‘Psycho’ and ‘Close Encounters’ Roll at the Philharmonic

At first the scene is quiet: Janet Leigh steps into a shower at the Bates Motel, finding relief under the warm water. Then the translucent curtain reveals an approaching figure, who whisks it open with one hand while brandishing a knife in the other.

And the music begins.

The slashing shrieks that follow are some of the most famous musical notes in film: synonymous with horror and still frightening enough to make any veteran thrill-seeker tense up.

At David Geffen Hall in Manhattan, those high notes — Bernard Herrmann’s murder theme for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” ­— will be struck from the violin section of the New York Philharmonic, which is presenting the movie on Friday and Saturday with a live soundtrack, as part of its popular Art of the Score series.

Also on offer, on Wednesday and Thursday, is Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” whose restrained soundtrack by John Williams contains another famous theme: the five notes used to communicate with alien visitors.

Both scores were underappreciated when new. Herrmann’s “Psycho” music received no Academy Award recognition in 1961. And while Mr. Williams was nominated for “Close Encounters” in 1978, he ended up losing — to himself, for “Star Wars.”

Yet the music of both “Psycho” and “Close Encounters” has become the stuff of legend, essential to the histories of horror and sci-fi. Here’s what to listen for in the two soundtracks.

‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

That Mr. Williams wrote his score for “Star Wars” in the same year as “Close Encounters” speaks to his versatility. One is a grand space opera, with catchy Wagnerian leitmotifs and blaring immensity; the other is atonal and elusive, full of amorphous sound that rarely coalesces into melody. (Mr. Williams, ever adaptable, later wrote playfully enchanting music for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which the Philharmonic will perform in December.)

If you listen closely, there are signs that “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters” share a composer: an affinity for Ligeti comes through in both, as does a mastery of cosmic Romanticism. But their differences are clear from the first measure. Where “Star Wars” begins with fanfare and a brassy overture, Mr. Spielberg’s movie doesn’t open with any sort of memorable theme.

In “Let There Be Light,” Mr. Williams instead writes a swelling tone cluster of dissonant strings and wordless vocals, building an eerie tension that bursts and immediately recedes to a thick haze of high violins.

The John Williams of rhythmic complexity, brass melodies and militaristic percussion comes through in subsequent scenes, but only in passing; the score is otherwise understated, as mysteriously slippery as the film’s U.F.O. sightings.

And in that mystery is a lot of terror. “Barry’s Kidnapping,” one of the soundtrack’s many atonal passages, escalates like a Shepard tone and horrifies with piercing strings reminiscent of Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” from 1960.

Eventually, though, the film’s famous five-note motif is introduced — first diegetically (within the action of a scene), then woven into the score. The theme reaches its apotheosis with the climactic encounter: The humans send it out over a computer and speakers (an oboe in the soundtrack’s “Wild Signals”), and it is repeated back by the aliens’ mother ship (a rumbling tuba).

Once contact is made, Mr. Williams’s score takes a Romantic turn, blending celestial wonder and the grandeur of a finale. Along the way, he interpolates the melody of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” first slowly and subtly, then explicitly as the credits roll.


Steven C. Smith, in his biography “A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann,” repeats a quip from the composer that Hitchcock completed only 60 percent of any film.

“I have to finish it for him,” Herrmann said.

That’s not too outrageous; in the films they collaborated on between 1955 and 1964, from “The Trouble With Harry” to “Marnie,” Herrmann’s soundtracks were vital in setting tone and offering insight into psychology.

It’s difficult to fathom, for example, “North by Northwest” without Herrmann’s propulsive and suspenseful soundtrack (the “Overture” alone seems to prefigure John Adams at his most high-spirited). The knotty desires of “Vertigo” are made even more unsettling by Herrmann’s love music, which recalls the Wagner of “Tristan und Isolde” and the Schoenberg of “Verklärte Nacht.”

And “Psycho” wouldn’t be “Psycho” without Herrmann’s music, which, even when lyrical, puts you on edge. He doesn’t waste any time in getting there: “Prelude” opens with five accented strikes of the so-called Hitchcock chord (a minor major seventh chord). On the final one, a two-note ostinato creates a chugging momentum, quickly joined by a racing, jittery theme.

Nearly 30 seconds in, Herrmann introduces a tuneful melody that, even in its singing ease, feels unstable over the accompaniment, a symptom of the horror hiding behind the amiability of Norman Bates.

Here, as in the rest of the score, Herrmann writes for only a string orchestra. He was working on a budget — the film’s daring came at a price, with Hitchcock using his own money to finance it — though Herrmann writes for the small ensemble’s full range of sound: harmonics, percussive effects, the use of mutes and a telling difference between vibrato and unadorned, airy sustained notes.

In cues like “The Stairs,” Herrmann escalates anxiety through simple yet clashing rising scales that begin with the lowest instruments and build with the upper voices for a disturbing cluster.

But his most ingenious use of the strings, of course, is in “The Murder.”

The high-pitched stabbing sounds of the violins repeat, joined in deepening octaves — though a half-step lower, for a strident clash, evoking both the knife’s unrelenting slashes and the cries of Janet Leigh’s Marion.

Hitchcock didn’t ask for music for this scene, but his composer wrote some anyway. When the filmmaker later changed his mind, Herrmann was at the ready, with music that would make horror history.

Art of the Score

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Sept. 11 and 12; “Psycho,” Sept. 13 and 14; David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; nyphil.org.

Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. @joshbarone Facebook

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