any of the main characters in Hitchcock’s great trilogy (Vertigo, North by Northwest, or Psycho), and yet one of the truly brilliant things about Gord Rand’s script (The Trouble with Mr Adams) is how he creates three powerful scenes, carefully shaping the plot so that none of the peronages has any real scope for choice or agency. If you stop and think about it for a moment, while we’re told in our English classes that melodrama is an old genre that’s dead, when we look at film and much of modern drama it ain’t necessarily so
  • Watching a film you’ve seen a zillion times on a big screen? It’s brand new.  There are things you can’t see on a small screen at home.

The film score is the great new musical genre that continues to fly under the radar, a century after its birth. For the TSO to present these films is one of the most exciting things one can see in Toronto, a way to see films as though they were brand new. In this and other projects, the TSO are making good on their promise to give us new ways to hear music.

I’m all ears.

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