The Herrmann Chord
by Gregg Williard

January 1, 2011

If I said I used to hear particular music all the time, I expect you’d nod with recognition. Maybe, if you’re from my generation, you’d recount how you used to spin Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” or Miles Davis’ “Round About Midnight” until the worn needle skated clean off the vinyl on a dust bunny cloud. Or more recently you’ve programmed your iPod to repeat some Arcade Fire song for 80 hours of obsessive to autistic easy listening. Then I’d say, well, it was even worse, and you’d reassure me that, hey, you’d been there too, maybe citing one of the TV commercial jingles that have jujued generations. Or themes from the '60s and '70s such as The Brady Bunch, The Addams Family or Green Acres. Everyone has their own sound worm war stories, right?

Yes. But. The music I heard wasn’t quite like any of that.

It started on a Friday night at 10:00. I was eight years old. It was the first season of a new TV show called The Twilight Zone. I watched as the optical diaphragm of the CBS eye spiraled open, and heard the first tones of what would become a 40-year-long soundtrack to my life. Like I said, it was music of a very particular kind: not jingles or croons, not my sister’s rock 'n' roll or my mother’s classical standards. It was so different that it seemed to be something beyond music itself. It took me a long, stunned time before I thought to watch for the end credits and learn the name after “music by”: Bernard Herrmann.

Click on the "video" above to hear Bernard Herrmann's theme for Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Bernard Herrmann was one of the giants of Hollywood movie music. Together with Max Steiner and Erich Korngold he virtually invented what we now know as “film scoring,” though he had a life long love/hate relationship with the genre and withering contempt for almost everyone else in it. He always aspired to a traditional symphonic career, but was born to score films. After an early career in radio he moved to Hollywood and got an Academy Award nomination for his first film, Citizen Kane , in 1941, then the award for his second, All That Money Can Buy, followed by 40 years of film scores and collaborations with Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Nicolas Ray, Rod Serling, Ray Harryhausen and, most famously, Alfred Hitchcock. Before he fell out of favor in 1960s Hollywood, Herrmann was renowned for his classical technique, original orchestrations, hypnotic use of the repeated passage, and deep psychological insight into characters and themes. His music has an instantly recognizable timbre and tone, a melding of nostalgia, longing, passion, mystery, tenderness, obsession and terror. Some of his more famous scores were for The Day the Earth Stood Still, North by Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo, and Fahrenheit 451. In addition, through the '50s and '60s just about everything on TV used Herrmann stock music or themes. When it seemed his music was everywhere, it really was. (And still is: the insidiously sound-wormy “Whistling Theme” of Daryl Hannah’s nurse-assassin in Kill Bill is from a Herrmann movie).

He could be notoriously irascible, irrational, paranoid, arrogant, bullying, nasty, mean-spirited and vindictive. It was his way or the highway, always. He burned all the bridges – be they wives, directors, friends, or colleagues. He had a remarkable capacity to feel insulted by praise, to be affronted by flattery. He picked fights over everything and nothing. Yet he was fondly remembered by most people who knew him, passionately loved by his children and many wives and many on- and off-again friends, and countless others like me who grew up with his music in movies and on TV.

As an 8-year-old I knew none of this, of course, and, innocent of history or a larger culture, my childhood world gave every indication that what I heard was more auditory hallucination than real music. I was told at the record store there were no recordings of Herrmann, no books or information to be had. My mother was an obvious source of information, since she she’d been a music teacher, played the piano, was loving and patient and, well, was my mother. But I’d learned from experience that asking my parents about anything meant, in the end, asking for trouble, in one specific way. The problem with asking questions (or talking much at all) was that, no matter how cautious, I always tripped up and gave myself away. Sooner or later they’d learn my shameful secret, one which silently ruled my world: I still couldn’t read, write, tell time or keep from getting lost. In those pre-dyslexia days the only label anyone knew for this was retarded, or more colloquially, stoo-pid.

Most egregious and agonizing of all was my inability to sit still for my mother’s short-lived piano lessons, let alone make sense of the keyboard and the notes. Attempts at learning to actually read music and play an instrument followed the same disastrous course as school and sports, despite my mother’s (and my own) hopes that music would help me “settle down.” And as with school and sports, I had to disguise my helplessness with silly displays of derision, indifference, and monster noises to ensure that everyone’s hopes stayed prudently dashed. Any show of interest in music might look to my mother like a positive glimmer, and that would be an even bigger disaster. But with no other recourse, I finally had to ask her about Bernard Herrmann. She said she had never heard of him, but would consult one of her professors at the university. She later reported his expert opinion: music in movies wasn’t “real music” (oddly echoed by Herrmann himself when he denounced his colleagues as hacks and frauds). The professor said movie music wasn’t meant to be heard apart from the film it supplied with “moods.” This injunction only heightened the sneaking sense that I was engaged in something weird, perhaps even unhealthy or in some obscure way against the law. He said movie music was just there, like the position and movement of the camera. You only looked behind the curtain and saw the gears if you were in the music business, or aspired to be. But at that age and time of my life I didn’t want to be a musician, or a filmmaker, or an actor, or anything. All I wanted was to inhabit, and be inhabited by, these “moods.”

