Recently, on a whim, I Googled the terms “unusual orchestration” and “film” together in a search for new and exotic “highs.” (Remember my recent “Orchestrational Aptitude Test?” Here’s where some of us get our jollies…) I found that, to the outside world, the term is so mis- and over-used as to be almost meaningless. Most of the links led to rather conventional film and concert scores, making me wonder if the use of live players at all is now considered “unusual.” Or perhaps the word has become such a relative term that it could even be applied to potato chips by one dining on a steady diet of chicken broth (ask any digestive track surgery patient…)
No, when I use the term “unusual orchestration,” I mean the truly inspired and unfamiliar use of orchestral color, not merely as an end in of itself, but (in tandem with the notes) to coax the listener to feel ever more precisely a desired emotion or experience. As an apotheosis of this ideal, I invariably go for my real kicks to the scores of the Great One, “The Herrmannator.” the Maestro of Mystery himself, Bernard Herrmann. In the Hollywood assembly-line scoring industry over which he towered, he remained a dissident, never to my knowledge employing a separate orchestrator, but rather generating his dramatic moods from the ensemble’s inside out, not merely adding color but building from color.
For example, in the first CinemaScope film, “Beneath The 12-Mile Reef,” (20th Century Fox, 1953) a film about ethnic clashes among reef sponge-divers, much of the action is shot underwater and Herrmann employed a standard studio orchestra, but dominated by the addition of 9 (count ‘em nine) harps. This wasn’t merely to make up for the mechanical chromatic shortcomings of the modern instrument, but rather to vivify the murkiness and fluid motion in the underwater photography. Heard apart from the film, the underwater feel is still there, a good acid test of the efficacy of any orchestration.
In “Journey To The Center Of The Earth,” (20th Century Fox, 1959) there are two standout uses of unusual color becoming a dramatic element. In a scene involving a giant snake, Herrmann coaxed a low, unsteady moaning effect out of an Renaissance instrument called, appropriately, a serpent. The bass member of the cornetto family, it is a woodwind with a brass-type mouthpiece and recorder-like finger holes, and using a tuba embouchure. Even on a good day it has trouble producing a stable, centered tone. Over a bed of contrabassoon and bass clarinet, it made a perfect bit of sound design for the slithering, menacing super-snake. (For another taste of this effect, see also “White Witch Doctor,” 20th Century Fox, 1953.) For the last (underground) half of “Journey,” Herrmann augmented his usual orchestra with 5 organs (4 electronic and 1 pipe,) again not just as a pinch of varietal spice, but as the overall base of the subterranean look and feel.
For one of the more inspired cases of chase scene underscore in my memory, take a look at “On Dangerous Ground” (RKO Pictures, 1952.) What might have been a rather pedestrian (pun intended) foot chase up an icy, rocky mountain (with its obligatory deadly slip and fall at the end) Herrmann employed 9 French horns leading the orchestra in an uncanny emulation of savage, snapping dogs.
Regarded by many critics as the finest film ever made, “Citizen Kane” (Mercury Theater/RKO/Pictures, 1941) contains what must be every orchestrator’s wildest dream—an “over the top” assignment to orchestrate so massively that the music’s climax will drown out the scene’s focus, Susan Alexander Kane, a pathetically amateur lyric soprano opera star wannabe. How often does your client really mean the words, “can’t be too big?” In this case, Herrmann had to tread carefully to compose an unknown aria so convincingly authentic that viewers would intuitively sense that the fault for the bad performance lay with the “singer” and not the composer.
In stark contrast to his most acclaimed collaboration, his most famous score was effective not for what he (overly) put in, but rather for what he left out—woodwinds, brass, and percussion. “Psycho” (Paramount, then Universal, 1960) is a black-and-white film, stark in many respects, and shot with the budget (and personnel) of Hitchcock’s television series. At first blush, a small string orchestra would make it counterintuitive for a grisly mass-murder story, but Herrmann managed a perfect, organic marriage of the visual and the orchestrational which surmounts the presumed limitations of either. The genius of the orchestration was that it deftly handled the extremes of mood as well as action, including arguably the most horrorful murder in film history.
Of course, in an increasingly sequenced and sampled industry, of what relevance is this historic figure? Aside from a true sound-design composition, most synth/sample scores are, let’s be honest, pretty conventional orchestrationally. We’ve gotten so hung up on sample authenticity that we’ve forgotten about our obligation to innovate. Also, unfortunately, most of us are neither challenged nor inspired by collaboration with a Hitchcock or a Welles, but we must strive as if we were. Give me imaginative use of mediocre samples over uninspired and unsearching use of stellar ones any day. Banish “right out of the box” from your thinking. Bernard Herrmann had access to real instruments (albeit with varying limitations) on all of his scores. And yet if he hadn’t always gone that extra imaginative mile, would we be talking about him today?