Richard Baker’s The Price of Curiosity is closely based on a particular scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. In this scene, Ben (James Stewart) persuades his wife Jo (Doris Day) to take sedatives, before telling her that their son Hank has been kidnapped. Without presenting the original sound or visuals of the film, the score follows the structure of the scene, interweaving elements of Doris Day’s song “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)”, which she has sung with Hank in an earlier scene. Paul Kilbey talks to Richard Baker about the inspirations for this work and his compositional method.
Paul Kilbey – Firstly, thank you for prompting me to watch The Man Who Knew Too Much – what an amazing film. When did you come across it – or did you know the Doris Day song first?
Richard Baker – I knew the song first: my mother used to sing it to me, and I became so obsessed with it that my grandmother gave me her 78 record, even though it was a favourite song of her late husband’s. I played it all the time and broke it – I was about four or five. She was very upset.
I also remember going into my primary school one day and singing the song to my teacher. I didn’t change the pronouns in it – I sang “When I was just a little girl…” She was very amused, and said, “But you’re not a little girl, are you?” And I remember feeling profound shame – I think it was the first time that I felt shame about being different. I think of it as my first memory of being queer, in a way. So for me this song represents the seed of something.
Of course, that’s not what the piece is about. But it’s why it’s so resonant for me – and it’s why, when Doris Day died in 2019, suddenly this was all I wanted to do.
I didn’t encounter the film until later. Hitchcock was big for me when I was a teenager. But it was when I watched it again a few years ago that I realised how very disturbing the relationship is between Ben and Jo.
PK – The way Ben drugs his wife is so calm and matter-of-fact – what do you think was Hitchcock’s point here?
RB – I think there’s no question that Hitchcock knew this was quite a manipulative intervention. It’s debatable whether it would have been seen as within the bounds of acceptability, but I think it would certainly have made people uncomfortable even in 1956. He knew what he was doing.
Another reason why the gender politics of that scene are so disturbing is that Jo has given up a successful career on the stage, to be with Ben. She’s clearly incredibly capable, and he’s been a bit feckless, actually. But in that moment, Ben turns her into a victim.
PK – In your piece, you juxtapose this very tense scene with Jo’s song, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be” – there’s an irony there, right?
RB – Yes. The reason my mother found the song so comforting, I think, is that it’s about acceptance and equanimity in the face of the things life throws at you.
But at the same time, in the context of the movie, acceptance is the last thing that the Doris Day character shows: she shows extraordinary will, even under the influence of a sedative. So these two things are cutting against each other. You have this sunny song about acceptance, but here is a woman refusing to accept things with every fibre of her being.
PK – The juxtaposition also makes me think of the way we look back at attitudes that we’ve internalised early on in our lives – how you, like Jo’s son in the film, were singing this song about acceptance as a child, unaware of how problematic that attitude can be.
RB – Yes – when you are just little, these words of wisdom mean nothing to you, because they can’t: it is only the accumulation of life experience that gives you perspective. I guess that’s true of my experience of the film as well: when I was just a little boy, this film would have meant one thing. But when I came back to it, it meant something else.
PK – How is your piece structured? I know you often follow pre-existing structures – is this based closely on that one scene in the film?
RB – It really is! It has a little introduction, because the opening titles of the film are amazing: you see the real percussion section of the LSO, because the climax of the film is a moment in the Albert Hall, when an assassin fires his shot during a cymbal crash.
So the piece starts with a cymbal crash – which is also a composer in-joke, referencing Grisey’s Les Espaces acoustiques – and this provides the main harmonic material in the piece. I took a sample and used its original pitch level, which is quite distorted but with a C fundamental – I didn’t change it. That’s the way I work; it’s kind of a rule for me to use things as I find them.
The sounds of Marrakech from the film soundtrack, which come next, were more or less on a D fundamental – so this oscillation between C and D fundamentals creates a progression that gave the harmonic structure for the whole piece. The song is in A major, the chorus modulating to D.
After the introduction, there’s a jump-cut to the scene in the hotel room.
PK – How do you treat the scene – do you follow it precisely? Do you slow it down?
RB – The overall proportions of the scene are intact, just expanded by a factor of three. The moment at which every line of dialogue begins is preserved, and so are the relative durations of each line – they’re just repeated in various ways. But I did slow them down by about 10% – if you reproduce the real tempo at which people speak, it sounds comically fast.
The first part of this section is quite chaotic, because it’s just speech material, which is incredibly harmonically complex. But after Ben says, “Here’s the price of curiosity” and gives Jo the pills – I also transcribe the sound of her swallowing the pills – the atmosphere changes. Pitches from “Que sera sera” come in, very slowly, as a cantus firmus – and the speech melodies of the actors are affected by those pitches. The pitches of the song literally interfere with the speech.
Then there’s a different process again after she explodes and says, “You gave me sedatives!” From then on, we get whole phrases of the melody instead of the cantus firmus. She sort of punches a hole through the piece. It’s literally a counterpoint of these two different kinds of material, the transcribed speech rhythms and the song melody.
I thought about the effects of the sedative on Jo as if the atmosphere was getting thicker, almost like a viscous liquid. It was a really difficult challenge compositionally to have these two different kinds of energy: a willful forward momentum, and also something pushing back on it.
PK – These techniques sound fascinating, and it’s amazing how close it is to the film scene itself. Would you say people in the audience need to know what’s going on in the film scene?
RB – It’s a good question – when I’m writing pieces like this, based on existing material, one of my aesthetic preoccupations is asking: to what extent is the original present? Clearly, it’s present, and there isn’t a moment that doesn’t owe itself to the film. But at the same time, it’s not present literally. It’s a kind of tracing, it’s almost like a photogram. The artefact has become a different thing – it’s become an orchestral piece.
PK – So if somebody in the audience hasn’t read the programme notes, doesn’t know the film – there’s still a piece of music for them to hear.
RB – That’s right. I think that, for instance, the lines for the woodwind instruments (mostly representing Ben) and the brass (Jo) are kind of talky; you hear this chatter. I hope people will hear the interplay of those different characters of material.
PK – And I guess people will hear the tension building as well – the dramatic arc.
RB – Yes – the overall pacing of the scene, the way it builds towards that righteous explosion from Doris Day, and then the song coming through. I hope that’s clear as well.
But it is also just a piece! And it can be experienced like that, with musical rhetoric and musical grammar.
At the recent Francis Bacon show at the Royal Academy, I really loved seeing the original photographs he used, from medical textbooks or by Eadweard Muybridge, and the way that they were transformed, through Bacon’s craft, into something else. Cassandra Miller, who’s a wonderful colleague, talks about “transformative mimicry”. And it is a kind of mimicry, but also a transformation: it becomes music, whether it’s started out as birdsong, or speech, or song, or whatever. In the process of transcribing, one uses one’s embodied knowledge and one’s craft to create music.