A dogged Herrmann search began, heightening the urgency of my already avid movie appetites. I was in a permanent, aesthetic red alert: the older films that featured Herrmann music passed through the local TV schedule with maddening irregularity and arbitrariness, though fortunately there were many of these movies playing every day and night. So perhaps it was necessity alone that first made me internalize his music, like Homer and his audience memorizing the pre-text and pre-literacy Iliad and Odyssey. And since it was movie music and not music music, it was inextricably bound up with particular plots, characters, scenes, actors, and auteurs that, over the years, mingled into a recombinant fusion of personal experience and cinematic vignette. My memory of digging a backyard bomb shelter with my dad is inseparable from the opening theme to Journey to the Center of the Earth, and remembering a night under the constellations with my best friend Dave always glitters with that first season Twilight Zone theme. Was I hearing this music at the time, or has it been added as a function of memory? (And if the latter, why hasn’t any other music supplanted all my experiences since then?) Whatever the case, with a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, boredom had a plot.

Consider one of the most ubiquitous sequences I was living out: Jimmy Stewart tailing a somnambulate Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The action is nothing much, just a bewildered, frowning Stewart behind the wheel following Novak’s meandering progress through sunlit streets. The music is something else: a set of quiet woodwinds against strings that rise and fall like the San Francisco streets. It’s the sound of a plodding, dutiful everyday veering imperceptibly into strange menace. It was the soundtrack for my bike ride to elementary school, or a walk to buy comic books, or a drive with my parents to my grandmother’s darkly mysterious downtown apartment. And after I took another test at school I knew I had failed, or tried to play games whose rules I couldn’t follow, I could always find refuge in the movies’ dark glamours, and take them inside of me as sound. Only I heard it, but it wasn’t really in my head. My Herrmann lived in a sub-vocalized realm of breath and tongue, palette and lips – a magic susurrus with the power to tame panic, or to needle awake my torpor and ennui.

Yes, Herrmann gave boredom a plot, and it thickened. With his music playing, my everyday was charged with secret missions, more Borges than Bond. In an era when the straight and narrow was all that anyone needed or understood, I followed dream labyrinths and reinvented wheels to exacting, obsessive-compulsive design. My days went round and round, like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. I couldn’t play their games so I made up my own, with rules only I could comprehend because I could (and did) change them on a whim. At once simple-minded and esoteric, they often used self-invented music notations of Herrmann scores as templates for playing boards and rules. (One strenuously exclusive game I remember was an incomprehensible mash-up of mazes, Chutes And Ladders, and Checkers using Herrmann’s 7th Voyage of Sinbad score to time the moves.)

I don’t know exactly when or how it changed. Many people reach a point where they realize their problems have become far too interesting for their own good. Or perhaps I just didn’t want to be alone anymore. But eventually words came clear and clocks told time. I still couldn’t (and can’t) make sense of card games, sports rules or sheet music, but that didn’t matter. There was an opening, and I took it, out of myself to a greater world. Out there my Herrmann experience (like my late-blooming literacy) was no longer the inexplicable, sui generis blessing of a curse that both fettered and freed my early self.

Instead of music as refuge, Herrmann’s sound began to open doors – into aesthetics, psychology, film studies and other music. I learned about the unease-inspiring semi-tones of the twelve-tone scale, and the half-diminished 7th chord seeking resolution, (one of medieval music’s “Devil’s intervals” and a favorite device of Herrmann’s). I read about the orchestration behind his “moods” (especially his use of strings and vibraphones), and his musical forebears and influences (Wagner, Debussy, Vaughn Williams, Elgar, Ives and many others) as well as new music influenced by his work. Later, I discovered research in cognitive psychology and psychoacoustics on the relationships music has with memory, imagery, and narrative. Some work even described how obsessive “sound worms” or “ear worms” (a loan word from the German “Ohrwurm”) might be a factor in helping the brain overcome delays in linguistic processing.

This is not to say that Bernard Herrmann’s work – or any art – can be reducible to mechanical analysis, neurology or some “therapeutic” or “social” value. And Herrmann is a particularly hard fit for stylistic pigeon holes: he was a classicist who embraced experiment; an aesthete who invested putatively “minor” genre work in fantasy and noir with the gravitas of high art. Most compellingly, Herrmann’s music embodies emotional paradox and complexity, reminding us that seeming antagonists like love and terror, mystery and tenderness, or sorrow and joy can be one – to borrow the title of Steven Smith’s Herrmann biography – in our "Heart at Fire’s Center.”

Perhaps it’s this appreciation for ambiguity that makes Vladimir Jankelivitch one of my favorite writers on music. Jankelivitch is famously quoted for his statement that “music has broad shoulders” – it can carry any number of different interpretations and claims, theories and ideologies, functions and mandates, all of them, or none, of explanatory value. For him, our deepest apprehension of music comes from doing it, which he referred to as the realm of the “drastic.” He and many others seem to be hinting at that childhood process I once considered my own secret art: something far broader than playing an instrument, or composing, singing, dancing or the “expertise” of my mother’s teacher. Jankelivitch meant levels of enactment as humble as tapping feet or humming breath, yet transformative, like a second chance.

Nowadays, of course, I listen to and love all kinds of music, and fall prey to new sound worms with alarming ease. Revisiting Bernard Herrmann’s music and films always delights, and often stuns. But I’m not sure I’ll ever know music quite as “drastically” again. Shortly before she died I asked my mother to show me the half-diminished, descending 7th chord. We sat together at the piano she had played all her life, and mine. This time I could sit still. She pressed the keys. “There you go,” she said. “Now, you do it.”

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