Soundtrack Legend Alan Howarth on Horror, Hip Hop, and the Sonics of Fear

April 13, 2011
John Carpenter worked closely with composer Alan Howarth (right) in the '80s.

If dark hallways and creaky staircases terrify you, it might not be just because of some pseudo-Freudian fear of womb-exit — there might be some residual fear from the sounds of film composer Alan Howarth, who has been imbuing fright in the mundane for decades. As a sonic companion to revered filmmaker John Carpenter, he’s been soundtracking the moments right before every character gets murked for so long, the horror-score genre seems like it would barely exist without him. Starting in the 1980s using old analog synthesizers, he’s underscored the excitement in Escape From New York, given the fright to every Halloween movie and created fourth-dimension effects for Star Trek and Poltergeist. It’s not a stretch to say that, for ’80s babies who grew up immersed in American pop culture, Alan Howarth is our consummate boogeyman.

Last week, Howarth played a landmark performance in New York as part of the ever-stellar Unsound Festival, which brings “advanced” (its word) and out sounds to those willing to work to get into them. He played some of his classics solo — including Escape from New York’s edge-of-seat chords before snuffing the lights and linking up with the experimental drone band Emeralds for a quite frightening interpretation of some of Halloween’s tension music. It was pitch dark, and I think there was fog, but it might have been my mind playing tricks on me.

A true legend, Howarth took time out to discuss fright music, strange sound contraptions, being a “flower power guy,” and working with Snoop, Dre, and Nate Dogg.

Riff City: You seem to have a really good grasp on the psychological effects of sound, particularly with your scores. Some noises just sound universally creepy. How did you develop that? How you know what’s going to freak people out?

Alan Howarth: We are our own best subjects for testing out what works. I spent many decades with electronic music. A combination of discord and texture are used at the climax of a tense moment. The other key point is to allow for silence and quiet moments to set up a big event.

RC: Have you ever scared yourself while composing horror scores?

AH: Sure, I get scared sometimes when it is actually working well with little thought or effort. This is a sign that you are on the right track. When composing for film, the timing of the scene dictates the composition and the flow. We also use “stingers” to accent big scares. A stinger is a very loud, sudden event, often made of percussion and tense soundscapes that pop on after a set up of quiet tension.

RC: Is it possible that you, with your extensive resume, have a favorite piece you’ve done? A personal accomplishment/triumph over evil, perhaps?

AH: My collaborations with John Carpenter speak for themselves. I just scored the last Brittany Murphy film, Something Wicked. It will be a feature release later this year. It is my latest and greatest to date. It is more of a thriller than a horror show, but it uses many of the same techniques as a horror show.

RC: They Live, which you soundtracked, is having a renaissance right now — Jonathan Lethem has written a book about it, and it’s remarkable how its themes still resonate with us. Do you remember, in the process of making that film, how its themes/images influenced you? Did you have any idea how prescient it would be?

AH: Carpenter is a genius in this way. All of his work is timeless, and will be viewed for many generations moving forward. The They Live story has homeless in tent cities, government collusion with unseen forces, an average guy hero — we can all relate to this today. It is what we seen on the TV now. The score is essentially a blues score, with a twist of Howarth/Carpenter electronic sounds and textures. It was also created when I got my Synclavier Digital Audio system, so we integrated our analog synth orchestra with wonderful hi-quality samples that make a very broad pallet of instrumentation. I also created many of the alien sound design elements for the film. I had done extensive sci-fi sound design for major features, so it was a natural flow for me.

RC: Maybe one thing that people don’t know as much is that you worked for Dr. Dre, Snoop, and Warren G. How different was working on their videos from, say, working with John Carpenter? Did you know Nate Dogg (RIP)?

Yes, for a time I was a go-to guy for these guys. Dre was my main contact, and he brought Snoop and Warren G by. I would create the soundtrack elements for their music videos on Murder was The Case, Dre Day, and many others. They would have a small movie set up before the tune started and they loved what I came up with. I had big guns, amped-up car effects, and when they found out I had done the Halloween music, they had me add tension scoring under the scenes. This was 1991 to 1995 when I worked with them. I did work with the late Nate Dogg. He was actually a very mellow guy in the studio, paid attention, and just wanted me to amp up his videos. It was a great time to be around these guys. One time we had the posse in to overdub dialogue for a party scene in one of the shows. This was the only time I got a little nervous — there was plenty of drinks and smoke in the air, but they were all cool and did a really authentic party for BG for the show.

RC: How did you initially link up with Emeralds?

