In this episode, composer Mark Korven shares his approach to creating the unusual score for The Witch, which blends medieval instruments and textured noises in a dynamic and dissonant soundscape that highlights every haunting moment of the film. He also explains the workings of his famous "Apprehension Engine" and discusses how temp scores and directors have changed the role of film composers over the years.
Mark Korven: http://www.markkorven.com/Main.html
The Apprehension Engine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzk-l8Gm0MY
The Witch: http://thewitch-movie.com
The Witch Soundtrack: https://milanrecords.com/the-witch-music-by-mark-korven/
This episode features samples of The Witch OST & original music by Pierce Engineer and Sam Elrod.
Transcript: 003. Apprehension
The sounds you’re hearing are produced by a unique instrument known as “The Apprehension Engine”, which film composer Mark Korven uses to create soundscapes for the films he scores.
Well, I don’t know if the intention is to make people feel bad…I mean, some people really think the sound is beautiful! Uh, I think certainly people – most people will feel a little bit tense…definitely, and they will have the required apprehension. And some people just get so freaked out they listen to a minute of it and they’re just so tense they can’t – they can’t listen to it anymore. Y’know, I’ve gotten used to it, I mean, for me it just sounds… it’s like, isn’t this cool? This is a very strange an unusual sound. And, y’know I don’t feel fearful when I pick it up and start playing it, I just think “what a cool sound!” Because I’m basically a happy person, I’m basically happy-go-lucky, and I just think “this is a cool sound.”
My name is Mark Korven and I’m a film music composer.
You’re listening to the pATCHES podcast, I’m Dan from pATCHES. Later, Mark will talk about his experience composing the soundtrack of the 2015 horror film The Witch and share some thoughts on temp scores and working with directors. But for now, let’s hear more about “The Apprehension Engine.”
So we got these rods that are, I guess about 3 feet long, and when you bend them and you let them go they go “whack whack whack whack” and they just go on forever. And we initially tried it with using metal rulers, but the cool thing about the metal rulers is bowing them. So, I mostly just bow with those, and occasionally I might pluck them for sort of a marimba-type sound. Um, what else?
We have something that’s kind of like a hurdy gurdy, so it’s a wheel that you turn with a handle. You can play it just wide open as sort of a low drone, but I found it’s really interesting when you start rubbing your fingers over top of the strings or sliding it with your finger nail and going through the overtone series…
A little junk tank, y’know played with a magnet, that causes various rattling and things moving around.
Also we have two strings used as a guide for an electronic bow, also called an e-bow, that guitar players use, and then we have a guitar pickup in there and that’s what I use through a fuzz box to go crazy and make some really rude sounds with it.
And then of course we have the reverb tank which I like to play with the e-bow.
Um, yeah so that’s about it.
The way he talks about the odd components of the Apprehension Engine, Mark sounds like a guitarist talking about techniques like string muting, strum patterns or chord progressions. Essentially, he’s developed a stock of expressive elements he can return to when he wants to evoke emotions through performance, just like any other instrumentalist.
I think initially it was “this will help me create weird sounds” but I’m realizing more and more that it is an instrument. The little subtle things you can do to get crazy sounds out of it, I mean, you’re always thinking in an experimental way, because you’re really freed from any kind of traditional technique at all.
And this freedom to explore fits within Mark’s journey to find new sounds, going back to the very beginning of his career.
Um, well, I think part of the reason is I have a very limited attention span and I need to be constantly amused and constantly interested. So, that’s one of the reasons why I delved into so many different instruments. I originally started on guitar, and then I branched off into, y’know, violins and woodwinds and then I got into East Indian instruments for quite awhile…just anything that would cause my ears to perk up.
Mark’s proficiency with unusual instruments led to his involvement with The Witch, and the score he produced for the film has become one of his best-known works.
Robert Eggers, the director, really reacted strongly to this instrument I play called the Swedish Nycklharpa. So what it is, it’s a medieval instrument that’s kind of like a hurdy gurdy, in that it’s got keys. So you play it with your left hand like you would a typewriter, but with a hurdy gurdy you crank the wheel, right, to bow the strings, and with nycklharp you bow with a small bow. And it kind of sounds like a violin but it sort of sounds a little bit like a hurdy gurdy in that it’s very stiff and non-yielding in its sound. And when Robert heard that sound he thought “that’s the voice of The Witch, that’s what I want in the film” and I think that’s what got me the gig, as soon as he heard that instrument.
The Witch follows an isolated Puritan family in 17th century New England as they encounter supernatural forces. The ensuing horrors slowly tear the family apart. Given the nature of the story, the score needed to reflect the dread and terror felt by the characters, so Mark had to consider how the director wanted to reflect this musically.
