When Bernard Herrmann, one of the greatest film score composers of all time - and a man whose sterling work I have reviewed on many occasions - set his imaginative mind to creating the icily alien and creepy music for Robert Wise's The Day The Earth Stood Still, another esteemed composer, the Western, War-movie and historical epic supremo Dmitri Tiomkin, had already broken new genre ground with an awesome score for the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks classic The Thing From Another World. Utilising the still avant-garde and distinctively exquisite sound of the Theremin, Tiomkin came up with a score that was adrenalised, frightening and so profoundly evocative of the film's isolated setting - the North Pole - that it set the trend for legions of genre movies to follow. The glacial timbres of the Theremin - still the only instrument in the orchestra that is played without the player actually touching it - became THE de rigour sound of both science fiction and horror, a soaring, cosmic, ethereal litany that bleeds through the mind and conjures up imagery that no visuals can equal. Miklos Rosza had also dabbled with its splendidly unsettling beauty in his score for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound - its fantastic sound capturing the fragmentary tricks played by a dark and twisted mind, again coming to resemble some alien landscape of unparalleled geometry, motivation and world-removed intelligence. But, without a doubt, it was the double-act in 1951 of The Thing From Another World and The Day The Earth Stood Still - both seminal genre classics even without their influential scores - that put the instrument and its celestial elegance well and truly on the map.
Well, both scores are magnificent and fully embrace the weird otherworldliness of their subject matter with sounds that became uniquely synonymous with the sci-fi genre. But, following on from Keith Hurst's terrific review of the recent Blu-ray release of Wise's original film, I thought it only right that we should take a look at - and, hopefully, a listen to - one of the most iconic scores of all-time. Sometime soon, we'll also take a look at what Tiomkin did, as well, with a great score that he, somewhat puzzlingly, came to almost disown in later years.
What is clear is that Herrmann loved this type of material and actively sought it out. His scoring reflects this love and totally embraces the beauty behind the more conventional menace that comes along in-tow. Tiomkin favours heroism and action, and concerns himself with creating a more vigorous element of horror and suspense - he eschews the more heavenly aspects of such themes. But both men knew exactly what their respective films required.
This release of Herrmann's score is not an original recording. In fact, I have the full original score - as well as suites and highlights from it on other compilations - but what sets this version apart is its clean, vibrant stereo sound which, note for note, despite a few slight tonal deviations, comes across with the same deliberate lack of warmth, the same sense of the bizarrely austere and an unmistakable increase in sheer presence. This recording, from Varese Sarabande and produced by Robert Townson is the awesome rendition that Joel McNeely conducted in 2002. Herrmann's work has been adapted and re-orchestrated many times of course, but re-releases such as Mysterious Island, Fahrenheit 451 and The Kentuckian by William Stromberg, Jason And The Argonauts by Bruce Broughton and The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and Citizen Kane by the seemingly fixated McNeely have gone on to become almost definitive versions in their own right.
Joel McNeely has made something of a name for himself with a series of fabulous recordings of classic scores from the Silver Age. Particularly smart and assured when it comes to his Herrmann scores, it should come as no surprise that with the solid and instinctual backing of his London musicians - a necessarily smaller unit than his usual Scottish National Orchestra due to the close-in, limited economy that Herrmann originally wrote this score for - he has come out with another clear winner. TDTESS represents Herrmann at almost his most experimental and his most determinedly unorthodox. Hitchcock's The Wrong Man is, arguably, the other soundtrack score that he composed that comes anywhere near to approaching this level of boundary-pushing - a thoroughly different genre and about as far removed, musically, from TDTESS as you could possibly get, yet both scores share a distinctly obvious single-mindedness that refuses to play by the conventional rules, ensuring an experience that is quite unusual and acts, frequently, and one can only assume, intentionally, on a more subliminal level.
