We’re back in hell. The first part of our series on why we should give horror music more attention can be found here (along with tools to help make that happen). In this part, we’re going to build up our toolshed even more (unless you’re not much of a Do-It-Yourself person). For starters, let’s lend a listening ear to our special guest of the previous article – this track will clarify a certain important matter.
A spiritual journey into the depths of „me”, which Akira Yamaoka invites us on, brings and at the same time closes us out somewhere on the edge of unconscious. The described isolation, even if only metaphorical, plays a big part in understanding the nature of fear itself. It correlates with the feeling of being alone; it’s such a „sneaky” emotion and such an intimate state, that literally anything can have an impact on how we perceive the horror genre. Headphones vs speakers, time of the day, place, how we’re feeling… The list goes on and on. So let’s think about the environment in which we are listening to the music. By choosing one that helps the negative feelings, we’re already putting horror scores in a worse position. If we want to learn to find such music pleasurable, sometimes it would be best to put headphones on, cover the face with a pillow and play the soundtrack from Amnesia or Outlast. After all, you don’t watch The Conjuring in the middle of the day, during an outdoor cinema festival full of children running around. And even if you do, there’s nothing logical about moaning how you lost two hours of your life after finishing the movie. In other words: it’s no wonder that we don’t like safari if we bring a Porsche on it.
Listening to the part of horror music that uses traditional instrumentation, we instinctively compare it to „classical” works – the compositional and performing mastery, similarities in the texture… It’s hard to defy such state for anybody who was exposed (even if not intensely) to the music for an extended period of time. We’re programmed to think about the great dead composers when we hear strings, brass, woodwinds. But it’s a false lead, because putting dreadful scores in comparison with The Swan Lake or Symphonie no. 3 „Heroique”, our soundtracks end up far behind in the race. Even comparing them to the previous century’s avant-garde composers is not entirely in place.
Anything can have an impact on how we perceive the horror genre.
Why? Famous quote attributed to Einstein says: „(…) If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Fear-inducing scores use an entirely different color palette than most of classical music. So, to measure the „scariness”, we have to put emphasis on the emotion of fear. Does it mean that we have to be afraid in order to appreciate the work? Absolutely not. We just need to forget about the comparison model in which we try to judge a piece for what it was never meant to be. And now, if you were reading carefully, prepare for a little challenge. Let’s listen to Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by famous Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
The dread in this piece is overwhelming, and interestingly enough, created solely through the use of the string section (52 players!). This Threnody, acting as our ambassador of the 20th-century classical music, easily creates Outlast’s level of fear. It would not be too wise to prioritize comparing this piece (at least not subconsciously) to horror music. When we learn to see a piece for what it is, and not what we think it is, our perception automatically gets a level-up. In the first article, we listened to An Early Harvest – Soldier Attack duo. This time, let me introduce to you our new competitors. In the left corner: Steve Jablonsky and his music for Michael Bay’s Transformers.
…I feel like I owe you an apology. Suggesting such caricature of a piece could be seen as (quoting the movie Birdman) „cultural genocide”. Listening to the track is, unfortunately, necessary evil which we are going to need soon. Let’s leave Transformers for a while and take a look at The Matrix. In the right corner: Don Davis.
Both pieces share several similarities: they were both written for film, they’re epic, the most important part of their texture is the orchestra… But in perception, there is an ocean of difference between both of them. Arrival to earth, like a line of coke, gives the listener any desired emotions right away, with no difficulty on their part whatsoever. We won’t find any counterpoint or imitation here, the instrumentation is very obvious, and the leading melody brings this piece into rivalry with, at best, TV commercials.
For the words above, many readers will probably have an urge to beat the living hell out of me. But from my experience, it seems that the longer our musical „internship” is (along with proportionally increasing engagement), the harder it is to surprise us. After all, we don’t want to listen to the same thing over and over again. Thus, we reach for increasingly more interesting titles, pieces, that previously would have been categorized as weird/bad/overrated. Being richer in listening experience, it will be much easier for us to appreciate once unreachable works. The role of an open mind (along with a positive attitude) also cannot be underestimated – but that is what soundtracks as a whole taught us.
For example: playing the game, and ideally, hearing a track, to which maybe we will later come back.
About the open mind… Let’s not forget about one of the most important factors. As it is widely known, the „listenability” of a soundtrack is usually just a nice side effect, not a priority. Although many styles don’t have a problem with that (see: action music or melancholy like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), horror music is a completely different ball game. Due to the rules of music being completely reversed in the name of fear, such works naturally become much harder to digest. Because of this, it is worth to add as many contexts as possible to the experience. For example: playing the game, and ideally, hearing a track, to which maybe we will later come back, in the gameplay. Let’s not be deceived by the Impressionists. Pollock is just as interesting… is he not?