Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2009 August 03 • Monday

Usually the Soundtracks of the Week are new releases or music that is at least new to me. For August, my birth month, the selections will be scores that have been important to me for a good chunk of my life.

The first of these, and the seventy-second Soundtrack of the Week, is Bernard Herrmann's score for North by Northwest.

I have three recordings of this score. If I could only have one, it would be the original soundtrack recording with Herrmann conducting.

I probably saw North by Northwest for the first time when I was seven or eight years old. My parents would often take my brother and me to see Hitchcock movies, usually at the Brattle Theatre, and North by Northwest was my favorite.

The high-octane overture, "a kaleidoscopic orchestral fandango", as Herrmann called it, with its shifting meters of 3/4 and 6/8, got stuck in my head thirty years ago and never left. It's included in Herrmann's Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers album and has become almost as inevitable a part of the "concert Herrmann" as the Psycho suite.

Just as essential as the original recording is Joel McNeely's re-recording of a couple of years ago.

What's interesting about this is that McNeely, conducting the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, gives us the entire score as written by Herrmann, including music that was never used in the film!

The third recording I own is this one, with orchestra conducted by Laurie Johnson, one of Bernard Herrmann's best friends and a great composer himself, most notably of the music from The Avengers.

As Johnson writes in his autobiography, Noises in the Head, this recording was made with

the Calrec microphone, which contained eight separate microphones within it. With the orchestra arranged around it, it recorded exactly what the human head would hear. Thus the listener had the experience of what it's like to 'be there'.

One day, Elmer Bernstein, the American composer, came to my home and listened to some of the music we had recorded in this way. Clearly impressed, he said how wonderful it was to hear the sound of strings exactly as the conductor on his podium hears it.

At least one cue from North by Northwest is recycled from Herrmann's score to On Dangerous Ground, and Herrmann's biographer, Steven Smith, notes that "Herrmann also quotes from his own White Witch Doctor score".

I was thinking recently that I wouldn't trade North by Northwest for all of Beethoven. After hearing a bit of Beethoven in the movie Deception, though, I decided I was perhaps doing Beethoven a disservice.

I have now decided that I would not trade North by Northwest for all of Brahms.