The score for TDTESS is fundamentally two-pronged. This is an approach that the composer didn't often have much time for, his orchestral attack usually highly varied and full of instrumental colour. Things like Jason And The Argonauts may have ditched the strings in favour of all-out percussion, brass and woodwind aggression and earlier scores such as The Wrong Man may have been tonal forages that were like little self-explorations that Herrmann fancied undertaking at the time, but for Wise's audacious sci-fi saga, he found the two opposing ends of the narrative - the clinically alien and mysterious sound of Klaatu and Gort, and the warm-hearted, pastoral lament for Helen, Billy and, most notably, the atmospheric resonance of Arlington Cemetery - utterly irresistible. There is an element of wistful, almost Copland-esque Americana with these cues that should, by rights, have led to a score that came across as chalk and cheese smashed together ... yet the bold statement actually works.
Herrmann's unusual array of instruments were made up of two Theremin, three trumpets, three trombones, four tubas, one reed organ, two Hammond Organs, two pianos, electrically amplified violin, cello and bass guitar, two harps, three vibraphones and an assortment of bells and chimes. He took the totally wacky approach of creating a loud mix of orchestration, utilising cymbals to reach a starched crescendo, but then playing the resulting cacophony backwards ... to great effect. This sped-up type of dynamic mini-climax was much-copied and even brought into play in the scores for both The Twilight Zone - which Herrmann composed for - and The Outer Limits, as well as numerous other movies. Arguably, Herrmann's trans-dimensional symphony provides the film with its more obvious sci-fi feel, for Wise's treatment of the narrative has more of a docu-noir style of presentation when things like giant robots and flying saucers aren't actually on the screen. McNeely tries to replicate this set-up, but incorporates more modern leanings for a swifter, deeper stereo sound. In the liner notes, session producer and engineer, Jonathan Allen, from Abbey Road Studios, tells us of the difficulties bringing out Herrmann's unique sound, and Christopher Husted, manager of the Bernard Herrmann Estate, provides a detailed examination of the compositional design that the composer sought to create.
The opening track - a veritable suite of Theremin-dominated galactic travelogue - is gorgeously pregnant with anticipation, possessed of an unnerving sweep and glistening with full-on glacial resonance. This is exactly the type of theme and sound that Danny Elfman tried so hard to emulate in his scoring of Tim Burton's great Mars Attacks! Parody. Relatively short, this track still seems to encapsulate the full sense of awe and wonder, fear and dread that the story will invoke, a précis of the warbling otherness that will come. The final pulsing blurts of the Theremin, in both Herrmann's and McNeely's versions, are absolutely fantastic ... or, rather, fantastique. Track 2, Radar, is one of the score's most famous and highly regarded. As Klaatu's ship skims over the surface of our incredulous planet, Herrmann strikes up a furiously kinetic 16-note scurrying motif for electric piano and electric cello that comes across as a kind of Morse-Code infused clarion call, each nation warning the next as to the visitor's unexpected approach. Lightly hastened tapping notes in the high register vie with low-register chords, the two strands running alongside one another to create a minimalist orchestral race. Once we get into things like Klaatu, Gort and The Visor, the score reaches its most famous pattern of themes - weird scintillating chromatic slices for celeste and harp and organs for Klaatu, ominous percussion, electric bass guitar, tuba and contra bass tuba for the imposing Gort. These patterns will reappear many times throughout the admittedly rather brief score.
Whilst a solo trumpet plays out a plaintiff lament for the scenes of young Billy showing a stunned and reverent Klaatu around the monuments that Man has made to commemorate his fallen, the full ensemble come together for Escape, Rebirth, Farewell and Departure. But, by far the most interesting cues are those depicting the alien visitor, Michael Rennie's galactic messenger, Klaatu, his spaceship - both its external and internal appearance - and, of course, his eight-foot tall robot bodyguard, Gort (played by Lock Martin). In fact, the majority of the score is given over to such Theremin-laced dislocation, handing over the feel and sound to Wise's film of an unmistakably alien thrust that his own pseudo-documentary vibe vitally needed if the film was to ascertain the required texture of crystallised menace. Klaatu has in his possession some space-born diamonds that his kind use as currency, and Herrmann's score, when it comes to denote the messenger and his vessel, seems to caricature these glittering gems with tinkling harp, celeste, electric cello and Theremin. The Theremin, of course, warbles and wafts throughout sinuous, mirror-reflected tones. Complex symmetrical patterns of notes emerge - sometimes playing in reverse order of their own preconfigured format - and pulsating tones bridge airy electronic brogues. In the years that followed this style would be much imitated and even spoofs such as The Goodies would utilise the same see-sawing tonal textures to capture that patented sci-fi sound.
