One of the most prominent figures in 1980s film, John Carpenter’s movies have been dissected and discussed; the man written about and re-written about, as well as his soundtracks revered. He’s probably one of the most iconic people in cinema, developing a cult following that reflects his work on Halloween, They Live, Escape from New York, and the remake of Village of the Damned, plus The Thing and Prince of Darkness, among others. A producer-cum-writer-cum-director-cum-musician, Carpenter is a picture of the alternative auteur, weaving much remembered webs in the refracted generic worlds of science fiction and horror.

History-less History

Much less is said about Alan Howarth, and yet he collaborated on more than half of the Carpenter films listed above. Carpenter’s musical partner on most of his iconic ‘80s films, Howarth remembers their work as ‘two guys, and a cup of coffee, some synthesisers, watching the movie and thinking “Isn't that cool”? And “isn't that weird?” or “Try this!” ; there were no thoughts that what they were doing together, at least from Howarth’s point of view, might last the test of time, and certainly not in the way that it’s undergone a revival today.

‘The music we created for all those movies was, by design, to supplant or underscore the movie: it was never about making music to stand on its own, which is in contrast to great symphonic film music; like a John Williams score.’ When they finished Escape from New York, Howarth suggested to Carpenter that they should make a soundtrack album, letting the music stand alone. ‘You think people would really want to listen to this!?’ John commented.

But Howarth is a man who, despite emphasising his largely improvisational working methods, counts a number of master composers as his influences: he had plenty to say about Gustav Mahler, Morton Subotnik, Krzysztof Penderecki and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Asked about his heroes, he speaks at length, alongside cinema icons like Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams – as well as Carpenter – on the work of Penderecki in particular.

‘Penderecki was a genius in his own time, creating things that were considered avant-garde, too far out. Listening to it really makes you go “woooooow!” You know, just amazing stuff. Penderecki had to find a way of creating these sounds in acoustic music, and even find a way of notating it: if you ever see a Penderecki score written out, it's just amazing notation. He figures out ways to write this stuff down, and he was creating at a time in parallel with electronic music’s infancy; people like Stockhausen, the pioneers of electronic music. And he did it with an orchestra.’

What’s the relationship, then, between music of the past, and the moving image of today? After all, it's been said before that nobody thought of 'The Blue Danube', a piece of 19th century waltz music, as being the music of space travel, until Kubrick used it for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

‘I'll agree with that’, Howarth says. ‘You know, there's a whole family of music that's written just to be music for concerts, but when you think about it, aren't all these composers creating this music from some sort of mental image or story? I mean, look at the composers of the 18th century. They were doing religious music: they were creating a soundtrack for a mental movie that was to be seen in the listeners’ mind. In the case of Strauss: yes, he was doing orchestral waltz music, but for Kubrick to come along and say “this works for a space movie”…that was a new image association, beyond what Strauss had intended. That's why many people enjoy film soundtracks: once you've seen the movie, you listen to it and you can re-run the movie in your mind’s eye. That's very enjoyable. I used to spend hours listening to the radio; mystery theatre and stuff like that. They'd tell stories, and it'd be a purely audio programme of voice music and sound effects, but it was still exciting, and relaxing, and again, you'd close your eyes and listen, creating pictures in your mind.

‘The audio track really does make a difference. I remember Carpenter telling me that he thought of music, or film music – and especially when creating his own – as being 'the velvet glove'. It was a way to touch the audience without them actually knowing you're influencing them. It's a way to kind of coach the audience into going where you need them to go. In fact he told me that when they first screened the original Halloween without music, it wasn't as effective as once they'd added the score to it. It's because you've got all these quiet moments of emptiness, of dark streets and quiet shadows – but once you've got the music added, it leads you sonically to the fact there's a threat somewhere, off screen, unseen...Michael Myers is somewhere, and we're giving you music to tell you that. It makes the movie work. I don't think there's a horror movie that could work as well without music.’

