Birth of the Monstrous

Picturing Atonality Part 1

published in The Wire No.168, February, 1998, London

'The Emancipation Of Dissonance'. Despite the unfortunate austerity which governed the application of Arnold Schoenberg's theory of serialism, there is a beautiful dream contained in that phrase. The idealistic notion that harmony could be collapsed into a non-hierarchical plane is at once liberating and limiting. The persuasive psychoacoustic and 'psycho-harmonic' power of music to manipulate the listener through kino-dramatic commentary is central to the pleasure of listening, and a difficult one to combat. Of course Schoenberg spoke more from a composer's viewpoint than a listener's experience, and his musical texts may be best appreciated initially as discursive journeys and later as erogenous narratives.

But if this yearning for a true dissonance seems like idle academic wondering, it has been a desperate pursuit in the rigidly codified terrain of the film score. There, a reduced emotional range is guarded by harmonic sentinels - the major and minor modes - who rationalize psychological nuances with all the subtlety of a cartoon shrink. Pastel smears of classical music for the correctly socialized human; dark sludges of avant garde music for the deviant being. The deeper recesses of the European psyche - while being great fodder for brooding characterizations in many Hollywood film genres - have been caricatured often as an abrupt and irrational dissonance. No wonder Theodore Adorno was so scathing of his experiences in Hollywood. But while Adorno is still cited as a historical spearhead launched at the narrow mindedness of Hollywood's approach to film scoring (which is not restricted to the American cinema alone), there has been little thought given to the complex musical semiotics which operate in the glaring brashness of atonality in film scores.

In short, atonality in the film score signifies the Other: the monstrous, the grotesque, the aberrant. Its deviation from diatonic scripture is never slight, always excessive. Like the ultimate death which must befall the movie monster, the presence of atonality must be hysterically marked as transgressive and unforgiving. Far from being emancipated, dissonance is condemned; ritualistically sacrificed at the grand altar of tonal resolve as "The End" uncannily appears on the screen like an epitaph for the avant garde. But there is no need to be moralistic about this (viz a viz Adorno and his proponents). The narratological impulses which crazily guide a movie may be rendered thin and shallow by classical notions of myth or the purist ideals of the avant garde, but those impulses are astounding when gauged by modern and postmodern audio-visual perception.

Jack Arnold's THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) exemplifies this. The film is a definitive tale which exploits the fear of the unknown - more precisely, a self-enveloping series of unknowns: the missing link, the unchartered lagoon, the depths of dark waters, the presence you cannot see. All surfaces are rendered suspicious through their suppression of Otherness. A disquieting domesticity is generated through extraneous and protracted sequences of a barge sailing deep into Amazonian tributaries as its manicured passengers suntan, chat, smoke pipes, observe leftover stock footage from nature documentaries. The accompanying music by Hans J. Salter (a key composer of this carney style of monster music) is remarkably brooding, shifting through a kind of 'soft serialism', clearly connoting that all is not as it appears. As with many other 50s films which explore oceans/jungles/caves/deserts to uncover monsters (THEM!, 1954; IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 1955; ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, THE MOLE PEOPLE, TARANTULA, THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES, all 1956; THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, 1957) nature is rendered beautiful but beastly; its dissonance not emancipated, but set loose ready to terrorize.

The musical leitmotiv of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON - a pseudo-prehistoric three note burst of brass and cymbal hiss - signifies not only the emergence of the Creature into the known, but also the cataclysmic collapse of all controlled harmonious existence up to that point. As blunt as a sledge hammer, the narrow atonality of the score (a mere flat or sharp in the wrong place here and there) is a symptom of the compacted pressure under which Otherness lives. Typical of the 50s cycle of monster movies, the thrill of danger is sharply momentous: less a lingering suggestion of shadow and more a quick cut to glistening slime. That noisy burst of brass is accordingly a marker of sudden shock rather than a passage of psychological inquiry. The main theme by Fred Carling and Ed Lawrence to another Jack Arnold film - THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) - similarly employs a rupturing brass burst to unsettle a smooth and sexy jazz waltz. The bulk of the theme has a melodious, drifting quality that despite its calm, empty, harmonious demeanour is somehow haunting. In all good horror films - especially those from the 50s with their surreal banality - the subtext is loud and clear: normality and equilibrium make for a boring existence which is soon to be pulled asunder. Like the rubber suit of the Creature and the optical superimposition of a man down scaled against a domestic cat, the atonal slashes of many monster film scores of the era are cheesy but captivating. As is the nature of artifice in a medium paradoxically predicated on its photographic verisimilitude, film score atonality is less a matter of musical significance and more a matter of cultural signage once cinematic form recodifies musical language. Deep in their corniness is a disturbing plea to acknowledge the monstrous, the grotesque, the aberrant.