Right alongside this swooning extraterrestrial lullaby comes its darker cousin - Gort's menacing theme and that of the destructive power that Klaatu has at his disposal. You hear this back-and-forth sonic blurt, bolstered by deep electric bass and you are under no illusion that you are nothing but dust compared to this Knight Rider-eyed, chrome-clad policeman. Tracks such as Robot, The Visor, Gort's Rage, Nikto and Captive are perfect examples of 50's stylised terror - the Theremin rises and falls whilst Herrmann has the percussion and bass combine to form a backbone of courage-sapping venom. Herrmann is quick to ensure that these tracks also contain a healthy degree of excitement and skin-prickling wonder to go along with such out-of-the-ordinary orchestration. Freakish moments of utterly alien instrumentation greet us in the likes of Space Control, the atmosphere one of eavesdropping upon something so completely beyond our understanding that the music seems to float like a barrier between us and the full majesty of what, in the film, we are observing. Quieter spells, such as Solar Diamonds and even the afore-mentioned Space Control, sound like forerunners for Herrmann's own genie-theme for The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, and this, once more, adds to the evocation of having been transported to another place and another time. One of Herrmann's most profound gifts was his ability to colour a scene with heightened reality, his music reaching not only inside the characters and their motivations, but embellishing every facet of the narrative at the same time, propelling the story and the mood like an acoustic director.
Joel McNeely, conducting his limited ensemble of players, isn't afraid to move in slight deviations from Herrmann's path, though. Now this can be viewed as criminal by some, but it is totally un-disastrous as far as I am concerned. Yes, he only uses one Theremin, as opposed to Herrmann's pairing of the outlandish instrument. Yes, his mix is somewhat less in-yer-face than that of Herrmann's originally more bombastic recording. And, yes, those heavy, portentous chords denoting Gort's emphatic approach are not quite as doom-tinged and frightening as the more raucous and threatening pounding heard in the original. But there is a more reassuring weight and spread to the overall sound of the score, a much clearer and more shimmering sound to the icy dialect that the music conveys. The Theremin, expertly played here by Celia Sheen at the Abbey Road Studios, skates across the top of the score from time to time but, more often than not, slices through the themes that would attempt to surround it, becoming the sparkling musical diamond that crowns this spooky composition. It wavers and quivers, its delicate reverberations free-falling around your ears. The threat of cliché is, naturally, ever-present considering the now-overly familiar sound of the Theremin when serenading the surreal and the science-fictional, but with such skilful playing and such deliberately intuitive writing, this still sounds totally fresh and stimulating.