AH: Last October I was invited to perform my horror movie score for the Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland. The theme for this year was horror music, and having composed scores with John Carpenter in the ’80s, it was a great opportunity to revisit this great music created on the analog synthesizers of the day. While there, I also performed with a French band, Zombie Zombie, who actually plays our scores live as a performance. I played with them on several themes that Carpenter and I created. It was lots of fun, and we are playing again in Paris and St. Petersburg in May. Backstage, I started a conversation with Steve and John from Emeralds. Turns out they are from Cleveland, Ohio; I am actually from the same town. We made a plan to work together in some form at first meeting. They tend to go for harder, noisier soundscapes, in my opinion.

RC: One thing about your music is that it’s pleasurable to listen to outside of any accompanying visuals. When you’re scoring or sound designing a film or show, are you thinking at all about it as a standalone work?

AH: No, we were focused on making music to serve the film. In fact, Carpenter was really surprised that I wanted to make a soundtrack album for Escape From New York; he didn’t think anyone would listen to it outside of the movie. I think we sold 80,000 copied of the vinyl in the ’80s. After that he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Go figure, people really like our stuff.” Time has proven that the music still stands up; this is the real validation of the scores. Halloween III score has certainly out lasted the original film. I like that one a lot.

RC: What was your first inspiration for sound effects and design? You’ve done sound effects CDs, but did you ever listen to those creepy Halloween sound effects records from the ’70s and ’80s?

AH: Many of my original inspirations for the sound design for many of the films come from my own personal experience. As a kid in New Jersey, I can remember being scared of the dark, thunderstorms, loud noises, and big dogs. I also used to hear music in washing machines, cars on the road, trains, and the woods out back. Just by learning to be a good listener, I was already set up for this. When I was growing up, I was an art student, and thought that I would wind up as a painter in fine arts. Music was a hobby. The big change was when Rock and Roll bit me. I was a child of the ’60s and a Flower Power guy in the ’70s. I loved The Beatles, The Who, King Crimson, Genesis, Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd. I formed several “original bands” where we experimented with early synths, echoes, and phasers and jammed almost daily.

I am now putting these jams out, one of the bands is called PI Corp. We released  “Lost in the Cosmic Void” on vinyl this past fall. It is only in Europe currently. Later this year, I will release some an earlier project called “Braino.” These tapes are really interesting, and contain many of my original sonic experiments that turned out to be things I used in the ’80s films.

RC: Do you ever feel like you’d want to score a really cheesy, over the top romantic comedy, just for the contrast?

AH: You know, comedy is the hardest scoring to do, because there is no accounting for what is really funny.  Would like to do it, but cheese productions don’t think of me as a candidate for their composer. They are thinking about their old college buddies.

RC: What’s the craziest contraption you’ve used to capture a wild effect?

AH: When I was developing sound effects for The Hunt For Red October I wanted to record underwater sounds, I rented a hydrophones for the take, but it sounded too tinny for my needs. So I wound up using expensive studio mikes with condoms stretched over them to make them waterproof. It worked great. I went recording in swimming pools and off Long Beach [California]. I got some great tanker ship propeller effects from an underwater perspective that got used for the submarine propeller cavitations effects.

The craziest place? Recording effects for Star Trek, I was recording sounds for starships and shuttles at the Skunkworks for Lockheed. I was in top-secret facilities recording hypersonic wind tunnels and advanced aero devices. A few times they would allow me to be in the hallway, but not in the room were the sound was being made. I would hand them a mike on a long cable and one of the Skunkworks guys actually went into the area.

RC: It’s fascinating that you’ve done pieces for amusement park rides. What’s the difference between composing for a film and composing for a real-time experience? Is there one?

AH: The biggest difference from film to amusement parks and video games is the interactivity factor. A scene in a film is a fixed length. Take a film scene with a monster lasts for a certain period, let’s say 30 seconds. In an interactive version, the same monster scene can last as long as the player has the attention to fight the monster, this could be minutes. How do would you make the soundtrack a variable length, the answer to this is in controller software that can play several different sounds on cue, based on the action the player and monster take during the scene.

RC: Do you feel like tones can alter consciousness?

AH: I began looking into the frequencies we currently have as “standard” for music tuning (A=440 HZ) and this choice actually arbitrary. My research, that started with a study of acoustic resonance in the Great Pyramid and Mayan temples, then I found these same precise frequencies in the songs of whales, dolphins, birds, and actual tuning of the first tuning fork invented in 1711. Mozart, Handel and many of he composers of the time composed their inspired great works with their instruments tuned to these frequencies. This has led to the rediscovery of natural frequencies that can affect the body, mind, and spirit in subtle but still powerful ways. If one were to retune their music to a setting where A=424, this will put the music into a frequency range that the performer or listener is already naturally tuned to. It makes the music less stressful and often induces inspiration. Ra Music is great for inducing creative or inspired thoughts.

I have started a project called RA Music. This is a study of Natural Frequencies that occur in nature and the universe. There is a feature on the Web site where you can upload any music file and have a free listen to what your favorite music sounds like converted the RA Music.