Alan Howarth is a composer and sound designer and he's probably responsible for at least 60% of all the nightmares you've ever had. Having scored classic film after classic film—including John Carpenter's iconic Halloween series—Howarth is a certified master of synth-driven, spine-tingling sounds. This Halloween, he's visiting London to perform a live score for a showing of Escape From New York and a medley of music from his other collaborations with Carpenter. We asked THUMP friend and one half of Irish techno duo Torso, Sean McTiernan, to chat with the horror movie legend about a life spent pushing the limits of sound and synthesis, from working on the sound design of the Star Trek movies to measuring the resonating frequencies of the pyramids.
THUMP: How are you getting on, where are you calling from?
Alan Howarth: I'm here at a place called Magic Leap, we're working on augmented reality sound. Magic Leap is developing light field technology…holograms. So with virtual reality you're in a black box, right? In this case you're actually still in the world you're in, then through some very ingenious visual technology projected directly into your eyes are images that blend in with the world you're in so now we can project an elephant in a room and we'll all see the elephant in the room with us. I'm on board to be on the sound team who sell how the elephant walks around and makes his noises, so it's all specialized and localised so when you move your head the elephant stays where he's supposed to be. It's a couple of years before it's on the market but I just started here with a group of brilliant people, NASA-class scientists and engineers and technologists and so I came on for the creative side.
Does that tie in with your history of sound design for theme parks?
Yeah that's the future of all that stuff, you don't need to go to the theme park, the theme park comes to you…In the most primitive sense, we knew the tiger was coming for us in the jungle because we heard it first. Our early warning system was sound not visual. We can use that in many ways to take advantage of how people work…You're into a 360 world of visuals that you can only see a portion of, whatever's in front of you, but the eyes in the back of your head are your ears.
So are you looking forward to visiting London?
Yeah! Especially on Halloween, holy mackerel….The whole screening of Escape From New York will be…I'll call it a live jam. We're going to roll the movie, the soundtrack will be the soundtrack but I'm working right now to modify it so I can play along with the movie. The music will still be there but I'll have another layer of live performance on top of the track that will be improvised on the fly, I'll just go with the moment.
Live scores tend to be about recreating the original soundtrack or doing something totally new, recreating the actual act of composition is a great idea.
It's unique, it's the first time we're doing it. I spent years with the jazz band Weather Report so I'm very comfortable with improvising. In fact that's one of the reasons things worked out so well with John Carpenter: the film scores were all improvised. No one writes down all the notes and goes to a scoring stage. We literally sit with the movie, watch the movie and play along with it so this is very natural for me."
Your own soundtracks and those you did with John Carpenter have become what fear and tension sounded like to a whole generation. It must be exciting to have that kind of legacy, what do you think makes them so elemental?
In modern times we have all these digital imitations of analogue synths which do a really good job, I use them myself, but the original process, the exactness of an analogue synth like the Prophet V being recorded into a board into a recorder, getting an imprint of the tape into the sound and going out into another recorder… that signal path really can't be totally replicated in digital: if you do it, you get it."
I like being the first guy into the room to try to decide what the room's going to look like. At the time these instruments were arriving right off the assembly line at the factory. With my first Prophet V I literally drove up to Dave Smith's shop in San Francisco and got while the paint was still drying. We were just jumping into these things right way…you were the first person to get those noises and put them into your art.
Speaking of influence, you've been sampled a lot in rap and beyond. How do you feel about sampling?
If there's a sound that someone's created that's appropriate for what you're doing: go for it. It's nice if they do it above board but if they love it and it's some guy in his garage who's not making any money anyhow: go for it, enjoy it.
Your career seems to be about pushing the boundaries of how sound works on the human body and mind, can you tell me a bit about your research into ancient architecture and sound?
Standardisation of music tuning in the early 20th century became sort of arbitrary. It was almost like an engineering decision instead of an artistic decision. I read a book about the great pyramids and their architecture. The author, a fellow called Wes Bateman who later became a partner in the project, was looking at the original architect and saying for this to be one of the remaining wonders of the world someone had to design it and maybe they had some higher knowledge that they embedded into it cause it's pretty darn smart. So he mathematically analysed the pyramids and it kept repeating two irrational numbers: Pi and Phi (the golden mean).
It turns out music tuned to the golden mean, where the note A is 432, that's a tonality that resonates with all of nature, birds sing at that frequency, dolphins and whales… as well as the architecture of the ancients. I went to Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and measured over 200 rooms with acoustic testing and found that over 200 of them were tuned to 216, an octave below 432. Why would Mayans do this? Well it creates a harmonious response, almost like religion but we can take it as physics. How do they know this stuff? Well either someone landed in a spaceship and told them, which is fine, or they figured it out for themselves by listening to nature. However they got there, they got there.
I went and measured the King's Chamber in the grand pyramid. The frequencies of that are all tuned to Pi frequencies. Pi frequencies, rather than the physical world, are tuned to the electromagnetic waves of mind and spirit. All Pi frequencies correlate to the chakras. There's a range of frequencies that goes from 421 cycles that's tuned to the root chakra… 424 that's tuned to the heart center to 427 that's tuned to the heart chakra. So as an artist you can do compositions that appeal to the resonance of a person spiritually…I'm excited by this stuff, it's way cool.
Have you ever heard of ASMR?
I don't know what that is, tell me.
It's big on YouTube. People create videos of themselves making specific noises, whispering or tapping their nails on a table, that gives some people a warm physical sensation cascading down their body.
I wasn't aware of it. One of the things we're doing over at this Magic Leap project is talking about experiences. What makes a person get involved? Sound is so powerful in this area. It doesn't surprise me that communities are building around these experiences. What makes that tingle up your backbone, if something that creates that response your listener, that's called success, right? However you get there.
A piece of sound design that destroyed my young mind is the Bug Man from Prince of Darkness. Can you tell me how that came together?
I think I did that with a Moog vocoder. It's an analogue piece. It's two graphic equalisers: one that analyses the sound for the frequency content and it does a voltage output that goes to a second graphic equalizer that's triggered by voltage. So it takes a formulation across a secondary sound that I put in. The voice went into the treatment side and there's something I don't remember that I put in as a trigger stuff, it could have been as simple as a noise with sequencer on it. All I really knew is that I put stuff in and the output was either interesting or not interesting.
The bug man is a great image and it's one of those great moments. The sound stimulated the idea that the guy was turning into bugs and you filled in the horror part yourself. It's not just what you saw, it's what you imagined.
You don't seem to draw much of a distinction between sound design and music composition, is it all part of the same continuum for you?I was around rock bands and jazz a lot but when I was asked to make sounds and music for images, that's when it really worked for me. I think that's because when I was younger I was an artist: into drawing, painting and imagery. I wasn't good at writing a three minute hit that would get on the radio but when I took sound and imagery and combined them that's where I really could excel.
In high school I would listen to musique concreté, guys like Ussachevsky and Stockhausen, which was tape art where they would take found sounds and edit it together and make loops, stuff we do with sampling today but they were doing with the physical world of tape recorders… To me it was all still music. The most basic definition of music is the alternation between sound and silence, there were no further requirements. So if you're tapping on a rock in a cave or playing a guitar or a drum…or just breathing, all that is music to me.
Alan Howarth plays in London this weekend as part of the Union Chapel's Chills in the Chapel series. He'll be playing alongside screenings of Escape From New York on Friday the 30th and selections from Halloween II-VI on the 31st. Tickets and additional information are available here.