Bassist/composer Robert Sabin‘s new album Humanity Part II, out Tuesday, features a 10-piece band that includes trumpeters Matt Holman and Dan Urness, saxophonists Aaron Irwin and Jason Rigby, trombonist John Yao, horn player Chris Komer, tubaist Ben Stapp, guitarist Jesse Lewis, and drummer Jeremy Noller. All the music was written with these players in mind. Much of it is inspired by Sabin’s interest in film, particularly horror—”Tenebre” is named for Dario Argento‘s 1982 classic, while the opening title track combines two Ennio Morricone themes composed for John Carpenter‘s remake of The Thing. That’s the track we’re streaming exclusively below—check it out!
Sabin wrote a short essay for Burning Ambulance describing how his interest in horror movies and music developed, and combined to give him the career he’s had to date. It’s below.
The Influence of Horror on Modern Music
by Robert Sabin
Perhaps due to availability and a general lack of culture in suburban Portland at the time, I was much more interested in film than in music while growing up. In this regard, it was almost exclusively the horror genre that excited me; a neighborhood video store opened which let me rent, at 12 years old, anything I wanted as long as I continued to be one of its sole customers. I would realize later what a profound impact the soundtracks of these films were making on my musical idiom. The soundtracks to my video diet were from what I would call “the golden age of splatter,” roughly 1970-1992. The music was striking for downplaying the traditional role of melodies and themes, instead constructing moments of musical intensity infused with floating instances of extreme emotional content. In modern hipster parlance we could call this musical atmosphere “the vibe” of the work. These sonic calling cards often created and carried the essential elements of the story, and did so not by emphasizing what was already there, but by adding an entirely separate dimension inside (and outside) of it.
This approach to scoring was mastered and epitomized earlier by Bernard Herrmann’s seminal score to Psycho in 1960, and later through music included in such films as films like The Shining, The Exorcist, The Thing, Suspiria, and the masterful work of Goblin, Mike Oldfield, Ennio Morricone, John Carpenter, Krzysztof Penderecki, Charles Bernstein, and Wendy Carlos, among many others. Most influential was the liberal use of an audible negative space: small groups of sounds allowed to resonate seemingly without a need to progress in any traditional sense and in a way that highlighted the background which they were set against. These were sounds for the sake of sounds, capable of creating potent meaning and expression. Through this often-uncomfortable use of space, these composers forced the listener to examine directly their various brands of aural claustrophobia, as well as their own emotional reactions to it. When combined with slow tempos, emphasis on timbre, drones, chromatically enhanced minor tonalities, texture, and brutal and prolonged dissonances, a romantic yet paranoid elegance and power were the results.
It was as if the music was exploring the psychological experience of a descent, relatable to the most significant and fascinating element of the typical heroic archetype that confronts death in its various physical and psychological forms. In horror, this occurs quite directly through fantasy, surreal levels of violence, and copious amounts of dark humor. The music by default confronts various dimensions of fear and often the quiet rage that can accompany loss, particularly the loss of the self. It engages death not by making a vague reference to the impermanence of the human condition, but by confronting it unambiguously and in the most brutal and immediate way possible. This is due in large part to the content of the accompanying story and imagery that exposes the fragility and impermanence of our physical condition (watching a machete hacking into a forehead will do that for you). In these movies, music and imagery would literally go for the jugular vein.
These sophisticated musical meanings embedded the films with a potency that could be felt intuitively, even by the youngest of viewers, in a way that would consider their unique contributions to be as indigenous to the experience as popcorn. The potency of this aesthetic would be confirmed to me later in the study of composition. The guiding creative impulse would become, as a teacher put it, “always writing from the vibe.” In my case, that resulted in compositions that often dealt with those themes that originated in the splatter-filled midnight hours of my youth. Success in this approach confirmed that it wasn’t what you were writing, but where and when it was coming from. The orchestration of the moment you are in when writing, and doing so in the most honest and corporal way possible, further illuminated by the uncomfortable space reminiscent of that experienced in a dark basement watching a movie you are too traumatized to turn off. The feelings and moments behind the music—everything that can’t be put in a textbook—combine to become the defining elements of a composition and, if given this appropriate amount of room to develop, can confront and transform the listener in a manner that earns a suitably grisly R rating.