October 20, 2010 | By

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The Woods is John Frizzell’s latest horror score, and in this conversational interview, the composer discusses the unique relationship between experimental composition and the sounds that consistently make us uneasy, paranoid, or have us turning on all the lights when watching a horror film.

Frizzell’s large-scale orchestral writing led to plum assignments like Dante’s Peak and Alien Resurrection in 1997. He’s also written comedic and mordantly funny music for Beavis and Butt-head Do America and Teaching Mrs. Tingle, respectively, and scored a series of high-profile horror films with sophisticated musical concepts.

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Thirt3en Ghosts (2001), Ghost Ship, and Stay Alive were a mix of sequels, remakes, and bodycount films that harkened back to the prolific and popular slasher films of the late seventies and eighties – a once-vilified sub-genre that studios were a bit embarrassed to admit were advantageously profitable.

All of Frizzell’s horror work has embraced the power of the orchestra with modern electronics – a major shift when horror films were regarded as cheap and ephemeral box office fodder deserving a quick and simple music score.

Perhaps a major influence on bringing sophistication back to the genre was Christopher Young (think Hellraiser, or even Pranks), plus Marco Beltrami’s punchy music for Wes Craven’s teen slasher parody, Scream, although Frizzell feels the genre’s major influences came much earlier.

John Frizzell: I think it was probably the re-popularization of genre films altogether, with the studios realizing that horror films were enormously popular. Certainly, I look back to films like The Omen as probably the archetype for my generation. Even though I love The Exorcist, it’s very, very light on music, and there’s no real original score written for it… It’s probably the greatest horror film of all-time, but in terms of score, I’d have to come back and say The Omen is really the archetype.

Mark R. Hasan: I guess because there’s been sophisticated examples in the past, they’re regarded as benchmarks for orchestral scores. For the synth scores of the eighties, sometimes they were good, and sometimes they fell into that dilemma where they had to use electronics for budgetary reasons, and tried to mimic an entire orchestra, with ineffective and sometimes cheesy results.

JF: Certainly the technology has changed an enormous amount. If you need to mimic an orchestra today, you’ll get a lot closer to it.

MRH: Much closer to it than before.

JFMuch closer to it than before, but as an example, if you listen to my score for Thirt3en Ghosts, it has a lot of electronics; it’s very, very hybrid. I think Ghost Ship leaned probably the most towards orchestra, and this year was Stay Alive; we recorded the orchestra, then manipulated it with the computer, and made it electronic.

MRH: It’s funny that, for creating a sense of unease among audiences, one approach that always tends to work so well is where you have a gentle, soothing melodic line in the high registers; then you slowly creep in the lower sonorities, or low brass that rise up in angry clusters.

For some reason that always unsettles audiences, and I find it interesting that maybe it’s just something unique to people in general: that we respond well to something that’s initially soothing, which we latch onto, and those lower sounds tend to be the things that always scare us.

JF: It’s sort of the sucker punch. It does work well, but it’s not always the lower sounds that scare us. If you think of one of the greatest scary scores of all-time – Psycho – it’s completely filled with surrounding sounds of constant shrill. Maybe higher pitched sounds are more urgent, and lower-pitched sounds are more ominous. Perhaps this goes way, way back to our psyches, in which the growl of an approaching predator functions as a warning, and the shrill sounds of an attacking predator are like a direct assault.

It’s fascinating to think about what part of our evolutionary psyche we’re playing with; why these sounds have the effect and meaning that they have on us. It’s something that I think about a lot: the psychology of music, and what part of our brain we really tap into, like the most primitive emotion that you can recall – Fear.

MRH: When you mentioned Psycho, probably one of my favorite passages happens when Norman Bates arrives at the hotel room where the shower murder’s taken place. He stands by the doorway, reels in what’s happened, and starts cleaning up the mess. Herrmann just sticks with the strings and produced this eddying effect – different groups of spiraling, interwoven strings – and every so often, after he goes very high, he brings in those amazing string bass that swoop up from beneath. It’s an incredible effect, but it’s very simple.

JF: Very simple. He was a master of understanding how the human mind responds to patterns, and our sense of pattern recognition by slightly varying that pattern to create intrigue.

MRH: Some time ago I spoke with the music producer on Blade 2, and he said, ‘We’ve got Marco Beltrami to write a complete orchestral score, and then we basically put it into ProTools, and then manipulate it.’ I guess that’s one of the more popular options today: everything is recorded on a soundstage, and then it’s put on a computer, where it’s carefully tweaked and shaped and altered in order to suit the film – not just in terms of what scenes have been edited, but also what kind of tonal colours or sound effects you want to add.

Do you find that process has become more commonplace?

JF: Yeah, but I like being a part of that. That’s the fun part; it’s what you can do with the recordings once you get them into the computer. I really enjoy that part a lot. Obviously, you’re ending up with scores that you can’t go out and perform live, but it’s really exciting what you can do with the manipulation of sounds when compared to the 1950, where you had manipulated tape and primitive electronic music.

There’s just a whole new world of possibilities now.

MRH: One of the novel aspects of the horror genre is how it’s always been a venue where composers could experiment. I don’t think it’s been as easy in other genres to take principles like aleatoric music and actually apply them in such extreme examples, and I wonder if you have any thoughts on why the horror genre has been so welcoming to such ideas?

