We first heard artist, curator and composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, via his solo moniker as Lichens in the mid 2000’s, which merged voice and modular synthesizer into new and intricate worlds, sounding like nothing around at the time – or since. He has also collaborated with Yoshimi (Boredoms, OOIOO, SAICOBAB), and avant-garde percussionist Susie Ibarra a couple of years ago for Flower of Sulphur (Thrill Jockey) and the trio have continued to perform together under the name Yunohana Variations. Recently has also become involved in film scoring, contributing music to Denis Villeneuve films Sicario and Arrival working alongside the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. Which leads us to his latest score, a new take on Clive Barker’s Candyman by Nia DaCosta (Little Woods, upcoming Captain Marvel 2). As long time fans of his incredibly distinctive music, as well as Candyman in general we were excited to have the opportunity to get an insight into his creative process.
Cyclic Defrost: What interests you about film sound?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: I think film can be such a magical art form and sound plays such an important role in that landscape. It can really drive the image to a myriad of places and when all parties involved are connecting it can make for a truly expanded experience.
Cyclic Defrost: Why do you think you got the job to score Candyman? Given composers can often be pretty typecast (rightly or wrongly) where they’re hired to do their ‘thing’, I guess my question is what do you think your ‘thing’ is perceived as?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: I was approached initially by Monkeypaw Productions as they were really beginning to sculpt this world. They were very familiar with my work and had been so for some time. They were keen on providing a voice to this film that was unique and I think they intuited that I could deliver that new language and build that world in collaboration with them. I guess my “thing” would be my aleatoric process an intention to wilfully push away from convention or tradition to find new perspectives while collaborating with Nia DaCosta the director. I think even though this score is not necessarily something I might have produced outside of the film, I think it absolutely sounds like me.
Cyclic Defrost: What attracted you to it?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: I was a huge fan of the original Bernard Rose film from 1992. I also had been a fan of Clive Barker’s work some time before that as I had started reading the novels a couple years before the film was released. The clutch was that Monkeypaw had optioned it and were producing a new story that existed in the same universe as the original film. It comes from a different vantage point than the original film and has a black perspective. Being a black artist, that is important to me.
Cyclic Defrost: Unusually for a horror film the original Candyman managed to get an iconic minimalist composer in Philip Glass, with all that this brings, from weight of his reputation to his singular and idiosyncratic approach to music. I imagine there’s an added burden/ stress or scrutiny associated with now taking it on yourself. How did you deal with this?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: There was not necessarily a burden. With something like this, being a sequel, of course there is an expectation on all aspects of the project. The legacy is there and understood, but if you consider that this is a project that must stand on it’s own as an artistic work, you can move away from bearing the weight of the expectation. I love the original score, but for me leaning into the established work would be absolutely reductive. I had to build my own world of sound first while keeping in mind the legacy. But I won’t lie, there was a little bit of psychic warfare happening in the back of my mind. Ha!
I would also say that there are many other examples of established avant garde composers that made original work for or had pre-existing work used in horror films. A couple of examples might be Bernard Parmegiani’s score for Walerian Borowczyk’s “Dr Jekyll et les Femmes” or Krzysztof Penderecki’s work in “The Shining”. So not totally unusual.
Cyclic Defrost: When you listen to the subsequent scores to films where the original had a such an iconic theme whether it be Mission Impossible, The Pink Panther or Halloween there’s always this expectation to go back, to integrate elements of it in the new scores. I imagine that’s pretty unsatisfying for the new composer – yet its pretty much what the people want. How do you reconcile this but still make your own artistic statement?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: I did re-imagine one piece from Glass’ original score, but this was the very last thing I created. It was important for me to have the world built completely after 9-10 months of carving out a space for my voice. And then at the very end of the process I was able to give Glass space in that world by interpreting “Music Box” in my own way that fit into my world. In that way it made for a complete narrative folding the original story into ours.
Cyclic Defrost: Can you talk a little about your palette for Candyman?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: My palette consisted of imagining sounds that I could directly relate to the story. The voice, the buzzing, density and wide frequency spectrum of electronics, acoustic string instruments, bowed amplified wood and metal objects and field recording elements involving the actual spaces in which the film was shot.
Cyclic Defrost: In reading your liner notes I was curious about your statement that with your processing ‘the spoken word “Candyman” lost it’s recognition but not it’s energy.’ Can you talk a little bit about your experimentation with this and how words and phrases can be imbued with energy that will persist even if meaning is removed?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: My intention there was to address the folklore with the score. While I was on location during the shoot, I took aside a few of the lead actors in between takes and prompted with words or phrases that I recorded and later manipulated through granular synthesis to embed in the body of the score compositions. What was once “Candyman” was now a swirling buzzing sound that I felt carried the energy of the summoning without being super transparent. So there you have, not a conscious understanding of language or the voice, but a subliminal imprint with that energy. The summoning lends itself to the supernatural, the unknown and the sinister. Providing sonic elements to excite the ear that you can’t quite pin down the origin of the sound gives weight to that unknown. It’s meant to enhance the experience of the viewer.
