Insights into Hitchcock Études

As part of my MMus Final Recital earlier this year I performed the multi-medial composition Hitchcock Études by Montreal based composer Nicole Lizée, scored for piano, video and glitch.

The video material is comprised of scenes from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Psycho and Birds

Completed in 2010 the piece continues the long tradition of synthesis of different art forms that begun with the Greeks, was revived in Renaissance and again with Gluck and Noverre in opera and ballet in the mid-eighteenth century. At the same time, it can be seen as a hybrid that stems from the strong Western tradition of instrumental programme music, is heavily influenced by Hollywood film industry and its film music tradition, and yet also reaches into the interdisciplinary performance art.

The resulting material is a fascinating fusion of live acoustic piano, soundtrack and video.

During the process of studying the Études, I approached Nicole with questions regarding her compositional process, creative and musical aims, as well as the broader context of the work. Here follows the transcript of this interview:

Liga Korne: The individual études organically flow from one to another, did you approach the source material with a new underlying narrative in mind?

Nicole Lizée: In writing the études I capture and convey the wide spectrum of emotions that I experience when watching Hitchcock’s films; further to that, on repeat, zooming in, audio scrubbing back and forth to unveil hidden nuances, etc. The études are my interpretation of both the moments within the films and the techniques of the director – with the ultimate goal of creating a completely new composition. It’s the Foley sounds and the dialogue that I work with, more often than the soundtrack itself. These moments are idiosyncratic – they only happen in one place and sometimes only for a split second. I look to capture the potential musical elements that exist outside the soundtrack – i.e. Norman Bates’ stutter, etc. I want these sounds and moments to extend and develop into a journey of twists and turns – kind of like a fever dream where elements from your experiences of the day become more vivid and unpredictable. And this is just the beginning. The characters on screen now need to interact with the live performer. This is achieved in part by using a meticulous click track so that the performer can infiltrate the screen and become part of the scene. The screen performers and live performers now form a completely new ensemble. To add to this, I’ve recently started inserting myself into the scenes on screen – so I can become part of the cosmos/experience. With all of this in mind, a new narrative tends to emerge.

A fascinating aspect of Hitchcock’s films are the musical elements that are not at all part of the film’s score. I capture and develop these in the piece: i.e. James Stewart’s playing with the metronome (out of time) while questioning a nervous Farley Granger as he practices Poulenc at the piano in Rope, the children’s chant in the schoolhouse in The Birds – the only musical material in the piece (but not in any way a part of the soundtrack, of which there is none in this film). The Man Who Knew Too Much cleverly uses music as part of its plot and two scenes form the foundation for two études: The Phonograph Étude where an LP record is played to show the exact moment in the concert in which the gunman is to shoot (during the crash cymbals), and when Doris Day is asked to perform at the embassy, but does so uncharacteristically loudly and brashly so that her kidnapped son – who is held captive in the building – can hear her.

LK: To what extent can Hitchcock Études be perceived as program music?

NL: It could actually be described as a deconstruction of program music – or program music turning in on itself. By definition program music is meant to evoke images or a narrative. In this work the actual images – and their corresponding sonic material – are part of the orchestration; the building blocks of a new work.

Hitchcock Études is part of an ongoing collection I’ve created called The Criterion Collection, where each work is a tribute to a director who has had a major impact on my aesthetic. So far, études based on the work of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarantino and Lynch comprise this series. Each has a completely different vibe as they reflect the diverse visions, personalities, and techniques of each director. While writing each piece I delved deeply into the minutiae of their work. Both the manipulation of the soundtrack and live musical material I write conveys the personalities of the film characters (as I see them) and their impact on my state of mind. So the works reflect the aesthetics of the directors, but also reflect the rumination that I’ve experienced – and the interpretation and emotional denouement that has resulted. The styles and characters are very different. Norman Bates’ stutter, Doris Day’s voice – sweet and sensuous (but strained given the conditions under which she is singing in the film), the children’s chant in The Birds just before the big attack – these all begin as very melodious and, akin to a Hitchcock film, start to become twisted and dark.

LK: Throughout the score it is clear that the relationships between the individual elements of film, glitch and piano part vary throughout the score, but did you create this piece with the notion of their equivalence from the outset aiming at a complete synthesis of the components?

The film and music in my works are written simultaneously and are completely interrelated. The soundtrack and foley effects are manipulated in tandem with the corresponding visuals and notated in the score to allow it to meld completely with the live performer. I create ‘synthesizers’ using short musical and visual excerpts. I dig for pitch where one might not expect pitch to exist. The visuals are ‘notated’ in much the same way as the sonic material – using time and rhythm measurements (rhythm and metre), pitch transposition, stacking pitches to create chords and harmony, tempo changes, layering to create texture, etc. As I mention in the programme notes notation or transcription is an integral component of the work or process. It is the coaxing of material from existing material by altering its physical state; illuminating hidden melodies, gestures, and rhythms. And the live performer does not play on top of this or through this but is intertwined within this.

I have witnessed a number of times where video is treated as ‘eye candy’ or simply treated as something for the audience to look at, or even a way to bill a concert as “multimedia”. It can seem forced or gratuitous. This is not at all an automatic criticism of the works as they exist individually, but rather at attempts to amalgamate the two. For me – and this is completely personal – the three (visuals, prerecorded sound and live performance) must meld completely to reach that transformative state.

LK: Bernard Herrmann wrote that music can serve as ‘the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience’. To what extent does the piano part have this ability and function of moulding all elements into one complete experience?

NL: The piano part – and pianist – is the catalyst for all elements. The pianist is the living human engaging with the icons on screen and in the soundtrack. Some of the characters on screen are no longer living, or possibly have been forgotten (arguably considered no longer relevant in the eyes of Hollywood). But none of these are expected to appear in a concert hall as part of classical, chamber or concert music piece. The piano part and pianist is the ‘recontextualizer’. The piano solidifies this musical context. The film and soundtrack are orchestrated in the same way I write for ensemble, but it’s the third member (pianist) that confirms its place in the musical (and, furthermore, notated, concert music) world.

It’s great that you quote Bernard Herrmann, as I think he had quite an interesting – and likely unique – experience with scoring films, particularly with Hitchcock’s films. I’m thinking of The Man Who Knew Too Much (where he appears as conductor in a pivotal scene as part of the plot – it’s extremely rare for a film composer to also appear in the film he’s scored), The Birds (which contains no soundtrack, but he is interestingly credited as sound consultant) and Psycho, which arguably became equally recognized for its score as for the film itself.

// Here is a link to the piece performed by Megumi Masaki, a pianist who commissioned and premiered the piece.

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