JF: To clarify it, or to even go further with that, it’s like basically you get to write music that no one would ever pay you to write if it wasn’t for horror! Clearly, that has to do with the simple aspects of what is dissonant, and what is dissonant either in our culture or in a physical way. For some reason we have a culture that likes dissonance in drama, so we tend to have more experimentation there; but with tonal music, it’s a more restrictive and more defined area to work.

MRH: Do you consider Stay Alive your most experimental score thus far?

JF: I think in terms of experimental, Thirt3en Ghosts was as experimental when I did it, and I’m actually writing my most experimental score right now, which is for an action film called Primeval, taking place in Burundi. I went to South Africa because I knew I needed very traditional African musicians to play on it, and I spent two weeks foraging around, finding new players with a mobile studio, and recording in places that probably no one could imagine you could record. I came back with an amazing collection of sounds which now I’ll weave into a score.

MRH: When you have concrete ideas, do you record them first, or do you or wait until you start to shape the score? (Themes, styles, etc.)

JF: This is the second time that I’ve recorded before I started working to picture. The first time was on Stay Alive, where I wrote everything down – themes, ideas – for the recording session, and then I started working to picture, but with African music, you can’t write it down, so instead I spent about two months researching, learning, and finding tones and instruments and groups of instruments that I wanted. Then knowing in my head the phrases I wanted, I worked one-on-one with all the players to get this collection of sounds and rhythms. There was just no way to notate it.

MRH: How come there’s no way?

JF: It probably could be notated, but there’s different ways African players could read it, because African music doesn’t have a history of notated music.

MRH: It’s music that’s learned and retained by ear?

JF: It’s passed on from generation to generation… and much of African music relies on subtle use of overtones, which I don’t even think you could notate. When you’re dealing with a mouth-bow – it looks like a small archery bow that you bite on one end and then bow it – you open and close your mouth to create the shape of the overtones that are happening over the fundamental notes. I think at that point, you’re outside the realm of notation.

Maybe this is sort of what we were talking about: when you get into other types of music, our western ideas of writing down this note and this beat starts to break down in a certain point of experimentation. I know that in aleatoric music, we had to reinvent a lot of the way things were written down.

MRH: When using electronic effects and synths with orchestra, is there an order that you use when composing?

JF: The synthesizers tend to be a very responsive, intuitive area to work. In other words, I might think, ‘Oh, I’ll enjoy working with this synthesizer,’ and I just start dialing away, leading myself down a path with my knowledge of synthesis, but it’s very intuitive until I get to something that I like.

MRH: I find the way you combine electronic and orchestral sounds is very different from other composers. It’s like an aggregation of electronics that are used as one instrument, but they’re used in a very harsh, dissonant way; almost experimental. You’re actually delving into sound effects, into ambience, but it ultimately functions as a whole instrument.

JF: That’s really my intention – to blur the line and not feel that area where you cross over to what is a sound effect and what is a sort of gray line there. What I’m now enjoying is being able to gray the line as to what is orchestra and what is synth; basically have them meld back and forth into each other.

In Primeval, my intention is to take these African sounds and to digitally manipulate them, so that they cross the line back and forth between being electronics sounds and being very pure, un-westernized, traditional African sounds.

MRH: Are directors and producers often open to experimentation, or do you find that they prefer something more traditional and familiar?

JF: I think that in the right situations you get a lot of experimentation. Again, we’re talking about the emotions of fear and dread and horror, or even just tension where you end up with the ability to experiment more.

MRH: My last question concerns a film called The Woods, which was scored several years ago –

JF: It’s showing up in Montreal ‘s Fantasia 2006 for its North American premiere.

MRH: I wonder if you could briefly talk about the score – how it stylistically differs from your prior scores – because it’s also a unique horror film.

JF: It’s a very sarcastic horror film. It’s got a very wonderful sense of humor to itself. It’s almost a teen angst movie, but it definitely has its horror elements, too. It takes place in the 1960s, and there are several songs by Leslie Gore that are featured in the film. I was in a sense harking back to that era, and beginning with thematic ideas that are very pure and ominous – but not scary – and then the score deteriorates progressively as the film becomes more cerebral, more dreamlike, and eventually more aleatoric, and finally just pure cacophony.

MRH: Do you know if there will be an album for the score?

JF: I would like there to be. I just got a call from the director, Lucky McKee, who said the film will be showing very soon, so we’ll just see what happens to the film after that. It’s certainly a very interesting and wonderful film with really great subjects and acting, and I hope people get a chance to see it.

MRH: Is this the version that McKee originally edited together, because I understand that there were some changes that were made in the interim.

JF: Yeah, there were a lot of changes, but I think Lucky loves this version, which is the final version of the film… I worked very closely with him on this version, and he’s very proud of it.


. would like to thank John Frizzell for speaking about his spooky work in the horror genre during a delightful family breakfast at Disneyworld, and Tom Kidd at Costa Communications for facilitating the interview.

Additional information on the premiere screening of Lucky McKee’s The Woods is available at the official Fantasia 2006 website.

To read an interview with composer Jaye Barnes Luckett (Poperratic) regarding her song and vocal contributions to The Woods, click HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2006 by Mark R. Hasan

Related interviews with John Frizzell: Legion (2010), The Reaping (2007), Primeval (2007)


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Ghost Ship (2002) — Stay Alive (2006) —   Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999) — Thir13en Ghosts (2001)

DVD/Film:  Primeval (2007) — Woods, The (2006)


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