Perhaps best known for his collaborations with filmmaker John Carpenter, sound designer and composer Alan Howarth has contributed to some of the biggest genre films of the ’80s. His work with Carpenter on films such as Escape from New York, They Live and Prince of Darkness, resulted in some of genre cinema’s most striking and atmospheric scores. An award-winning sound designer, Howarth has also provided effects for the likes of Poltergeist, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and many of the Star Trek films.
There is currently a resurgence in the type of minimalist electronic film scores made famous by yourself and John Carpenter throughout the eighties. Recent titles such as It Follows, Starry Eyes, The Guest and Cold in July all feature scores which echo your work with Carpenter. Why do you think this music has been so influential and continues to inspire musicians and filmmakers today?
It has withstood the test of time. It’s also very minimalist; you can do it with just a few notes and some mood, hence its revival, because if you think about it, it’s easy to play. So if you’re not an accomplished musician, these kinds of scores are things you can still play without that kind of skill set. The work I did with John Carpenter featured analogue synthesis, which is of course also experiencing a resurgence of its own at the moment. Stuff like the Prophet 5, which was one of my key instruments at the time, has just been reissued. The ARPs are being reissued, too; everybody wants to touch the magic of analogue synthesis and our music was all done on that.
The one thing that John and myself were doing was making music that serviced the movie. I remember when I first told John that I wanted to make a soundtrack album out of the scores, he was like, ‘Really? People want to listen to that?’ He always felt that music was just a utility item, that composing music for film was basically like laying a carpet on which you stand while the movie takes place. He’s a filmmaker, but at the same time he’s a musician, and we all acknowledge his strength in creating themes. Obviously the iconic theme of his career is the Halloween theme. Now every kid who’s learning to play the piano, instead of playing “Chopsticks” they play the Halloween theme. It’s really penetrated society and coming up to Halloween season in October, people will even have it as their ringtone.
John Carpenter once said that music is the director’s velvet glove, which was his way of saying that music is how you can affect your audience without them knowing. How important is the music and sound design in horror cinema?
When you think about it, horror relies a lot on the soundtrack because often there’s nothing really happening: you’re in a hallway, or an empty street, or an alley, and the actor is just looking around knowing that something terrible could just be about to happen. And so the music is telling the audience something bad is about to happen, or we don’t know where the killer is, but they could be close by. In the case of when something horrible is actually happening, aside from whatever we see on screen, everything is amplified by the music.
As a storyteller in previous times, when we couldn’t show all this gore, you’d have to conjure it in the mind of the audience. The knife would go up, you’d see it come down, but rather than seeing the knife penetrating the body and blood spurting out, you’d cut to the face of the person being stabbed or the face of the killer, and the audience would just know what was happening by the music and sound. One of the moments in horror that got to me most was the opening scene in Jaws, where we see the girl swimming. All we see is her face, but we know a shark is eating her from below the surface of the water, in the darkness.
Do you think sound and music can be more effective than images in horror?
Music and sound have grown so much since mono. I remember when I first came on board in ’78, they were just introducing stereo. Now we’re into immersive sound systems where you’ve got theatres covered in speakers. There’s a great quote by George Lucas: ‘sound is half the picture’. When you look at the budget and how much sound costs compared to how much it costs to shoot the visuals, sound is like 10 per cent for half of your film. A lot of what John Carpenter was doing back then is now a model for what we do now. But certainly when we were doing it, we had no idea.
In some ways you scare yourself more with your own images of horror. With all the special effects and computer graphics around today, we can pretty much show anything now. If you want to gross everybody out and cut off arms and legs and see veins and bones and blood, that’s a choice. If it’s done properly, it can be effective. I remember filming The Thing and in those days there were no computer graphics; all this stuff was done with gel and goo and rubber. The special effects guy, Rob Bottin, was figuring that the monster would be in the shadows, because it would be scarier, and then the cinematographer, Dean Cundey, was like, ‘No, no, let’s light that stuff! Let’s show it all!’
When it came to the scenes in which the monster is set on fire and you’ve got these special effects to burn up, you don’t get to do a second take; you need to make sure it’s right, otherwise you need to rebuild everything. It was a lot riskier then. In those days you were limited; whether it was by physical restrictions or budget restrictions, you could only use so many tools because that’s all you had. And people worked within those restrictions and came up with sounds within that realm. When we talk about ‘old school’ we’re talking about restrictions and making more out of less.