It is worth noting that, in 1956, Fred McLeod Wilcox's fabulous Forbidden Planet wowed audiences just as much with its highly off-kilter score from electronic-music pioneers Louis and Bebe Barton as TDTESS and The Thing From Another World did a few years earlier. But whereas their experimental composition was stringently atonal and a wild smothering of bubbling noises and undulating layers of vintage R2-D2-style chirrups and bleeps - and great too, I might add - Herrmann was never less than steadfast in his overall design of theme, narrative, character. The Americana segments were a deft touch that hauled Yankee audiences into this wacky Peace-nik sermon with some instinctive pastoral “Old Kentucky Home” type of togetherness. Herrmann seemed to understand that such a home-grown sound would ultimately inveigle its way into the hearts and minds of the goggle-eyed throng to the point where their sense of patriotism would, inevitably, become challenged by Klaatu's important message and, as a consequence, their own sense of guilt at allowing World Wars to happen would actually become magnified. “What price their sacrifice?” Herrmann appears to be asking as Wise's cameras take in the solemn landscape of tombstones at Arlington and the reflective repose of the esteemed statuary of Lincoln's Memorial. And, perhaps, even more cleverly, he keeps his historically relevant use of the Theremin totally and inextricably enmeshed within the flavour of the overall score, itself, never allowing it to fly solo, as it were, as a great many genre composers would tend to do. This means that he doesn't simply have his Theremin woo-ahhing all over the place just for the sake of it. Instead, he makes sure that his duo are always flowing with the rest of the instruments, following a pre-set theme and not just showboating. This integration of such wild and unusual instruments was typical of Herrmann and even if TDTESS sounds “glassy” and metallic, crisp and alien, this has been achieved via all the musicians at his disposal playing to that effect.
Made up of many short cues, this release is also the full score in the proper chronological order as heard in the film. The experience is delightfully eerie and cosily unsettling. One of the best scores in science fiction and certainly one of the most influential. Alexander Courage and Jerry Goldsmith both learned lessons from this when they, in turn, scored Star Trek (the TV show in Courage's case and a couple of the movies in Goldsmith's). The Theremin is still used in movies today, its truly otherworldly sound eternally rich and atmospheric and acutely unbeatable in terms of glacial hyper-realisation. Perhaps the most notable example of its more recent effectiveness was heard in the terrific score for the Christian Bale-starring The Machinist, composed by Roque Banos, who was clearly paying enormous homage to Herrmann.
This release comes with a 12-page booklet of notes, a photograph of McNeely's small-scale orchestra and great cover artwork depicting Klaatu, Gort and a mesmerised Helen (Patricia Neal).
Great stuff, folks.
Full Track Listing -
1. Prelude and Outer Space 1:42
2. Radar 2:06
3. Danger 0:24
4. Klaatu 2:08
5. Gort 0:45
6. The Visor 1:10
7. The Telescope 0:43
8. Escape 0:57
9. Solar Diamonds 1:00
10. Arlington 1:22
11. Lincoln Memorial 2:10
12. Nocturne 2:47
13. The Flashlight 0:53
14. The Robot 2:08
15. Space Control 1:11
16. The Elevator 0:30
17. The Magnetic Pull 1:36
18. The Study 0:45
19. The Conference 0:31
20. The Jeweler 0:47
21. 12:30 0:30
22. Panic 0:46
23. The Glowing 1:01
24. Alone 1:03
25. Gort's Rage 0:43
26. Nikto 0:35
27. Captive 0:32
28. Terror 1:48
29. The Prison 1:43
30. Rebirth 2:03
31. Departure 0:55
32. Farewell 0:35
33. Finale 0:37
A polished rendering of Herrmann's classic score, Joel McNeely's 2002 interpretation is superb. The stereo imaging is far more atmospheric than the original mono, even if it does so at the expense of some of the orchestration and Herrmann's initial dynamics. McNeely strives to ensure a clean, crystal clear version that brings in all of the iconic sounds, vibes and that essential cosmic creepiness. As far as fifties sci-fi goes, this is one of the most pivotal moments in film scoring. Even outside of its given genre, Herrmann's writing is exemplary, influential and barnstorming. A true master of the macabre and the mysterious, he was never happier than when scoring something that took him to another world - be that literally, as in the films of Ray Harryhausen or The Day The Earth Stood Still, or psychologically, as in his tenure with Alfred Hitchcock - and his Theremin-saturated colouring of Robert Wise's trendsetter is possibly his most “out there” project.
Widely available, unlike the original score recording, this disc from Varese Sarabande is extremely good value for money and a worthy addition to any soundtrack collection. With Tyler Bates' music for the somewhat disappointing remake paying vague homage to Herrmann's iconic styling, and the original film's lavish Blu-ray appearance, it seems right to revisit this score in all its electronic, shimmering glory.
Very highly recommended.
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