According to some guy in the know, at ‘the crudest level… music is there simply to keep the audience from becoming distracted’ (Williams, 1974) and at its best, a music score can affect the emotional impact of the film. For both these reasons, I’m not sure whether Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was an inspired or idiotic choice of film for last night’s ReScore 2.
ReScore is a film showing with a twist. Just like the talkies of yore, the orchestra playing the score for the film are there with you, a live score. What’s more, the score is an original creation by these innovative St Andrews students. As the organisers pointed out, this meant the film they chose needed to not already have its own score, which rather limited their choice, but still, Hitchcock is known as “the master of suspense”… Can music, particularly written by non-professionals, really add anything to a Hitchcock? The response was mixed. I had the (probably) advantageous position of having seen The Birds before; I was about sixteen years old and in the middle of a very dedicated Hitchcock phase (I watched about four of his films a week). Trailed as one of the scariest films of all time, it completely failed to live up to expectations. My friend next to me, had never seen it before and so was experiencing the “terror” of it for the first time, with the music added by David Cihelna, Patrick Sandquist, Benoît Grogan-Avignon, Oscar Swedrup and Charles Field.
For those who don’t know The Birds, it introduces Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels, the rich ‘practical joker’ who goes to extraordinary lengths to meet this guy Mitch again after one encounter in a pet shop. But that’s not really the point. Fundamentally, it is about a town that is overrun by birds; squawking, flapping, scratching birds that seem to have organised themselves into a coordinated attack on a small hamlet just north of San Francisco. The Brenner family, and the whole town, must flail for survival against the bird war. If you have a fear of birds, this film is, no doubt, terrifying. If on the other hand, you’re not really fussed by the pigeon persuasion, then the birds seem a bit weak as villains.
It could be my own developed maturity and taste that enabled me to take a film about bird attacks more seriously, but I found this experience of The Birds infinitely more scary than my first encounter with it. And I suspect this had a lot to do with the newly added score. My friend, on the other hand, found it about as dire as I had the first time. Whatever your opinion on the film itself, ReScore is an incredibly interesting experiment. It demonstrates the real power music can have when it’s right (which was most of the time), but also the distracting impact when it’s not quite spot on. David Cihelna explained beforehand that they had wanted to contrast the relatively old film with more modern music; more electronic than we might expect. At some points, their score fitted in perfectly, it added to the fear of swooping birds and screaming children. It could be so in line with the tone of the film, that you forgot there was a bunch of guys behind a curtain playing it live. However, the very nature of this event meant that there was a hyper-awareness of the music which undermined the effect. I suspect any score needs the privilege of sneaking in just under our consciousness to be truly effective. This meant that when the score was slightly incongruous, you noticed.
The talent of the musicians involved was evident. Even the idea of what they’re doing is pretty inspiring. The score totally transformed the experience of The Birds. It vastly enhanced my opinion of the film and from the shrieks and startled jumps of most of the audience, it had the desired impact. Moreover, it was such an interesting experiment that I would recommend anyone to attend an event like this in future. Unfortunately I think most involved are fourth years, so any younger years reading this – take up the mantle and allow this divine revelation in musical exploration to live on!