BY CHRISTOPHER TREACY
Alan Howarth’s sound designs are ingrained in pop culture.
The sound you hear when the Starship Enterprise appears in the Star Trek films? That’s Howarth. When the little girl calls from within the television set in Poltergeist? Howarth. That musical sense of foreboding that overcomes you when Indiana Jones faces a cobra in Raiders of the Lost Ark? All Howarth.
And if you happened to see jazz fusion pioneers Weather Report in the late 70s, you might recall marveling at co-founder Joe Zawinul’s next-level keyboard setup. That, too, was Howarth’s magic, working as a touring technician to keep Zawinul’s complex array of synths in running order from night to night — no small feat in the pre-digital age.
As an adolescent, Howarth was always more interested in visual art, but music ended up in the driver’s seat. Eventually, he married the two things, creating music to soundtrack images. Nowadays, he’s also drawing sketches of some of the famed movie scenes he’s celebrated for scoring — an unexpected full-circle connection to his creative roots. Howarth will have some of his sketches for attendees to view when he performs a set to kick off the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s 20th Halloween Horror Marathon at 11 p.m. on Saturday, October 30th. Purchase tickets HERE.
“When we were approached about the idea of bringing out Alan Howarth for this event, we jumped at the chance, because it just worked perfectly,” said Mark Anastasio, a.k.a. ‘Midnight Mark,’ Program Manager and Director of Special Programming at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre for over fifteen years. “And we were thrilled that he was willing to perform as part of this show. People love the scores that he’s created and to hear some of them live with a packed house full of horror fans is going to be quite something. Halloween III: Season of the Witch, [which he scored with John Carpenter], was already locked in as one of the two films we’d be revealing early, so it just made total sense.”
Howarth is best known for his spooky sound signatures at the intersection of sci-fi and horror, but his musical interests began with an accordion found in the attic of his Cleveland-area childhood home. Music became more than just a hobby after a one-off high school gig (playing sax) yielded an $80 payout—big money at that time.
So began a series of serendipitous events that shaped the trajectory of his career. Playing bass in popular Cleveland bands, one of which opened for The Who, eventually led him to Los Angeles. There, an earlier connection to the band Weather Report resulted in attaining the keyboard technician job that put him on the road for several years, beginning in 1976. Four years later, based on his job with Weather Report, an old Ohio friend working at Paramount Pictures recommended Howarth as a knowledgeable ‘synth guy’ for some work on the first Star Trek movie. In the wake of completing that project, Film Editor Todd Ramsay offhandedly put him in touch with John Carpenter, but Howarth was not expecting to become the tech-yin to Carpenter’s creative-yang.
Actually, at that time, Howarth was taking classes on film scoring at UCLA Extension. A lot of guys would’ve probably quit the classes, but for Howarth, working with Carpenter was like a dream internship on steroids.
“John and I are the same age,” Howarth said over the phone from Newport Beach, California. “He’s from Kentucky and I’m originally from Cleveland, so we’ve both experienced life through a Midwestern lens and on a similar timeline. But he’s John Carpenter, right? I mean, he’s a trained musician from his dad, his dad was a concert violinist and also taught music. In our first meeting, he came over to my house and we sat and just talked for about three hours. I showed him some stuff in my little dining room studio, and we were excited. And at the end of that meeting, he goes, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,” and so just like that, I’m now scoring with John Carpenter on Escape From New York. It was my first score! And I had all the gear, but John wasn’t interested in gear. Several times I tried explaining to him how something worked and he’d say ‘Alan, I don’t really want to know about that stuff. That’s your job’.”
In the forty years since, Howarth collaborated with Carpenter on a half dozen more genre classics (Christine, Halloween II, Halloween III, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live) while moving further into his own scoring career (another trio of Halloween films, amongst others).
When he’s not scoring, he’s often called on to create effects or sound designs — mini-themes — for specific moments in films. This is his specialty, taking visual cues and effectively representing them sonically— merging his passion for visual art with his musical abilities and technical chops. As a result, his designs have been featured in everything from National Lampoon’s Class Reunion to Beetlejuice, Phantasm II, and the Back to the Future sequels. Howarth’s team won Academy Awards for their sound effect work on The Hunt for Red October and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While the tone of his work remains largely ominous (but not solely—more on that later), how he creates it has shifted over time. Like most everyone involved in music production, Howarth has learned to use Digital Audio Workstations (Ableton Live, Garage Band, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, etc.), which have become an industry standard. As a tech-enthusiast, he’s stayed abreast of the changes from the very beginning, and he was even involved in the development of what we now know as “surround sound.” Most of the digital shift, he says, has been positive.
“The editorial aspect of digital is a huge improvement,” he said, explaining that the cut-and-paste nature of digital recording ends up requiring less musical skill, but it makes his job easier. When he and Carpenter did Escape from New York, they couldn’t synchronize the videotape with the audio recorder. Literally, it was just a matter of pushing play on both consoles at the same time, letting them freewheel and the pair would work on the score that way. The other thing Howarth would sometimes do is record the dialogue from the video to one track of his multi-track tape recorder, so he could turn the video off and still know where he was in the movie.
