The music of horror films

From the lullaby in Rosemary's Baby to Bernard Herrmann's final score in Taxi Driver, an unforgettable episode of BBC Radio 3's In Tune discussed music in thrillers.

An unforgettable episode of In Tune (weekdays, 4.30pm) discussed music in horror films and thrillers, from the curdled lullaby in Rosemary’s Baby to the Wagnerian thrum characterising the best Hammer soundtracks. The BBC’s cross-media “Sound of Cinema” season has been programmed in precisely the right way: as though by obsessives in relentless pursuit of exciting sensations. (Let’s stick on the 1933 King Kong at prime time on a Sunday on BBC4! Let’s have a foley artist snapping rhubarb near a microphone to replicate the sound of catastrophe-shattered limbs!) The composer and silent movie accompanist Neil Brand gave a burst of the “landing at Whitby” scene from Nosferatu on a piano, relishing his role as both jukebox and magician – you could hear the audience fizzing.

The Tippett Quartet played music from Psycho, so intricately full of hostile power that you found yourself wondering why its composer, Bernard Herrmann, bothered using an entire orchestra. And here was Herrmann’s widow, Norma, gossiping about her long-dead husband (whom she still dotingly called Benny) and his final score, which was for Taxi Driver. She confessed that when Martin Scorsese first asked him to consider working on the movie, the caustic Herrmann had replied: “I don’t do cabbies.”

It was a personal relief to hear this lady speak. In the brilliantly useful and contumelious 1991 Hollywood memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Julia Phillips describes her work as a co-producer of Taxi Driver and the inconvenient moment when Herrmann “woke up dead”, aged 64, hours after completing the score.

“His wife freaks out,” Phillips writes breezily, “not least because she literally has not a penny to her name.”

I’d often wondered what had become of this wife – in that weird way that one aside or even half an aside in a book can act like a stone in your shoe – and here she was, not dead in a ditch somewhere, but on BBC Radio 3, happy as a person sitting with a large bowl of Miracle Whip and a spoon, admitting that she really ought to get round to seeing North by Northwest one day because Benny’s music was rather good, don’t you think?

Brand played some of it and the audience went through the roof. This was the definition of euphoric radio.

Michael Phillips receives the Palme d'Or for the movie Taxi Driver during the closing ceremony of 1976 Cannes film festival. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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