Sound information travels faster than the information we receive from sight; we have an inbuilt primal alarm system that reacts exclusively to sound. The unnerving music and sound design in horror cinema is designed to provoke dread and panic. Do you think audiences are affected by it in ways other types of films can’t affect them?
That’s a good observation; in fact, when you think of it, visually, you’ve got about, what, 180 degrees of what you can see in one direction? In sound you have 360 degrees, not only as a circle, but above and below you: it’s like a whole sphere of sound perception. As you say, this was built into the human body from when the tiger was attacking early man; it’s an inherent feature of wearing a human body. If you take those characteristics and utilise them in storytelling and filmmaking it’s a tremendous opportunity to make an effect. An early warning. I remember talking to a couple of trained soldiers who were involved in Delta Force, and they said that sound is absolutely important when you’re in a situation like that. You’ll hear the sound first before you take action. You’ll use the sound to tell you where to shoot.
Sound and music can be scary in two ways: by being sudden or by generating an unsettling and frightening tone. How do you decide which method to use in a particular scene? And how difficult is it striking a balance between creating music that is distinctive and atmospheric, but that doesn’t distract too much from the narrative?
I’ll use the old recording studio scenario, where you’ve got a band and they’re in the studio and they’re mixing. The drummer wants more drums, but the singer wants more voice, and the guitarist more guitar, and so on. The producer or the mixer will figure it out. They can’t have everyone championing their individual art; they need to find balance. The same thing happens in film. The director wants something, the actors want something, the musician wants something. Judgement calls need to be made.
If you put too much music in, you can lose the effectiveness. After you’ve heard something for about 30 seconds you begin to tune it out, like when you’re in a restaurant and you’re focusing on the person you’re talking to across the table while you have all this other noise going on around you. It becomes ambient. We have a built-in ‘sound spotlight’ in the way that we can perceive sound and the way we can tune out stuff. Keeping the audience focused on the storytelling and what they need to pay attention to is a balance. It’s ultimately the director’s call. If they really know what they’re doing — like John Carpenter — they’ll find a good balance.
One of the things John used as a guideline was if the actors were carrying the scene and acting, we didn’t need music. Let the actor act. Let’s say there’s some other subliminal message that needs to be conveyed, or the bad guy is looking in at the window, you can play for that. But if a scene can hold without music, cool. You don’t need to have music all the time.
So you’ll work closely with the director and they’ll make these decisions? How much input or free rein do you have as a composer?
It’s both. I have the privilege of being me now, so people kinda know what they’re going to get and they just let me do my thing. There’s no reason for me to come in to do a John Williams score. They’ll come to me for Carpenter-esque scores — I’m an expert at those. First of all I’ll sit and watch the movie, and then have a discussion with the director: what’s known as ‘spotting’. The director will have a roadmap of what music they want and where they want it in the film. Then they let me do my thing and I’ll show them what I’ve come up with. They’ll sit with me and have input, and over a four-to-six week period we’ll have mapped out, from beginning to end, the film score.
How does your background in sound design and effects and your understanding of how sound works inform your work as a composer?
One thing that’s been interesting for me as both a composer and a sound designer is seeing how those two elements work together. My first few sound effects jobs were on the Star Trek films. The composers on those first films were Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. In those days there wasn’t a lot of communication between the sound effects department and the music department, so we were both competing in a way to take up the entire soundtrack with our contributions. Obviously that can’t happen; someone has to give or take. There were times when we had a lot of really cool sound effects, but Jerry Goldsmith’s music dominated the scene and we either got turned down or disappeared. Shortly after that I worked on Poltergeist and I had this very elaborate, ghostly, quadraphonic sound effect for the scene in which Carol Anne is in another dimension and we’re hearing her voice and there are spirits in the room. And then they put the Goldsmith score over it and he’s not about being scary, he’s about the relationship between the mother and the daughter — it’s very sweet, it’s about the lullaby. The sound effects were switched off.
After this I actually started to reach out to composers. I remember having a discussion with James Horner on Star Trek III about the scenes when the planet is blowing up and there was going to be a lot of sound effects. So we sort of struck a deal; he agreed to write the music using cello and violin, but not the basses and the low-frequency stuff because we needed the soundtrack to provide a lot of low frequency and there was going to be a collision if we both tried to fill up the low frequencies. He shaped the score to allow for sound effects.