I was really reacting to what Robert wanted, he wanted basically maximum dissonance through the entire score, and it took a lot of persuasion on my part to get him to accept the idea of having things that were slightly more melodic. So I really tried to push him in that direction which ultimately he accepted but through most of it, it was “keep it as dissonant as possible all the time”.
But Mark also had to ensure that the score was varied enough to hold the audience’s attention. Because it’s easy to create a lot of dissonance, but…
The tricky part was making it interesting. Because if you’re always dissonant all the time it really gives you nowhere to go.
Because, it’s essential to consider dynamics in film composing, just as it is with any other form of songwriting. For example: heavy bass won’t feel impactful if it’s always present. It’s absence sets up for it’s return, the change is what’s felt.
So to get around that we worked on changing up the instrumentation and changing up the texture. Just something that would perk up the ear.
And of course, that’s how his background with so many different instruments came into play. For The Witch soundtrack, Mark explored many types of sounds, often from surprising sources as he looked for the right ingredients to create a signature sound for the film.
And we used various things like shakers with
goat’s hooves and different oddball instruments.
We used the nyckleharpa like I mentioned, we also used the bass nyckleharpa, and that’s a real odd instrument. It’s like the nyckleharpa but it’s like twice as big. The nyckleharpa is sort of like a viola, and the bass nycklharpa is more in the range of a cello. And, in fact, that’s the first thing you hear on The Witch score is the bass nyckleharpa.
One of the more memorable sounds in the soundtrack are the disembodied voices of a choir which create some of the most unsettling moments of the film.
Yeah, uh, they’re an amazing group of people, it’s a Toronto choir called The Element Choir, and they specialize in improvisation. Because most of the score was improvised, and the choir was very much improvised. They basically respond to hand movements. So, it was very very loose, so I’d say “sing in A” and they would sing in A in unison, and then I’d sort of motion to other people to start moving up and other people to start moving down and wave my hands around like crazy to, y’know, start doing swirly glissandi and things like that.
Because of the odd soundscapes and disharmony used throughout the project, Mark had to take a different approach to writing. There isn’t theory that could help his decisions, he had to rely completely on intuition.
Oh, it’s very much on feel. I basically abandoned traditional harmony altogether; I didn’t really think in those terms at all. I was thinking much more like a sound designer and I was just playing with textures.
Mark was freed in his approach, ironically, by the constraints that were required to support the director’s vision.
There was many directions I had in creating that score. One direction was no electronic music of any kind, so y’know no synth pads, no synth strings, nothing like that. Everything had to be completely acoustic. Like I said before, maximum dissonance at all times. Most of the percussion we played through the score was just slapping on an old cello and banging on things. I have to laugh often I get emails from people – where can I buy the score? Y’know they want The Witch music written out and someone wanted me to do a concert of The Witch music and I go “oh my god”, I’d have to just improvise for 90 minutes, so…
The film received near universal critical acclaim and is an accomplishment in design and storytelling, and of course Mark’s score played a large role in that.
Yeah, well certainly got a great response from the score which really surprised me, actually, because I wasn’t really expecting the film to blow up like it did. I honestly thought it was going to be too weird and depressing for people, which I completely understand because y’know if you go into the theater expecting a typical horror movie you’re not going to get that and therefore most people will be disappointed.
That’s the rub with The Witch – while it technically must be categorized as a horror film, this simplified genre can’t capture the complexity of the experience. Really, the film feels more like watching a Shakespeare play than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Y’know I really looked at it – and I think Robert did too – as not so much a horror film but really sort of a gothic family drama. Um, but it’s certainly not a typical horror movie in any way, so you have to prepared for a different kind of experience.
But there’s no denying that Mark’s score pushes what a horror soundtrack can do, and he’s certainly been recognized for it.
Yeah, but basically the only work offers I’m getting these days after The Witch, it’s all horror movies, like exclusively. And that’s a new thing for me because I’ve been composing for films about 30 years and for 28 of those 30 years I’ve done other stuff other than horror films but now it seems I’m the horror guy.
I really enjoyed my conversation with Mark, not only for the artistic ideas he shared, but also for his many insights into the process of filmmaking and collaboration.
Um, y’know going back 20, 30, 40, 50 years, composers were really regarded as film keys in the whole production process, right up there with the editors and everything else. And the filmmakers understood that these people weren’t just composers or musicians they were like film craft people. But that, a lot of that attitude has gone away and you do get the attitude of “let’s just get a musician to throw some songs in here” and it’s unfortunate how that’s happened to the detriment of film composing.
The shift in attitude towards composers came along with the use of temp scores becoming commonplace. A temp score is the music filmmakers add to early edits of their film to start to get an idea of the overall emotional qualities of each scene. As Mark explains, changes in technology made it easy for productions to test out various existing music in their film.
