The Sound of Fear
Illustration by Jiro Bevis
Synth maestro Alan Howarth, 64, was John Carpenter’s partner in sound in the 1980s, composing for cult films such as Escape From New York, Halloween II, Big Trouble in Little China and Christine and designing sound effects for blockbusters including the Star Trek motion pictures, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins and Total Recall. A versatile and curious composer, over the years he’s built surround sound systems for theme parks and computer game companies, recorded for nature documentaries and developed techniques for perfecting new-age music.
His murky electronic scores, rich in mood and texture, have influenced countless contemporary acts like Emeralds, Legowelt and Zombie Zombie, with whom Alan recently performed. With remastered pressings of his Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch OSTs due to hit shops and spook a new generation – plus a brand new Howarth-scored horror film, Brutal, opening next month – we Skyped Alan in his Glendale home in Los Angeles to talk about his collaborations with Carpenter and their fully wired quest for the sound of fear “The house I’m in is on a hillside and the view looks over Universal Studios, Disney and Warners,” he says. “It’s LA, what can I say? LA is the place for this stuff.”
VICE: Hello Alan. Your Skype avatar is a photo of you in front of the Great Pyramid in Giza. What were you doing there?
Alan Howarth: Oh, I have another project that I call RA Music and it’s all about using the specific frequencies of the resonance of the Great Pyramid to make music with. These frequencies coordinate to brain waves and it turns out it’s been used not only in the pyramids but also in Mayan culture and in Baroque music. So my postulate is that the tuning for the music today – A tuned to 440 [Hz] – is incorrect and there are better frequencies to make music on than what we hear on the radio.
How did you come across this?
A colleague of mine who passed away, a fellow named Wes Bateman, analysed the Great Pyramid mathematically with the concept that the architect must have had some higher knowledge that he wanted to communicate in his building. That’s what he wrote in his book, but in order to confirm his research, which was all armchair archaeology, I actually went there and rented the pyramid and measured it.
How much does it cost to rent the Great Pyramid?
Eight-thousand dollars’ll do it. That was for two hours. I mean, I’m sure it consists of a series of cash envelopes to various guards. We had an Egyptian guide and he passed out the money. But we were able to lock it out and get it quiet in there and get the measurements and I did a whole impulse response on the King’s Chamber using the same techniques you’d use when you’re tuning a studio. I brought all that back and analysed the resonances and the peaks and the standing waves and confirmed—and this was the amazing part—that this was precisely what was predicted by Wes Bateman and his mathematics was the actual physical resonances of the King’s Chamber. So that was the cornerstone of the research. And since then I’ve actually patented the concept of retuning music from 440 to this other reference in which, in our musical terms, the A goes from 440 to 424. And it turns out the first tuning fork that was created in the year 1711 by John Shore was 423 and a half, so even the Baroque guys—Mozart and Handel and all these guys—created music tuned to these frequencies. And it has a much stronger effect on the person listening. One of the analogies is, you remember old AM radio where you could dial up the channel and if you weren’t precise enough it was a little fuzzy? So 440 is fuzzy but 424 is absolute clear communication, right into the body and mind.
Are you using this in your work?
I am actually. The funny part is I took it from a very spiritual perspective, healing and so on, but it turns out it’s a tool that enhances the intent of music. So the first time I did a horror movie score tuned to this frequency, I actually got an award for best horror movie score.
Which one was that?
For a movie called Basement Jack. And so think of it as a tool. If your intention is love and healing, it does that. If your intention is to scare people, it’s more scary. So it’s pretty much a global adjustment to the way we make music, and it has the artist’s intent amplified.
Would you recompose the Halloween soundtracks tuned to this frequency?
Yeah, I’ll probably do this. I don’t advertise the horror side of it because I’m trying to keep with the spiritual community with this stuff, but in fact it does work across the board. So if you had a heavy metal band and you wanted to make this monster metal music, the chances are that your band tuned to these frequencies would be heavier.
You started out playing in rock bands in Ohio in the late 60s, then became the keyboard roadie for jazz-fusion cats Weather Report in the 70s. How did you end up meeting and working with John Carpenter?
A buddy of mine from Cleveland was working at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles and he overheard two guys having a conversation about how they needed somebody who knew about synthesisers. So he turns to them and says: “You’ve got to talk to my buddy Alan, he works for Weather Report.” They didn’t know who Weather Report were so they said: “Is that the Weather Report at 7 o’clock or the one at 11?” Nevertheless, he gave them my name and I went down and made a little audition tape. My audition was to make the sound of the Starship Enterprise going from warp 1 to warp 7, so I went back home to my Prophet 5 [synthesiser] and TEAC 4-track and dialled up stuff and that audition tape actually became the sound of the Enterprise and I did six Star Trek movies based on that original audition tape. As fate would have it, the Star Trek editor’s next assignment was Escape From New York and he introduced me to John Carpenter and that started the whole string of scoring events.