Whenever a composer delivers the music they break it down into what we call stems, which are separate stereo components that make up the entire score, as opposed to a single stereo mix. Let’s say we have separate tracks of violins and drums and rhythms and woodwinds, and then the mixer can rebalance the elements of the score or shape it around the dialogue or sound effects.
With Carpenter’s blessing you scored several Halloween sequels. How did it feel working on the music for that series given that his original score and main theme were so well regarded?
Good question. My journey through Halloween began with Halloween II. John didn’t want to make any more sequels; he was resistant to sequels in general but sort of acquiesced. Scheduling-wise, he had started production on The Thing, and I remember sitting in the studio and we were wrapping up Escape From New York and, just casually, he turns to me and says, ‘Oh, by the way Alan, you’re going to do Halloween II.’ He sort of handed me the assignment with his blessing. I used the original score for Halloween as the model and built on that without going too far beyond. When I was recording it, I added a lot more synth overdubs and made it more Gothic, but the original theme music is still Carpenter’s original music.
When we get to Halloween IV, John was like, I don’t want to do this any more, and divorced himself from the series. He said if Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad wanted to make more, that was cool; they could just send him a cheque. The producers approached me as they knew I worked directly with John and that I could do it. I turned around to John one day and said, they want me do to Halloween IV. He said, ‘Hey man, that’s cool, do whatever you want. I’ve moved on to other things’. So Halloween IV was my first time to step away from what had gone before. It was a fresh painting. John Carpenter’s main theme was there, it needed to be there, but everything else I started from scratch and rebuilt.
How important was it for you as a composer to make your own mark on this series?
Halloween IV, V and VI were the sequels I did and each of those represents more Alan Howarth and less John Carpenter as we proceed. With Halloween IV, I could journey off and think about what Alan Howarth sounds like. What is his palliative sound, and where does he come from and what are his influences? For me, my influences were my rock experiences: The Moody Blues; Pink Floyd; Genesis; The Beatles; and Led Zeppelin. That whole late sixties, early seventies wave of rock-and-roll is what, at least in my own mind anyway, I brought to the scores.
The director of Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers, Dominique Othenin-Girard, wanted to really go back to the original Halloween in terms of style and tone, and so he wanted a very piano-based score. So I scored with a lot of piano. At that point I already had enough technology — so it wasn’t a piano any more it was a Synclavier system which could sample piano and I could overdub piano on piano on piano, until I had what sounded like six pianos playing at the same time. You can’t argue with a lot of piano! When we got to Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers, they wanted to modernise it. IV and V went down in about 18 months of each other and then there was a big gap of about six or seven years before Halloween VI, and at that point the director, Joe Chappelle, wanted it to be more rock-and-roll, so I started adding drums and bass guitars and rocking out a little bit more. After Halloween VI a new pool of directors played around with the franchise and there’s been recent talk of producing another one, which I’d love to do, but there’s so much politics involved.
What’s next for you? What are you working on at the moment?
I’m going to London in October to play a couple of nights at the Union Chapel. We’re screening Escape from New York and I’m going to perform some enhanced soundtrack music. On Halloween we’re doing a Halloween set and I’ll also perform stuff from some of the other horror movies I did with John Carpenter, like Prince of Darkness, The Thing and Christine. I also have two projects that I’m currently working on: one is an upcoming horror movie, a Bigfoot movie called Hoax, and the other is a sort of Salem-witch horror film that should be out next spring.
Another project I’m working on is a study of frequencies that are found in nature and ancient structures. I did some recordings measuring the resonance or the impulse response of the Great Pyramids. My thought is that the original architects of that structure, who were sort of a priesthood at the time, understood acoustics and designed this huge chamber to have an acoustical property which is, I’ll say spiritual. So I actually went into the Great Pyramid and measured all this and set up a database. It turns out that in music, standardised since 1925, the industry agreed to tune the frequency of the note A to 440 Hz. If you retune instruments to other frequencies, you’ll find they’re more resonant to the body, mind and spirit. The music from these frequencies has different properties and the core of it is in mathematics. Making music in these frequencies has got my interest and I’ve been fooling around with some stuff and have some patents for converting standard music over to these frequencies. This isn’t horror movie related, but it’s sure got my interest. In addition, I just took a position at a new technology company that is creating holographic visual technology for what is called ‘automated reality’. Virtual reality is very popular at the moment.