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In praise of horror movie music, from Bernard Hermann to Goblin to Ennio Morricone to John Carpenter

First, I’m a classically trained pianist. Second, an enormous part of my musical education, especially in terms of fundamental sensibility, has come from film scores. Third, of the film scores that have been most foundationally important to me, a large number have been horror film scores.

I trust these three statements don’t exist in mutually irreconcilable tension.

A recent engaging article from the Guardian pings on a number of my most cherished horror film themes and composers by examining the contributions of, among others, Bernard Hermann, Howard Shore, John Carpenter, Goblin, and Ennio Morricone, and by invoking the cinematic legacy of such directors as Dario Argento, Umberto Lenzi, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and William Friedkin. “The scariest horror films,” says the summary line, “don’t just make you want to cover your eyes, but your ears, too. Stephen Thrower on movie music with real menace.”

Thrower begins with this interesting observation: “There are two schools of thought when it comes to film music: some say you should scarcely notice it, while others are attuned to every flattened fifth. Being a musician as well as a film journalist, I’ve always been staunchly in the latter camp (although I did have to look up ‘flattened fifth’). It seems inconceivable to me that we should fail to notice something as profoundly affecting as a movie soundtrack, and that goes double for the horror genre.” After examining the above-mentioned luminaries and more, he concludes by observing that “If you truly want the audience to experience the clammy thrill of the grotesque, the uncanny and the fearful, you have to reach for the unfamilar, the perplexing, even the ugly; there’s an infinite Lovecraftian sound-world out there waiting to be explored. We need new combinations, new textures in film scoring. Horror has a licence to be weird — it’s supposed to mess with our heads. Comfort-zone rock and respectable string arrangements be damned; what we need is a neat draft of madness.”

This is all great stuff, and it’s full of links to representative clips from representative films. I highly recommend it. See the full story at the Guardian.

But wait, as they say, there’s more! It turns out that Thrower, who has written books about Lucio Fulci, exploitation horror cinema, and so on, will be involved in putting on a presentation titled Sound and Fear at the Vision Sound Music festival at London’s Southbank Centre on September 3. Here’s the formal description:

“Sound of Fear is an epic two-part event featuring an international cast of artists, critics and composers brought together in a celebration of the music and sound design of the horror film. Through live performance and discussion, Sound of Fear explores the musical universe of horror, with its supernatural soundscapes and shrieking string arrangements, and pays homage to the masters of musical menace who have made the horror movie soundtrack a melting pot of opposing musical cultures.

“Tracing the historical developments and cultural significance of music set to horror films, Sound of Fear looks at the introduction of the European avant garde into popular culture via the Hammer pictures of the 50s, Bernard Herrmann’s redefinition of how horror was heard with his revolutionary score for Hitchcock’s Psycho and the influence of cult director John Carpenter’s atmospheric genre scores of the late 70s and early 80s on a new wave of musicians working today.”

There’s even an original interview, conducted specifically for the event, with John Carpenter about his musical education and influences, his film scores, and his future direction as a composer:

Note the fascinating revelations Carpenter makes throughout, as when he opens by explaining that his father taught him 5/4 time, which then showed up in the legendary main theme for Halloween. He also explains how his inspiration for the main theme to Assault on Precinct 13 came from Led Zeppelin and Lalo Schifrin. I find this fairly enrapturing.

By way of exhibiting my own processing of influences by cherished musical forebears, here’s my song “Daimonica,” which I should have titled “Curse of the Daimon,” from my album Daemonyx: Curse of the Daimon. Note the muted but definite influence of Goblin on the opening motif, which serves as the thematic anchor for the entire track:

Here’s me being influenced a bit by Bernard Hermann (recall the glockenspiel in his score for Fahrenheit 451):

It’s truly an exhilarating feeling when you sense your own creative demon being inflamed by inputs from other artists that speak directly to your soul, and that are then processed and appropriated by your unconscious partner to result in something original to you. That’s just one of many reasons why this recent media focus on the internal and external legacy of influences in the world of horror film music is so cool and valuable.

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