Lately, an appreciation for analog sound is fueling a revival of sorts. Howarth says that the sound of analog synths and analog tape that he and his contemporaries were using forty years ago — emulating avant-garde artists like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze — has become sought after. As a result, popular software has emerged to recreate those textures. What’s more, he’s now being asked to work on vintage equipment.
“The last two scores I’ve done—one was a movie called Hoax (2019) and the other is Cosmic Dawn, which will be out in the spring—both directors asked me to do what I used to do in the 80s with analog synthesizers,” he said. “So, it was technically somewhat limited, but now it’s a style. Back then, we got the most out of the technology because that’s all we had. Now, with digital, the possibilities are limitless, which can actually make things more difficult. I had lunch with Brian Eno one time and he was talking about producing records for other artists and he said that what he does now is limit the use of technology. Before he starts work on an album, he sets parameters, like real drums only or only analog synths or… anything to make the universe of digital possibilities more finite. He said it provides a sense of direction because the limits of the past have proved to be a good way to go, artistically.”
No doubt, the folks at the Coolidge Corner Theatre would wholeheartedly agree with Eno: they prefer to run 35mm film prints. As a registered NFP for over thirty years, Anastasio says it’s one of the main factors in keeping the venue’s programming unique. But staying true to an analog vision in the digital age comes with challenges.
“The main challenge with that, in this day and age, is the expense,” he said. “Shipping rates across the world have increased. And 35mm prints are heavy. So it’s more expensive than ever to show 35mm, but it’s something we still do here and we do it well so that we’re able to maintain relationships with studios and archives in order to borrow what is becoming increasingly rare. Film on film has become a rarity. But I think a lot of our audience comes out to watch these movies in their original format and they appreciate it.”
Anastasio says the Halloween Horror Marathon is a 100% 35mm program right down to the trailers that will run between films. He explained that a distributor who owns the rights to a film they might want to license won’t necessarily have a 35mm print of the film in stock, forcing the Coolidge to have to go to a private archive or to private collectors — folks that have salvaged these 35mm prints from destruction. That process fetches an additional fee.
For the Marathon, five of the seven films will remain a secret until they’re actually up on the screen. Anastasio also points to the challenging endurance test involved for his projection team, led by Nick Lazarro, formerly of Kaiju Big Battel, and Thomas Welch.
“But it’s also a ton of fun,” he said. “And I do think that there’s something really special for our audience members, to be able to spend an entire night inside of a place that they love so much. This is a way of reminding our audiences that this is their theater. It’s such a beloved community space and they support us by coming to our shows, and by donating. So having a night where they can sleep over and feel as though it’s truly home is special.”
If there’s something that (thankfully!) isn’t particularly challenging for the Coolidge, it’s making sure that patrons have the safest possible environment to enjoy their unique programming.
“We’re not messing around when it comes to the safety of our guests,” Anastasio said, and he’s not kidding. In addition to requiring masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within a 72-hour window, he explained that the Coolidge went a step further, upgraded their HVAC with high MERV-rated filters and new, state-of-the-art Continuous Infectious Microbial Reduction (CIMR) Systems technology. In the most basic terms, the CIMR system scrubs the air, “creating charged, ionized compounds of safe, self-regulating ultra-low level hydrogen peroxide,” that kills airborne pathogens. Apparently, it’s the same system used at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense. Additionally, they’re blasting their ventilation ducts with UV light, which also works to kill pathogens. All told, it seems like spending the night at the Coolidge is a safer bet than most hotels.
Anastasio also clarified that the smaller theatres will be open for guests to enter should the big room begin to feel too full.
For his part, after a long period of performing very little, Alan Howarth is excited to bring his stage show to an appreciative group of genre fans, particularly on mischief night and in celebrating 20 years of Halloween marathons at the Coolidge. When he performs live, he creates an amalgam of his most famous scores and sound designs with cleverly edited visual accompaniment from the related movies.
Of his most recent work, a project with Oliver Stone’s son Sean Stone on a politically charged docuseries, The Best Kept Secret, sounds most riveting. Amusingly, Howarth was told to dial back the dark, menacing score he initially provided because it made the series too heavy. In the end, he used lighter tones to set up an interesting contrast, which reveals his other side: there’s more to Howarth than witches, ghosts, and goblins and spaceships.
“I’m really into meditation and spiritual things, and I’ve done two meditation CDs, Paradise Within and Indigo Ra,” he said. “I also collaborated with a jazz buddy of mine named John Novello who has a very famous band called Niacin. That project is called Luna Tech. All of that stuff is up on Youtube, so folks can check it out for free. I want to do more work like that, that’s not all dark and black. These are the sunshine and flowers and beauty projects, y’know?. One of my clients for many years, before the internet, was Scripps Institution of Oceanography,” based in San Diego. “They had an annual video that they would distribute to the donors showing what they were doing each year, and I scored all that stuff… the fish in the reefs, and the oceans and the winds and the climate. I have a whole other part of me and my work that nobody knows about.”
The Coolidge Corner Theatre is located at 290 Harvard Street in Brookline, MA. Tickets for the 20th Annual Horror Marathon with Alan Howarth live can be purchased HERE.