If you’re like me (and I know I am), and you spent your adolescent years subsisting on a steady diet of classic genre films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s a foregone conclusion you’ve got at least a few John Carpenter titles in your DVD collection… but if you’re a true fan, you also have a section in your CD library (or vinyl, if you’re hardcore) dedicated to the beloved scores for Carpenter’s movies, most of which have been composed and performed by Carpenter himself. It’s just part of the package deal: you see a John Carpenter film, you expect those familiar musical cues, mostly generated by electronic instruments which posses arcane names like Prophet, Oberheim, Korg and Kurzweil. One of my personal favorites is Prince of Darkness, which the director dubbed the second installment of his so-called “Apocalypse Trilogy” (bracketed with The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness). It’s a cult hit today (it still plays in the occasional film festival), and the reasons for so much fan-love are too many to list here… but one I’ll definitely talk about is the instantly recognizable score, one of many Carpenter composed, performed and recorded with his frequent collaborator from that period, Alan Howarth.
A year after a similar special-edition release of the Halloween III soundtrack, Howarth’s own label has released a limited-run 2-CD set packed with all the original Prince of Darkness score cues, as well as outtakes, cut tracks, extended versions and alternate mixes… so I decided to ask the man who has managed to inspire a generation of aspiring filmmakers and musicians (including yours truly) to share his memories of scoring PoD and other iconic films of the period.
Take note that John’s currently in preproduction on The Ward – which will be the director’s first theatrical film in nearly a decade – and he wasn't able to divulge details from that project for this particular interview. But he graciously took a moment to discuss the Prince of Darkness score, and his years working with Howarth at Electric Melody Studios.
“The scores I recorded at Electric Melody have a distinctive style,” Carpenter says, “owing to the fine work of Alan and the great advances in synthesizer technology in the years since Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13.” His work with Howarth dates back to those early classics, and continued through most of the ‘80s, as computers moved further to the forefront of the music production world. “Alan was a great collaborator,” Carpenter recalls. “I was computer illiterate at the time, and he was conversant with the dreaded machines. I would ask for a particular sound, and he could call it up and enhance it.”
The equipment may have evolved exponentially over the years since the pair first worked together, but John says their working styles and goals were always in sync. “My job as a composer is to service the mood and flow of the movie,” he explains, “[and] we followed a similar pattern in scoring… the cut of the movie was put on a videotape adorned with a time code, thus we could synch the whole thing up with the synthesizers.”
This opened up creative freedom for the two to essentially adapt music cues to scenes on the fly – a technique many composers employ today, but quite revolutionary for that time. “The tracking was essentially an improvisational process,” Carpenter explains. “Some themes were worked out ahead of time, but most were created on the spot.”
The signature sound of Carpenter’s films from the late ‘80s (including also Big Trouble in Little China and They Live) owes to some new equipment acquisitions that Carpenter and Howarth put to excellent use. “The equipment that I most depended on for the Prince of Darkness score, as well as many others, were the Emulator and the Kurzweil keyboards,” Carpenter recalls, “but my personal favorite is the Oberheim. What a cool sound!” It’s most likely the Oberheim SEM synthesizer that’s behind that creepy, low triplet theme that creeps along beneath the extended opening-credits sequence, but Carpenter couldn't recall… “I believe that was the Oberheim, but that was over 20 years ago,” he remarked.
Howarth also recounts the new setup in the CD's liner notes: “We had the full power of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sequencing and multi-track recording with automated mixing, giving a sonic quality to our scores that rivals anything today,” he wrote. “We were able to to play instruments in big MIDI stacks, giving the score real sonic depth.”
Howarth also noted the new changes to their sonic palette: “We had digital samples of choir vocals that created the haunting themes for the final coming of the 'Son of the Devil,'” he writes. “The semi-religious overtones work well even today.” Though not Carpenter & Howarth's first example of sampling, that eerie black-mass choir is definitely among their most memorable uses of the then-emerging technology, with a distinctly Gothic flavor underscoring scenes in candlelit, crucifix-lined catacombs of the film’s church location – even though Carpenter admits he didn’t deliberately aim for that mood… it just turned out that way. “I really didn't set out to create a Gothic-sounding score,” he explains, “I actually don't know what that means!”
The limited edition Prince of Darkness CD set is available from specialty music stores like Intrada and Movie Grooves, or you can order it directly from Howarth’s website [www.alanhowarth.com], along with similar new releases of Big Trouble in Little China and They Live.
Special thanks to John for taking time out from The Ward schedule to chat with us (keep checking FEARnet for more Ward news in the coming weeks), and to John’s assistant for putting us in touch.
Editor's Note: Looking for more John Carpenter? Check out FEARnet VOD and watch several John Carpenter classics including Ghosts of Mars, Prince of Darkness, Escape from New York and The Eyes of Laura Mars for FREE!