As part of the BFI's The Genius of Hitchcock season, the acclaimed composer and DJ offers an inside guide to re-scoring Hitchcock.
When talking about Alfred Hitchcock, it’s impossible not to mention Bernard Herrmann. He was as much a part of Hitchcock’s style as the great man himself. A versatile composer, Herrmann wrote everything from radio scores and stage music to classical concert pieces. But he had an uncanny ear for movie soundtracks, able to devise an entire score using just one section of the orchestra or the sound of foghorns on the Golden Gate Bridge. His instrumental ingenuity matched Hitchcock’s visual flair, combining to create some of Hitch’s greatest moments. Indeed, many of Hitch’s most iconic set pieces unfold with no sound whatsoever to interrupt the score.
Now, with the BFI’s The Genius of Hitchcock season, we see a new generation of composers carrying Herrmann’s torch. On Saturday July 21 a restored print of The Lodger will premiere at the Barbican, accompanied by a new score from MOBO-award winning artist, BAFTA-nominated TV composer and acclaimed DJ, Nitin Sawhney. LWLies sat down with Sawhney to discuss what it's like collaborating with the master of suspense.
LWLies: Was the idea of writing for Alfred Hitchcock daunting? You don’t seem like the kind of guy who gets intimidated easily…
Sawhney: No, I just get excited by stuff! 'What can I bring to the table?' That’s the only question I ask. So I didn’t feel daunted by Hitchcock, you know, I grew up as a massive fan of his. I just feel privileged to do it.
As a fan, you obviously knew Herrmann’s work with Hitch. Did that affect how you approached The Lodger?
Bernard Herrmann was one of my heroes when I was a kid. I feel very familiar with his work. But I also feel confident with what I do with orchestra. I understand the vocabulary and feeling of music in relation to film because I’ve been doing it for such a long time. It’s a fresh challenge, obviously, to write music for an early Hitchcock, but it’s no different to how I would approach a new film. Each project I do, I try to find its own sound and feeling and narrative and psychology.
Do you have a favourite Herrmann score?
I love the scores for Psycho and North by Northwest. They’re astounding in lots of ways, particularly with Psycho, because he only uses the string section. But North by Northwest has got some amazing virtuoso orchestration – at times, it really feels like Tchaikovsky rather than Bernard Herrmann!
What was it about Herrmann’s work that you liked?
His work is deeply psychological and has some really poignant moments. Even his later work, which wasn’t with Hitchcock, The Ghost and Mrs Muir or Taxi Driver, he had a real versatility to what he could do. He had this understanding of jazz and different forms of harmony. I think he had a richer palette than many composers of his time.
Your palette is also incredibly rich – you introduce jazz into a Hitchcock score, something Herrmann refused to do on Torn Curtain. How did you develop the score’s style?
If you look at the film itself, you’ve got Daisy, this dancing girl in this fashion show kind of moment. She’s playing of these two men, these two potential lovers courting her, so she’s quite flirtatious. She’s pirouetting around, very confident with her sexuality, so I wanted to represent that carefree vibe. It needed a sort of jazzy feel. This is the roaring 1920s as well, so it would be strange if it were any other music. I really enjoyed capturing her.
You use the clarinet for Daisy’s jazzy theme and the oboe for The Lodger. Herrmann orchestrated his scores carefully – you mentioned Psycho earlier – do you orchestrate your own work too?
Yeah, definitely. I orchestrate everything myself. Only really because, you know, all my heroes did that as well. Ennio Morricone said he orchestrated all of his own material – although having said that, I don’t think he did the orchestration for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – but he always said he preferred to do it because that’s part of the vocabulary of music. And if you’re thinking more psychologically, which you should be as a composer, then, of course, the sound and the timbre of the instruments is intrinsic to getting across the characterisation and the narrative. I’m really proud of the score, it fills the film; I can watch The Lodger with the score and really feel connected.
One thing that stands out in the soundtrack is your use of song. Daisy actually sings her thoughts several times. "All memories linger here, inside your tears..." "You are all I want. You are all I need…"
Yeah, The Lodger has this melodrama, so I treated it with this operatic technique of having three arias – Tosca, for example, has three arias. So I wanted to use that but bring it down into something more basic and simple. Daisy’s Song is all about that ambiguity; is he an evil man, is he a wonderful man? That relationship of fear and attraction that goes on between Daisy and him, I wanted to find a way to capture it lyrically as well as musically. So I wrote the music to really get that across. It works great as a duet! We’re going to do that live as well, which I think will break it up – it’s nice to break things up in that way – and again, it gives an extra point of connection with the audience.
There’s that sense of crossover between your solo albums and your work as a TV and film composer. Have you found the transition between the two over your career a natural progression?
I kind of did it almost in parallel with my album career! I wrote the music for my first film around the time of my first album, in 1993, so I’ve been doing it for 20 years now. It’s something I feel quite at home with; it’s another part of what I do and I like all the connections between the work, so sometimes I’ll use elements of scores that I’ve created for film or TV in my albums. Sometimes even work I’ve done with dancers, such as Akhram Khan, or theatre. I like the cross-fertilisation between all the stuff I do, whether it’s DJ-ing or, you know, writing for different media. It all works to feed in stuff I want to say and express.
You scored the 1929 German-Indian movie A Throw of Dice back in 2006 (another BFI restoration). Is working with silent cinema, and the BFI, something you’re now comfortable with?
Definitely. Having written for silent movies before and toured with orchestras all around the world, I have a familiarity with the form. It’s something I really love doing. Working on the Japanese silent film [Mikio Naruse’s 1933 Yogoto No Yume, in 2010] was really enjoyable too. Each of these projects I’ve debuted with the London Symphony Orchestra, not really through anything other than it’s turned out that way, but they’re my favourite orchestra, so it’s wonderful to work with them again.
The world premiere of the newly restored The Lodger, with a live score performed by Nitin Sawhney and the London Symphony Orchestra, will take place at The Barbican Saturday July 21. The score is available to buy July 23.