Is there a Sound of Fear?

By Robert Barry

The outer forms of events have a habit of following their content. If one of the principal assertions of the panel discussion at the South Bank on 3 September was that horror films had historically acted as a kind of a Trojan horse, furtively ferreting avant-garde sounds and music behind the walls of public resistance under the shade of exposed flesh and high octane thrills, then our contention was borne out somewhat by our own public's reaction to some of the more outré music which bookended it. Just as, in a sense, the whole Sound of Fear project was borne, Trojan-style, within the belly of the more commercial appeal of the Vision Sound Music conference as a whole.

Nine-piece pan-European instrumental ensemble Zeitkratzer performed a thrilling three-quarters of an hour, ingeniously re-working, transposing and disfiguring many of the cult film scores the crowd had just cheered enthusiastically when presented on screen, accompanied by the images they recognised, and in the midst of a situating discourse; only to find, shorn of the visual, their audience dwindle before their last sostenuto. The dynamic climax of their set, built up through Bernard Herrmann's shrieking Psycho strings to a sustained onslaught of murderous noise, amid the rattling of iron filings and histrionic screaming of two young women who had joined the group for this evening. Yet all this apparently proved too much for an audience who would cheerfully sit through ninety minutes of Janet Leigh screaming, just so long as they could see the masked man following her, the glint of studio lighting reflecting off the steel of his blade.

Zeitkratzer at Sound of Fear

Vision Sound and Music had set out to be the "the UK's first festival of music for visuals". A three day jamboree of seminars, masterclasses, how-tos, hands-ons, and live performances, celebrating and exploring the fruitful intersections of the music industry with its cousins and occasional colleagues in games, film, and advertising. The ground had been prepared in advance by way of online interviews with John Carpenter – the man who made Jamie Leigh scream – and Chris Smith, the man who made our museums free. In the event, over three end-of-summer days by the banks of the Thames, we were treated to everything from sessions on synchronising sound to a commercial brand, to Charlie Dark's "blacktronic" remix of the score to Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus's Bahian reworking of the underworld tale from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

In the midst of which came Sound of Fear, occupying the greater part of the Saturday evening, and, thanks to afternoon discussions with Friday the 13th composer, Harry Manfredini, and Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth, threatening to swallow up most of the daytime too. The former waxed Wagnerian, insisting on the composer's role in supporting the dramatic action. "Say what can't be said," he insisted, "your job is the drama." But in such subservience, he added, there comes a new freedom. For in serving the drama, you can throw off the yoke of functional harmony and proper cadence, working instead directly "with sonorities".

And it was sonorities, frequently even more than music per se, which formed the meat of the panel discussion: the shuddering, bone-quaking drones and sawing, grinding rumbles of Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell's sound design for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; the hoover synths and metronomic pulsed clicks of John Carpenter's The Fog; the dissonant extended string techniques of the various pieces by Krystof Penderecki collaged into The Shining.

The almost paradoxical – if only implicit – conclusion of our talk was as much as to say that there is indeed a 'sound of fear', a set of distinctive tools and sounds, ways of working with and crawling into the ear of the audience – but that the images of blood and violence and monsters and menace they accompany work almost to neuter and re-territorialise the terror of the sounds themselves. Any sound, John Cage once observed, can be acceptable, if we can fit it into a discourse. Remove the context and the raw traumatic effect of the sound itself is exposed – and that is when your audience will run, screaming with horror, no longer so content that it was all just a movie.

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