Uh back when I started in the horse and buggy days, the filmmakers would be editing the film on these huge Steambeck machines, y’know big metal tables and they’d be cutting the film with razor blades. It was all very, very old school, so if you wanted to throw in a temp score that was a big deal. Y’know you’d have to find the music, you’d have to put it on magnetic tape, you’d have to sync it up, and it’s like no one really wanted to bother with that. So typically I would get a film and there would be no music there. But of course all that has changed and now with things like Pro Tools and everything else people can just grab a song off iTunes and throw it in in two seconds and that becomes the temp score.
The result is that when Mark – or any composer – is brought on to a project, they aren’t presented with a blank canvas. Rather, they have to work off the pieces of music the producers have thrown in and grown used to.
So often you’re in the situation of trying to duplicate the temp score, or trying to do better than the temp score, or trying to be as good as the temp score, but that temp score is always going around the back of your mind. I like to ask the question, before I start working on a project, “how long have you been listening to the temp score?” And if it’s more than a couple of months, I’m like “uh-oh, we’re going to have trouble.” Because I know I’m going to have a hard time separating the director from the temp score because 99% of the time the filmmakers will fall in love with the temp score whether it’s working or not.
So a real problem composers face when they come onto a project is that the filmmakers have grown too accustomed to the temp score. Imagine if your favorite movie’s soundtrack was swapped out with new music. Even if you could come up with a better theme for Star Wars, you could never get away with changing the iconic music in the opening crawl without outrage from an audience. In some ways, the filmmakers begin to have that kind of relationship to the temp score in their film and its hard to break.
After awhile you can’t imagine the film without that piece of music that you’ve been listening to every day for the last four months, I mean it’s totally understandable.
But only the filmmakers close to the audience are affected by this. The audience is going to appreciate the score that best drills home the emotion of each scene, and that usually requires the composer to create music that will be substantially different and more particular than the arbitrary temp score. Mark’s approach is to tease out the director’s true vision.
Well, first thing I try to do is try to make sure our language is the same, because you do get the directors that go “it’s gotta be jazzy, it has to be a jazzy score.” What they really want is a blue-sy score but they don’t have the vocabulary, so sometimes I have to sit down with the director and go “this is a pad, this is tensions, this is dissonance, this is number 9 on the dissonance scale, this is number 3 on the dissonance scale, or whatever just so that you have that shared vocabulary.
And this is key because the goal of the composer is not to create great music but rather to enhance the storytelling of the film as much as possible using sound. This requires the composer to understand the emotion and direction of a project thoroughly.
My approach is you have to completely understand the story you’re working on before you can expect to do music that’s going to support that. So you have to understand a bit about production and, y’know, you have to empathize with what these filmmakers go through during their 5-year odyssey of making a film or whatever it is. You have to be able to relate to not only filmmakers but you have to completely understand where they’re coming from story-wise so you can talk to them sort of as equals rather than the musician at the end of the process.
That’s why Mark emphasizes that communication with the director should stay within the boundaries of what the music is emphasizing in the project,
Because the director really should be talking to you not in musical terms but in dramatic terms. I had big trouble just recently with a director who was – they were so stuck in the style of the music and the instrumentation that it was impossible to get them to talk about their film and what the film required and how you are going to enhance the drama because they just could not get over the whole style of it and it just drove me crazy and we had to part ways on it.
Collaborations are hard. The end goal may be the same but the means by which it is accomplished can be very different. As an artist there is a fine line to walk between standing up for what you want and bending to what the other artist wants.
Yeah exactly I mean sometimes you would have to go “I’m tired of this BS, I’m the composer, I’m going to do what I think is right, because you don’t know what you’re doing.” I mean, that might be required. I’ve actually never done that, but I can see doing that. And other times you have to acquiesce and say “You do know what you’re doing and I’m going to put on a different hat and I’m going to help you create the kind of score that you have in your head already. Now that’s not always going to work and I wouldn’t recommend that approach as a general approach to composers because I’ve made the mistake of taking that approach to a talented director who seemed to know what they wanted and I would go “ok I’m going to help you create the kind of score that you want” and they totally panicked, because it was like “oh my god the composer doesn’t know what he’s doing”.
Ultimately, just as every film is unique, so is each director and their approach to filmmaking.
So as a composer you have to be very flexible and you have to be part psychologist and human behaviorist and figure out the path that’s going to keep you sane and make for the best score.
This episode was produced by Pierce Porterfield and me, Dan Hilse. Big Thanks to Mark Korven for talking with us – you should absolutely take a look at the videos of him playing the Apprehension Engine that are linked in the show notes. You’ll also want to hear his work in The Witch if you haven’t seen it – it’s a great film.
The pATCHES podcast is a project of patches.zone, a website dedicated to creating resources for music producers. If you’re looking for sample packs, Ableton live tutorials, or music production guides, be go check out our page. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts to stay updated on future episodes. Thanks for listening!