With the composition of soundtracks for Halloween, Escape from New York and Prince of Darkness to his name, as well as sound design for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist and all of the Star Trek movies, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Alan Howarth might possess a wise man’s jadedness with the film industry. When we spoke to him though, it’s apparent that quite the opposite is true: this is a man with boundless enthusiasm for his work. But then who wouldn’t be excited when you’ve carved out a career making some of the most iconic horror movie music of all time with the legendary John Carpenter?
Alan Howarth with John Carpenter
Your work, particularly within the horror genre and with John Carpenter, is legendary. Does your music ever frighten you?
Certainly: but let’s talk about fear for a second; there’s cinematic fear, which is a simulation of being really scared and then there’s really being scared. So, am I really scared? No. I know it’s a movie; I’m so involved in the making – for me it’s an art form – so I don’t really get that scared. I’ve seen it all so many times now that I know the set-up – I know where we’re headed; I can tell when it’s too quiet and you know something’s going to happen. The shock moments are telegraphed to me. We all know what real fear is and that’s something different from what happens in the movies.
There are key things that you do to set up the moment. The best thing you can do to scare somebody is to make sure it’s really quiet just before something really nasty is going to happen so that the shock value is there. If the soundtrack is too intense or too loud and you’re trying to get the actor to scream in the middle of it, it’s just not as good. It’s completely saturated. That’s not what you do in a horror movie soundtrack, you do the inverse. You go for quiet. That’s the essence of it right there.
Without reducing it to formulas, do you think you can map out certain things that will definitely frighten people in that way? Are certain combinations of notes naturally scarier than others?
No. I’m from a different camp. You’ve got to understand that my education in producing these scores is from the school of John Carpenter. Our stuff was minimalistic [and as for] putting notes on a piece of paper? We never really did that; it was all basically created while watching the movie. In fact, in the early 1980s, when I suggested we take a videotape and an analogue tape recorder and sync them so that we could actually watch the movie and play – that was innovative at the time.
So you’ve always worked with pretty much finished video recordings when you’re writing accompanying music?
Personally, that’s why I found a home in making music and sound for movies. When I was in high school, I was really an art student not a sound artist. I got bitten by rock ‘n’ roll, which pulled me away from visual art for a long time and I went [that] route. I played in bands,did tours, made records etc.
In 1979, my wife was in film school at UCLA and she needed a soundtrack for a movie, so that got me started on making sound for films. Because I was a visual artist, I was creatively motivated by watching an image, so would see an image and get a sound for it right away: it’d just appear in my imagination.
That flowed right through with the first Star Trek where I was making the sounds of transporters and lasers. I was sitting there with state of the art (but still primitive) analogue synthesisers and analogue tape recorders… I could create. Then when I met John Carpenter I had the opportunity to actually write music for a film.
You’re performing parts of your movie soundtracks at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of Sound of Fear: how do you think having visible musical performers will change that relationship between the audience and the movie, when the unseen affecter is seen?
In this case, it’s nostalgic. We’ve all seen the movie – we’re not going to be scared any more. However, to review images from those movies and to listen to the music in a setting where the music – not the movie – is featured… It’s an inverse experience.
All kinds of branches come off of it too: I get to show off something about the machines [I use] – there’s something that they did that isn’t in the digital simulation of them. There’s a retro part of it that’s worth revisiting, but it’s also about showing people who didn’t grow up with this stuff what it was we were experiencing at the time.
If you had to pick one piece of music as the ‘scariest‘ piece of music you’d ever heard, what would you pick? And you can’t pick your own…
I’d say Penderecki definitely goes there. The piece he did for the victims of Hiroshima…The texture, you know; he created sirens with violins and cellos; he made sound effects with real instruments. The first time I heard that I was in wonder. I kept thinking “How did he ever work this out? How can he have even imagined all that and made it work?” He’s one of my heroes, although I wasn’t introduced to him until the mid-’90s, so he was unknown to me during that ’80s period. I listened to it and just thought “Woooah!”
For more info on the man himself, see his site.