While monster movie composers in the 50s and 60s like Hans J. Salter, Les Baxter, Ronald Stein, Fred Katz and Gerald Fried could be accused of cheapening or diluting the radical force of the European avant garde academy, one should not be dismissive of the effects their music contributes to their films, and the consequent role those films play in film history. Certainly cinema history would be less rich minus the gaudy iconography of horror music. For the flexible ear, one score perfectly contextualizes the formal, musical and cultural intercies of atonality and its heavy-handed symbolism of Otherness: Bernard Herrmann's PSYCHO (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). Herrmann accepts the carney brashness of his Hollywood contemporaries as a cinematic vernacular and then explores the sonic properties and psychoacoustic qualities of the sound of film music. He is thus complicit in promoting the moral association of atonality with deviation, yet more then any other composer Herrman painted a musical portrait of the most aberrant and modern of psychoses: the serial killer.

The chance intersection of motivation and circumstance attracts the perverse and amoral plot lines which shape PSYCHO. The film's story is emptied of meaningful coerced actions and left hollow, spacious, frightening: the main actress is killed off halfway through the film; the killer does not realize his chance victim has a wad of money; the detective accidentally uncovers a separate story and is dispatched for reasons of which he himself is unaware. Such an inverted and anti-classical story structure cries out for Schoenberg's dissonance, and Herrmann provides it with a logical precision. His main tactic - especially in the first half of the film - is to suggest two things: firstly, you never know what chance events are about to befall you, and secondly, this fear of the unknown renders your existence frail and insecure. Tonality is employed specifically to enforce the futility of its scripture. Far from the maddening alarm bell harmony of the Hollywood film score, Herrman's PSYCHO not only accepts the monstrous, but also marks its presence as continual, pervasive and unending.

In contrast to the part-lulling part-brooding music in 50s monster movies, PSYCHO's domestic scenes employ harmony that serially modulates through a web of potential root keys. Starting with the opening shots of Phoenix and the hotel room, a recurring motif based on distracted rising/falling intervals (like Debussy fed through a random generator), Herrmann performs a deft feat of destabilization through numbing one to the controlling mechanisms of diatonic harmony. As the intervals nonchalantly float like a piece of paper caught in city wind, one is similarly uprooted and detached. The air is then thickened as fate and chance murkily combine to trap you.

This device of hyper-modulation is in effect a semiotic variation of Schoenberg's serialism. Whereas Schoenberg splays the diatonic system into a modernist palette of variable relationships which one must incessantly invert, Herrmann retains harmonic and intervallic meaning purely in order to subvert it. Whilst such a dialectic strategy is hard to imagine working in music alone, its effect in a film score is one of powerful psychological resonance. From the afore mentioned floating intervals to the chugging and pressing title theme, extremely simplistic shards of melody are looped and repeated like fossilised fragments from dinosaurian symphonies. Repetition aggravates; modulation induces aimlessness; density oppresses. Like the characters in Hitchock's perverse drama, we are less manipulated by magisterial authorial forces then we are set loose to roam a maze of indifferent possibilities - and we are granted the meta-perspective of our meaningless journey as the music makes us feel like mice in a maze. Atonality is the musical key to the architecture of that maze. By subjecting us to its moulding, Herrmann grants us more than the sensation of being threatened by a monstrous Other. His score notes that in the abject void of modern psychosis, both psychological motivation and harmonic meaning must be absolutely discarded. As such, Herrmann goes against the wooden grain honed by nearly every other film composer in the history of the cinema.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © respective copyright holders