Analogue Ghosts

By his own account, Howarth fell into his relationship with film music: it was when his wife Melody, then at UCLA, needed music for one of her film schools projects, that he began to dabble with soundtracks. ‘When I was in high school, I was focused as an art student. I was going to be a painter or, you know, a sculptor, or something like that. I was an artist, and not thinking about being a sound artist. I got bitten by rock 'n' roll, which pulled me away from visual arts for a long time and I went the rock 'n' roll route, played in bands, did tours, made records, and all that stuff.’

Perhaps that’s why Howarth, at least in his earlier work, relied largely on a process of trial and error: he’s more a rock ‘n’ roll man than a schooled composer. And in his work with Carpenter, he certainly seems to have “felt” his way through what they made, working with sometimes erratic analogue synthesisers. ‘In the world of analogue synthesiser machines – although it’s subtle; it’s similar to the difference between a great violin and a good violin – there's definitely certain instruments that really hit the mark in terms of particular sounds. Today, when there's a digital simulation of one of these analogue instruments, the software version gets about 95% of the way there but it's still missing 5%, its missing the ‘randomity’ of a less than perfect analogue instrument.

‘A lot of it has to do with the timing of LFOs: low frequency oscillators. You get perfect timing in digital set-up; you set your sequencer at 150 beats per minute, and it sets all the delays so that you get perfect eighth notes and quarter note echoes, and stuff like that. The LFOs are queued up to rise and fall in even beats and measures. When you have to set all that stuff up manually, things happens by accident: there's a discovery element to the older machines because of the way they had to be controlled. You had to do your patches: you had to work for it. And that method took you to sonic places that you didn't expect to go. In horror films, as an example, you're often searching for quiet, delicate things. We would sit with these analogue synthesisers, watching the movie, and just sort of improvise...that was how we did things then, how we explored, and the way that the machines required you to work, with knobs and patch cords – it was very tactile’.

Electronic Pioneers

That randomity was integral to the works of some of the early electronic pioneers: the possibilities that new technologies brought for musicians let them explore with rhythm and tempo, even melody, tone and tunings. And these elements of electronic sound appealed to Howarth, although now he works largely with digital instruments, composing solo, in both the movies and, as Chief Audio Officer at Electronic Arts from 2002 to 2003, in video games. Having worked through the “digital evolution” in that way – and with more musicians using electronic instruments as a means for creating “digital” acoustic music, rather than looking to only break sonic boundaries – it’d be easy for Howarth to decry the gradual assimilation of that form of electronic sound into the digital musical canon. But he’s optimistic, and he embraces both stages of electronic evolution: ‘I was always interested in the inspiration and possibilities of the Stockhausens and the Morton Subotniks of the time, of going into abstract sound, where tempo was gone, where it was not important to drive things rhythmically. It was about sonic textures. It triggered my imagination, just like all good abstract art does visually, to the wonders of creating new sounds for film images, or at least new sounds for a moment in time.

‘But I don't think these qualities are lost. It's actually amazing what you can do today, and one of the newer problems – I had a conversation with Brian Eno about this – is that there are too many choices. When you work with a more limited palate – think of a painter with only ten or fifteen colours – you have to make your painting with those ten or fifteen colours; now the challenge is to narrow down all of today’s choices and create something that has direction or goes where you want to go, rather than just throwing anything together without a plan, just because it's weird, and then just calling it art.

Howarth’s analogy sounds a little like the way he remembers Carpenter describing film music: ‘He referred to it as the electronic colouring book’. If the worlds of electronic and acoustic music production, composition, and pioneering are so close, then, did music go through an evolution? Was the twentieth-century a renaissance of a kind? Was it really a period of incredible change? And who’s really top of the pile?

Howarth has some ideas, and he remembered something Jerry Goldsmith once said: ‘Mahler is the epitome; the pioneering guy. He cut new turf for his era.’

Of course Howarth, too, has done his part in film music’s development. And for all the talk of revolution, Goldsmith points to a man that in some ways kicked it all off; who died in 1911. It’s an interesting way to look at musical progression; as the twentieth century hurtled through change after change, there’s a worth in looking back, at exploring the intricacies of several musicians at many different times all circling around the same ideas. Maybe there wasn't so much of a revolution but a kind of augmentation, after all.