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Music To Keep You On The Edge Of Your Seat
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Music To Keep You On The Edge Of Your Seat

Music Interviews

Music To Keep You On The Edge Of Your Seat

Music To Keep You On The Edge Of Your Seat
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Conductor John Mauceri's latest album is filled with renditions of the most-chilling music from Alfred Hitchcock's films. He talks with NPR's Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Halloween approaches, doesn't it? Hobgoblins and witches, and we don't just mean the campaign season. No artist was more successful at producing the sinister by suggestion than Sir Alfred Hitchcock. It's Saturday morning, why don't you all take a nice shower?

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

SIMON: John Mauceri, the distinguished conductor has conducted the Danish National Sympathy Orchestra to create new recordings of Hitchcock classics in a new CD that's called "Music For Hitchcock." The album also includes an explanation of why those pieces of music work so well to inspire suspense and horror. Maestro Mauceri joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN MAUCERI: Happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Let's listen to a few clips. Track seven on this album is from "Strangers On A Train."

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

SIMON: Now what do you hear?

MAUCERI: Well, this is Dimitri Tiomkin. And this is really epic. This is huge music, right. This is not a -something that takes place in a living room like "Dial M For Murder," which takes place in a room. Now we're going into a train station, but we're also dealing with this psychopath who wants to make a deal with this famous tennis player. And so you get this sense of monumentality. What happens later on in this queue is you start to hear very George Gershwin-esque kind of jazzy stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

MAUCERI: And you ask yourself a question - how is it that all of this can live in the same world of Hitchcock or Dimitri Tiomkin, the composer? But just to take Tiomkin for a moment, Tiomkin was studying in St. Petersburg with Glazunov, the great Russian composer, when one day, he came across a score to "Alexander's Ragtime Band." And he played it, and he said, you know, I want to play this. I want to go to that country. What he didn't realize was that the man who wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a man named Irving Berlin, was also a Russian Jew who had come to New York. But he thought this guy, Irving Berling, was, like, this quintessential American.

SIMON: And so he was, but yes...

MAUCERI: And of course, he was. And then Tiomkin became that, too, I suppose.

SIMON: Well, let's listen now to - this is "Scene Of Love."

MAUCERI: From "Vertigo."

SIMON: From "Vertigo." Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

SIMON: So Jimmy Stewart has been trying to turn Judy into Madeline, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

MAUCERI: Well, this is where she does appear as the woman he thinks is dead. And the music is based on the sequence from Wagner's "Tristan" but Herrmann takes it and extends it and de-stends it- it's de-stended into the point of - listen to this, this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

MAUCERI: He really does this extraordinary thing, and it's there for a very 20th century idea that Herrmann would take something that was already long and take a little slice of it and then expand it. And in the case of "Vertigo" - a number of people have pointed this out - it is the longest score for any film by Hitchcock. There's very little dialogue if you watch "Vertigo." Hitchcock trusts Herrmann and trusts the music as dealing with the subconscious longing of this character. It's quite extraordinary.

SIMON: I think we have to get to a discussion of one of the most recognizable music moments in movie history - in history.

MAUCERI: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

SIMON: 'Course this is "Psycho." And, you know, this is just strings, isn't it?

MAUCERI: Yeah. You know, they are a couple of reasons why it's just a string orchestra. First of all, there was no budget. You know, it was budgeted like it was a television series. So we had to make the best of that. He did say it was a black and white picture, so I wrote a black and white score. And so what Herrmann does is he uses all of the latest techniques in how to play string instruments. I mean, they don't just play with the bow across the strings and pizzicato, but they play close to the bridge, away from the bridge, with mutes. Part of what makes that music so incredibly frustrating is that all of the strings have their mutes on, and yet they're asked to play fortissimo. In other words, they're fighting against the very thing that is not allowing them to play loud. And so it's a little bit like screaming through a glass wall. You know, you sort of here and you don't, like little bees in a bottle. And then sometimes it gets to be so scary and gigantic, you can't believe it.

SIMON: Can you point us to a piece of music on this album that we ought to hear on the approach to Halloween?

MAUCERI: Oh, I would say start "Rebecca."

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

MAUCERI: Because Rebecca is a character who is dead, and she haunts the house Manderley. And we go into the past, and the ghost of this incredibly beautiful woman is haunting the score. And at the same time, there's this feeling of its beautiful, but I shouldn't be here. And somehow Franz Waxman creates the most amazingly beautiful, romantic and yet deadly sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

SIMON: You, I gather, conduct this music in concerts without the films?

MAUCERI: That's right.

SIMON: Make a point of doing that?

MAUCERI: Yes. Because I believe the music that's good is just good, just like we don't expect to see dancers when we do "The Rite Of Spring" or "The Firebird." And I'll also tell you another thing -when I first played "Psycho" in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, this was just after the wall had fell. It was in the early '90s. Now the people in Leipzig had never seen the movie. Now normally when you play "Psycho," when you get to the shower music, people laugh. And they laugh in that nervous way of I remember when I used to be scared, and now I'm sitting comfortably in a concert hall, and I'm not scared. Nobody laughed in Leipzig because no one had ever seen the movie. They just heard it as music. So those who argue that you like this music 'cause you saw the movie - well, that's true. But you can also just like this music because it happens to be great orchestral music.

SIMON: John Mauceri, joining us in our studios. The new CD: "Music For Hitchcock." Thank you so much, John.

MAUCERI: Glad to be here, Scott.

SIMON: BJ Leiderman wrote our theme music. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "MUSIC FOR HITCHCOCK")

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