The Scary Sound Machine That Is 'Trying To Set People A Little Bit Off-Kilter'

Oct 29, 2017
Originally published on October 29, 2017 2:48 pm

Note: This piece is better heard than read. To hear this review and the specific musical moments it references, listen at the audio link.

Mark Korven specializes in making scary sounds.

Creaking doors, clanking chains, bloodcurdling screams: Those are his repertoire as a composer for film and TV soundtracks. He's helped spook up everything from The Twilight Zone and sci-fi cult film Cube to the recent horror blockbuster, The Witch.

Lately, though, he's been working on something else.

Korven, with the help of his friend and guitar maker Tony Duggan-Smith, has built a custom-made instrument he calls the Apprehension Engine. It's a frankenmachine of sorts that can produce just about any scary sound you can think of. He performed the instrument live earlier this month — on Friday the 13th, of course — at a cemetery in Brooklyn.

In an interview with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Korven breaks down every part of the machine, what makes a sound "scary" and how he created the score for The Witch.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: What was it like when you played the Apprehension Engine in front of a live audience? Especially in a cemetery, that sounds pretty scary.

Mark Korven: People were kind of confused and a little bit in awe. I remember we had people flocking into the chapel, which is where I was playing, the chapel in the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. And I remember this woman walking past the Apprehension Engine and I did this [sound] and she jumped about a foot in the air. I just love to get a rise out of people on occasion.

Can you walk us through all the parts of the instrument?

So [there's] a collection of metal rulers. If I was just to pluck them, it would sound a little bit like marimba, but when you bow them, it's kind of cool. What I bow them with is called a nyckelharpa bow. And a nyckelharp is a medieval push-button violin that I used when I was recording the score for The Witch: I needed a very small violin bow so that's what I'm using for this. And I also have something that's a spring reverb from a guitar amplifier; you can hit it, which I love. And then we have a hurdy-gurdy.

Basically what I was looking for was anything that was going to just cause me to feel a little bit uncomfortable and I knew my audience would be a little uncomfortable. So we're just trying to set people a little bit off-kilter ... I thought a lot about what makes for freaky sounds and I think it goes back to that primordial fear of being hunted. And something that is hunted might scream. I think that unearths that primordial fear of being attacked by an animal that's bigger than you are.

Yeah, in the dark woods at night on Halloween. How did you get into scary sounds?

Well, it wasn't much of a leap for me at all. I actually come from a jazz background and I've always been attracted to a strange and unusual harmony, so it wasn't that much of a leap to get into music that was a little bit more dissonant. And I love creative and harmonic freedom to do whatever I want and horror is one way of doing that. You can be really weird and strange and nine times out of 10 it's going to work quite well with the images that you're working with.

Do you change the sound for different projects? I mean, I suppose something like The Witch might be different than The Twilight Zone.

Absolutely. The Witch was a very unusual score in that Robert Eggers, the director, he didn't want anything that was electronic at all. He didn't want even reverb. He wanted it to be very flat, very dry, very real. So that was an unusual score but it did inspire this machine. I didn't actually use it on The Witch but I became enamored with that real tactile sense of touching a real acoustic instrument and being able to, you know, scratch it with your fingers.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Creaking doors, clanking chains. With Halloween just around the corner, we're now going to a guy who specializes in making scary sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK KORVEN: (Playing apprehension engine).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mark Korven plays a custom-made instrument he calls the apprehension engine. We're listening to a performance earlier this month - Friday the 13, of course, at a cemetery in Brooklyn. Korven is a Canadian composer for film and television soundtracks. He's helped spook up everything from "The Twilight Zone" and sci-fi cult film "Cube" to the recent horror blockbuster "The Witch."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WITCH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As unidentified character) (Screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As unidentified character) It's not safe. Not again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mark Korven brought his apprehension engine into the studios of the CBC in Toronto to show us how he makes music for nightmares.

Hi, Mark.

KORVEN: Hi, how are you doing?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good. So what was it like when you played the apprehension engine in front of a live audience? What was the reaction?

KORVEN: People were kind of confused and a little bit in awe. I remember we had people flocking into the chapel, which is where I was playing - in the chapel in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. And I remember this woman walking past the apprehension engine, and I did this...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: ...And she jumped about a foot in the air.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

KORVEN: I just love to get a rise out of people on occasion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is an instrument that you sort of designed and created with the help of a friend. But can you give us an audio tour of the instrument in front of you? Play us some sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So that sounds really eerie. What are you doing?

KORVEN: So that's a collection of metal rulers, and I have four of them in front of me. If I was just to pluck them, it'd sound a little bit like marimba.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: But when you bow them, it's kind of cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: What I bow them with is called a nyckelharpa bow. And a nyckelharpa is a medieval pushbutton violin that I used when I was recording the score for "The Witch." I needed a very small violin bow. So that's what I'm using for this. And I also have something that's a spring reverb from a guitar amplifier. You can hit it, which I love.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: And then we have a hurdy-gurdy, which makes this sort of sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's kind of like a wheel, right?

KORVEN: Yeah, it's like a wheel. This is my squeaky wheel sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: And then next up, we have a - basically, we have a single string, and I use an Ebow, which is something that guitar players use, which sustains the string.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: And then on top of that, we have a single rod, which, if you let the rod go...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: ...It goes wack, wack, wack (ph). And I can bow it, as well, and get this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: We also have this...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: ...Which is basically a collection of junk in there, and then a switch.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: And then something I use for a tick-tock sound...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: ...Which is nice rhythmically.

I've thought a lot about what makes for freaky sounds. And, I think, it goes back to that primordial fear of being hunted. And something that is hunted might scream, like - so you might, you know, that sound like I'm doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

KORVEN: You know, real screeches and cries. And I think that unearths that primordial fear of being, like, attacked by an animal that's bigger than you are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, in the dark woods at night.

KORVEN: Yes. That's right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On Halloween.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sorry, I'm being taken away by this already. How did you get into scary sounds?

KORVEN: Well, it wasn't much of a leap for me at all. I actually come from a jazz background, and I've always been attracted to strange, unusual harmonies. So it wasn't that much of a leap to get into music that was a little bit more dissonant. And I love creative and harmonic freedom to do whatever I want. And horror is one way of doing that. You can be really weird and strange. And 9 times out of 10, it's going to work quite well with the images that you're working with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you change the sounds for different projects? I mean, I suppose something like "The Witch," might be different than "The Twilight Zone."

KORVEN: Oh, absolutely. "The Witch" was a very unusual score in that Robert Eggers, the director - he didn't want anything that was electronic at all. He didn't want even reverb. He wanted it to be very flat, very dry, very real. It did inspire this machine. I didn't actually use it on "The Witch," but I became enamored with that sound of, you know, that real tactile sense of touching a real acoustic instrument and being able to...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

KORVEN: ...You know, scratch it with your fingers where it just felt like someone touching it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Mark, I've got to ask you this - are you going to use this to sort of, like, freak out your trick or treaters in your neighborhood?

KORVEN: You know, I got to say that is the plan...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter)

KORVEN: ...As long as we don't get rained on because I have a couple of kids (laughter). And my two kids are rather bored by all this because, you know, they - oh, daddy's up to his usual stuff. But I think it has the potential of freaking out the neighborhood children. And that really appeals to me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Mark Korven is a composer for film and television and is a virtuoso on the instrument he calls the apprehension engine. You can check it out in his neighborhood, apparently. Thanks, and Happy Halloween.

KORVEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPREHENSION ENGINE SOUND)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can see a video of the apprehension engine in action on our website npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.