There’s nothing like getting a raucous scare from music. Unless it’s doubled with a good scare in a movie. For me it really hasn’t gotten much creepier than The Shining‘s opening scene. And it all starts with the incredibly sinister music of the brilliant Wendy Carlos. An otherwise lovely scenic drive through the mountains is made ominous with Wendy’s creeeeepy score, instantly foretelling the nightmare that will descend in the next few hours. This post is about scary music in drama, all of which can be heard on the jarring classical mixtape “Haunt Your House“, created by Russell Johnson and me here at Pandora …
From Weird to Creepy: Switched From Bach
Analog synth sounds are famous for being weird, so it’s barely a skip over to ‘creepy’ for them. Wendy Carlos had already created a smorgasbord of curious Moog synth sounds on her landmark, genre-bending album Switched-on Bach. Apparently back in ’68, classical had to be Mooged in order to really sell: An all-Moog Bach album, it was the first classical LP to go platinum. Bach’s style is often dominated by counterpoint: the compositional technique of having 2 or more melodic lines going at once. If instruments were voices, a Bach fugue would sound like 2-5 people blabbering away at the same time. So hearing a gaggle of funky Moog sounds executing a contrapuntal Bach piece makes for some very entertaining, often silly musical conversations. She also Mooged Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange.
From there it was just a hop over to full-blown creepland:
For The Shining‘s opening theme Wendy basically took her arsenal of Moog, put them to use in a minor key, quoted one of the all-time scary ancient melodies “Dies Irae” (you know this melody- it’s been set countless times for dark effect), added some unsettling percussion sounds, and viola! She rolls out the blood-drenched carpet for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson’s character) while an unsuspecting Shelley Duvall makes the long drive.
Let The Weird Do The Work
I imagine Wendy Carlos toiled to find just the right synth sounds to achieve her desired creep factor. But disturbing music can seem effortless to create: witness the soundtrack to the classic 1976 psychotic thriller Carrie. The fire roasting the school is properly demonized with a few simple, very crunchy synth layers on “School in Flames“, the first of 2 Carrie tracks on the mixtape. And on “At The Prom“, the strings are trying to stay pretty (and normal) when, finally, they veer off the rails and snap into dissonance, obviously at the moment Carrie’s switch is flipped into mass murder-mode.
Weird Old Music
In summary, and as usual, strange is defined by the unusual: weird sounds (synths), and weird harmony; i.e. dissonance. Before movies, when ballets and operas carried a lot of the dramatic programming of the day, disturbance was defined with dissonance. At the notorious premiere of the composer Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet The Rite Of Spring, the audience threw a full fit- and why? Coupled with the horrific plot of a young girl who dances herself to death for a sacrifice, it was probably the rather unprecedented magnitude of strangeness they witnessed in the music. In describing the work’s harmony, Leonard Bernstein said that even by today’s standards it’s “…got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up”. It also has, he continued, “the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms”: their cultural foreignness to the audience at the time probably fueled the agitation.
And then it’s got the bassoon (hear it featured by Prokofiev here). Before ‘weird’ was defined by synthesizers & electronics, people relied on the unusual use of acoustic sounds. Albeit beautiful in other circumstances, the bassoon is an instrument with tremendous strange-potential- Stravinsky employed its funny-sounding low register prominently in Rite‘s score. So the combination of all-of-the-above in full glory inspired the initial audience to riot- not a bad beginning to a decent horror flick in itself.
To hear these pieces in full, amidst hours more of the dark and disturbing, listen to the curated station (mixtape) “Haunt Your House“
And to hear a Halloween mixtape that’s loaded with tons of rock, kooky rock, punk, grit, witches, monsters, ghosts, angst and candy, listen to the mixtape “Halloween“, jointly created by a bunch of staffers here at Pandora.