Cyclic Defrost: Also I’m not sure if this is common practice (unless you’re a foley artist maybe), but you went on set and made field recordings of spaces the film was shot in. What was it you wanted to achieve by this and what did you think these sounds imbued in your subsequent score?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: My score work has the tendency to thread the needle between music and sound design. I think the score has the ability to take on that role of non-diegetic sound in film. It is always important for me to be able to produce a complete world in film as a composer. In doing so some moments will possibly feel unlike what most consider music. It is in those moments where viewer may take the score as sound design. I have a feeling there will be several moments in this film where that will occur. The field recordings came from this intention of displacing energy, like the voice recordings, and are used texturally to create a deeper more complex, more dynamic score. I feel that the energy of spaces is important.
Cyclic Defrost: How do you balance the demands of the industry who more often than not want you to replicate a temp score, with the desire to be creative and make satisfying and interesting music?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: Well, first off, the temp that was being used generally was music of my own since I was brought on so early in the project. It’s always best for me if the filmmaker is not using other temp score elements as I would not want them to become too attached to someone else’s work giving me the space to work directly with them to create a landscape that is designed specifically for the film. It gives a specific uniqueness to the project. Also, I’m very particular about the projects that I take on and have no interest in trying to ape someone else’s work, so if I’m approached to do a score that is meant to be like another composer’s work I would shy away from that project. I’m not a jingle writer.
Cyclic Defrost: Can you talk a little bit about your experience of working with Jóhann Jóhannsson. What was your contribution to scores like Sicario and Arrival and what did you take away from his process?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: Working with Jóhann for me was a real pleasure. He and I were friends before we had worked together in that capacity, so when he would ask me to work on any films with him it was coming from a place of mutual admiration of each others work. We were able to collaborate generally in a very relaxed and easy way, as we knew where each other was coming from. Sicario was strictly voice composition whereas Arrival was a bit more involved voice and modular synthesizer. In each case Jóhann would come with an idea and we would work through the execution. The motifs in Arrival were vocal progressions we recorded with Francesco Donadello using 2 inch tape producing a series of durational loops. Jóhann then used the same technique on the piano and then edited out the attack of each note which provided another drone element that when combined created a signature sound for the film. I would say the one thing I took away from those experiences was, while always collaborating with the filmmaker, always let your voice be heard in your work.
Cyclic Defrost: I remember hearing Lichens back some in the mid 2000’s when you were on Kranky and thinking OK, this is different. I was really quite enthralled by your use of voice, which often seemed to come from some just out of reach folk tradition – at least to my ears. I’m wondering what it is about the human voice that interested you then and continues to interest you – particularly the desire to electronically manipulate it? Also given you’re releasing music under your own name now is Lichens now officially retired?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: The human voice has always been fascinating to me. It is such a unique and multifaceted tool. It is also a very individual instrument. I wanted to really explore the possibilities of the voice in terms of its natural state internally with the body first. I wanted to see how many different ways I could sculpt sound depending on where the sound would originate from within me and how my body would move, or hold while making the sound. There are so many ways to produce vocal sounds with the human body. And then later I began to investigate exterior manipulation through electronic processes, which opened up yet another infinite world of possibilities. This also came from a love of many, many different musical traditions that I would not try to recreate or inhabit, but cultivate my own technique through understanding myself and trusting my intuition. The Lichens moniker was important for me at the time, as it dealt with a very specific performance and recording process, but as my work progressed and changed, I found less use for it and thought it more important to put my own name out there with the work.
Cyclic Defrost: I also wanted to ask about Flower of Sulphur, your trio with Yoshimi and Susie Ibarra. Have you continued to perform together and how important is improvisation to your compositional process?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: Since the original performance/recording that would become the album, we have done several performances in the UK around an Arts Council grant I received in 2018 and a few other performances in the US. We were planning more engagements, but the pandemic has postponed those for the foreseeable future.
Improvisation is absolutely important to my process. It allows for pathways potentially not conceived of to be considered. In some ways it gives you the ability to see the forest through the trees. That has been the key to the advancement of my practice over the years.
Cyclic Defrost: I understand Candyman was completed in 2020. What are you working on now?
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: I’ve just completed a score for Yance Ford’s new documentary “The Color of Care” and I’m in the midst of a score for Mariama Diallo’s first feature Master. Also, I’m preparing for the premiere of the Candyman score at Unsound festival in Krakow Poland in October.
Candyman OST is out now digitally via Waxworks Records with the to come vinyl in late January 2022. You can find it here. The worldwide live premiere of Candyman OST will be at the Unsound Festival in Krakow on October 15. You can find it here.