Few directors have had their relationship with music analysed as much as Alfred Hitchcock. His natural ability to select the right composer to almost brand his films aurally has often meant that the musical scores have become synonymous with his filmmaking style even though they have been created by several different composers over the years. With this context then, Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, seems extremely unusual, especially considering the musical and cinematic work around it. In spite of being the next film made after Psycho (1960) – the audio-visual equivalent of ground zero – The Birds is missing the lavish and eccentric musical scores that had defined his films, his personality, and, at least at this point, his increasing association the sound world of Bernard Herrmann.
The Birds follows an inexplicably odd plot about Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren); a rich socialite who delivers a pair of love birds to a customer in the isolated vista of Bodega Bay because of his potential as a lover. Her arrival sparks an increasingly rebellious streak in the local population of birds, gradually culminating in a violent, avian revolution and potential apocalypse. It’s one of the few Hitchcock films that actually falls pretty strictly under horror as a genre rather than simply a thriller and comes as quite a surprise in its surreal nature and aesthetically pulpy production.
It’s difficult to describe what exactly the aural level of The Birds actually constitutes. Herrmann has a hand in its creation but almost in the way of an arranger which is in itself odd for a such a towering musical presence. In an article in line with the Hitchcock season, Guillermo del Toro went to some lengths to describe Hitchcock’s relationship with diegetic sound and dialogue which begins to explore the ideas that are prevalent in The Birds; “Even if Hitchcock resented the fact that sound brought with it theatrical affectations that set back the purity of cinema, he chose to embrace the change, and expanded the possibilities of sound, which became another “pure cinema” tool through which he could express his thematic concerns.” (2012).
In The Birds, there’s a sense of purity and trust in his images unseen and unheard of in any of Hitchcock’s other films. Instead of relying on Herrmann’s music to heighten and embellish the drama and the horror, he uses Herrmann’s sense of dynamics to program in a constant gushing of strangely affecting diegetic sound. In a logic sense, the choice is surprising. The aesthetic of a large number of birds could easily translate musically into some form of metric and rhythmic composition; take Herrmann’s score for North by Northwest (1959) which is built on strings almost akin to Philip Glass and his textures. A similar aesthetic could easily be achieved and planted symbolically around flocks of birds but instead Hitchcock has opted for something else entirely.
The reasons behind this choice could have thematic readings easily read into them but, in researching the actual history that lead up to this choice, it appears to be something born more out of technological curiosity than anything else (a trait that had often lead Hitchcock to produce something with a maverick flair simply through logistical curiosity). Whilst in the research stage of the film, Hitchcock and Herrmann were invited to Berlin to meet a sound technician called Remi Glassmann. Glassmann had created a new machine that he thought would be of interest to Hitchcock’s sound department and the pair travelled over together to investigate, much to their own enjoyment.
Glassmann, who is credited on the film as being behind the electronic production and composition, had created what is now probably more recognisable as an early sampler. The machine could take a recorded sound and transfer it to a keyboard in order to modulate it to musical keys and notes. It is this machine that allows the crossover of sound into music or perhaps it is the other way around. The detail and layering of the sound in the film seems almost built of counterpoint; whilst the sounds of the birds attacking seems engulfing, they’re never less than controlled in the same style as their coordinated attacks on the humans.
In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that “Then I asked Bernard Herrmann to supervise the whole sound track. When musicians compose a score, or orchestrate, they make sound rather than music. We used only sounds for the whole of the picture. There was no music.” (1983/1984). Herrmann’s usage of Glassmann’s technology actually bares a number of subtle resemblances to his music, in a dynamic sense at least. The sounds are not accurate but instead are built like so many of Herrmann’s famous musical themes. Instead of a rising string crescendo crashing over emotionally struck characters like waves (see Scotty in Vertigo (1958) as he is swallowed by his obsession and by Herrmann’s love theme), the sounds of birds crashes, quite literally, into the inhabitants of Bodega Bay.
The sounds even strike as jumps; a technique Herrmann had only just implanted in his previous work on Psycho. Considering the shower scene was supposed to be silent (at least that was Hitch’s belief), Herrmann shows a clear understanding of when films can and should be controlled through aural dynamics. The Birds is a perfect showcase of this as well as an innovative experiment with new sound technology, more associated with the avant-garde than Hollywood composition. It reflects a time when directors were trusted to enhance their work through new avenues of thought; making a feature soundtracked by electronically modulated birds seems impossible to conceive even today.