Tuesday, 5 April 2011

David Arnold, Psycho

Last Saturday saw me head into London with a spring in my step and a song in my heart to see legendary film score composer, The Incredible Suit interviewee and rocker of fine facial hair David Arnold talking about Bernard Herrmann's astonishing score for Psycho at the ICA as part of BAFTA's 'Behind The Mask' series of talks.
By the time Arnold took the stage there were only about 25 people in the audience, which I found surprising and infuriating. This is one of the world's greatest score composers talking about one of cinema's greatest scores in the middle of London, and there was probably a higher attendance at the "Government Cuts Are Brilliant, Stop Complaining" march round the corner in the St James's Park public toilets.

Anyway, Arnold spoke knowledgeably and passionately about the strings-only score, its monochrome sound matching Hitchcock's stark imagery; how the orchestra played with their strings muted for the whole score except for the shower scene to truly stab home the violence of Marion's murder; how Hitchcock originally asked Herrmann for a jazz score with silence during the shower scene, and - with specific reference to the driving scenes - how he believed it was "a score without any hope whatsoever".

Bernard Herrmann: Psycho (Suite)

After about ten minutes he introduced the film, the lights went down and Psycho began. Now, I wasn't expecting this. I was expecting some chat, some clips, some debate, but not an actual screening of the film. Looking at the ICA website, it's no wonder: the page I saw doesn't mention the film being shown at all. Maybe this is why there was hardly anyone there: advertise a rare screening of Psycho and people might stay and listen to the Q&A; advertise a Q&A with someone nobody's heard of and watch the takings spiral down the plughole.
Despite being mentally unprepared to watch Psycho - I actually contemplated leaving and coming back for the Q&A 109 minutes later - within five minutes I was totally engrossed in the film and still discovered new stuff even though I've seen it eight zillion times.

When Arnold returned he talked, amongst other things, about his belief that 'temp tracks' - temporary scores laid down during a film's production to help sell it to the financiers and distributors - stifle creativity because the composer is then asked to mimic the temp track rather than come up with something groundbreaking (like Herrmann's Psycho score), and how his own music for Changing Lanes ended up being licenced for Man On Fire because of its use as a temp track in the making of the latter film, much to the annoyance of Man On Fire composer Harry Gregson-Williams.
Obviously I asked Arnold (again) if he would be scoring Bond 23, and if SlashFilm had been there you'd have seen this headline on their site yesterday:
So that was my Saturday. How was yours?


  1. In many ways the best film sound score is one that goes unnoticed; where the picture is being enhanced but not swamped; where danger for example, is suggested but the pictures tell the story.

    In this regard attending a film composer's talk may not be attractive to most people who are unaware of the extent to which sound has changed their perception of reality.

    Sometimes as an exception the sound is allowed to dominate the picture for special effect such as to horrify as in the shower scene in Psycho, frighten as in the shark in Jaws, destroy as in the Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now, or blast a welcome as in Close Encounters of the third kind.

  2. Nobody showed up to see this event? Londonites don't know how lucky they are! The best we get round my way is Freddie Starr opening a supermarket or summat.

  3. Don't let him near the hamster aisle.

    Supermarkets have hamster aisles, right?