I was just now looking at this page from Vertigo. This is when Jimmy Stewart is pulling Kim Novak out of the bay after her apparently ghost-induced apparent suicide attempt.
In the first two bars here, the strings and horns are trading off a little whiplash figure in sixteenth-notes while the rest of the orchestra plays nauseous chromatic scales. Then, at the double bar, the figure in sixteenth-notes becomes a figure in eighth-notes and is played by the strings and winds together. Herrmann’s idea, I think, is that the frantic moment is beginning to subside, so the rhythm is altered to be less wrenching. But to me this sort of switch – from sixteenth-notes to eighth-notes – is a little unnerving in its own right. The motif itself, as it passes from one rhythmic speed to another, is revealed in a disturbingly naked sort of way. I was put in mind of something similar in Janáček’s Sinfonietta (the only work by Janáček that I’ve heard enough times to hum – but my sense is that the basic technique is found in many of his other works as well). Janáček’s overall approach to composition seems to deal, like Herrmann’s, in discrete units of musical material: musical objects that one hears being altered, played with, and rearranged, but in a fabric where the seams are always turned outward. The patches of material do not melt into one another; they remain distinctly movable within the larger context. In Herrmann’s film music the short, repetitive packets are first of all useful for communicating to an audience listening with only “half an ear,”* but they have their own peculiar character, as well.
The particular strangeness that I find in Janáček and Herrmann has something to do with this foregrounding of musical figures as manipulable items. When individual musical items are so discrete and item-like (itemic?), they begin to be disturbing. The principle is the same as with Yves Tanguy:
Because these smudges and blobs are portrayed as objects, we are confronted with all the uncomfortable ways in which they do not live up to their responsibilities as objects. “What sort of horrible fucked-up objects are these?”
If it’s handled a certain way, the substance of music begins to take on the same, queasily insufficient quality. If musical motifs are “figures” to be handled and altered – are, in essence, things – then what sort of terrible off-world do they come from? Of course, that response is never conscious or nearly so stark. In practice, something like this Vertigo moment, which bluntly exposes the “material” quality of the material (to my ear, anyway), would just create a mild sense of oddness. But that’s plenty.
Why ‘change of rhythmic scale’ is what sets me to hearing music this way, I’m not sure. A visual analogy is tempting: it’s like moving the camera, pulling back from or zooming in on an object. The features that remain coherent and undistorted are more readily identifiable as an object and not just as a feature of the background. A parallax sort of thing.
Well, anyway, all those discrete musical “cells” can get unnerving in Herrmann. The technique flirts with clumsiness but the end result is something much more ominous than clumsy. Bartók also sometimes strikes me as having given his music the power to disturb by veering toward clumsiness. “Rough” is probably a better word: not a roughness of sound but a roughness of manipulation.
I recall being transfixed by a not-very-good piece, David Del Tredici’s Tattoo (1986), because of how viscerally uncomfortable it was making me. The whole piece is a huge, much-too-elaborate fabric built out of spiraling iterations of a single rhythmic figure that’s a sort of spiral in itself. The little thing appears in constant juxtaposition with itself on various scales and at various speeds. This is Del Tredici’s big technique, or was in the 80s, and he used it to death in all his works, so far as I can tell. It’s sort of the shameless, aggressive version of what I’m trying to point out in Herrmann and Janáček, and in that particular piece it really made my skin crawl. Really, like nails on some existential blackboard, like the guy in Sartre’s Nausea. I’m not sure if that’s what Del Tredici was going for – my explorations into his other music turned up a lot of grotesque self-indulgence and some other distasteful qualities, so it’s hard to guess what he wanted to achieve – but I give him credit for it.
The gothic, morbid qualities of Vertigo and Tristan und Isolde before it seem to me related to this sense of being confronted with the uncanny “stuff” of music, but that’s a different thought for another time. But there, I said it anyway.
* This is someone’s line about film music but I forget who. Aaron Copland or someone like that.