If you've seen Nia DaCosta's acclaimed horror film Candyman (which opened Aug. 27), then you couldn't help noticing that one of the scariest characters in it was invisible: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe's soundtrack.
Co-written and produced by Jordan Peele, DaCosta's sequel repurposes Bernard Rose's 1992 supernatural slasher adaptation of Clive Barker's 1985 short story “The Forbidden”; NPR critic DeForrest Brown wrote that DaCosta “[extends] the scope and perspective of the Candyman mythology into the four-hundred-year long epic of African-American history by investigating Chicago's history of institutional racial conflict.” Coincidentally, Lowe used to live in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood where the film's set. I haven't seen Candyman yet, but I've immersed myself in the score, which was produced and engineered by former Seattle studio wizard Randall Dunn—and I have the scarred psyche to prove it.
Having moved from Seattle to Brooklyn, New York in 2017, Dunn has worked on records by Algiers and Anna von Hausswolff, among others, and on Jóhann Jóhannsson's Mandy soundtrack, as well. Back in 2011, Dunn mixed Lowe's post-rock band Singer's Mindreading album, and before that he'd been a fan of Robert's mystical, drone-based recordings under the Lichens alias and his own name. The two reconnected during Dunn's many visits to the Brooklyn synthesizer shop, Control, where Lowe works. As Lowe was a fan of Dunn's excellent contributions to the Mandy OST, he asked the former Seattleite to helm the controls for Candyman. With no hesitation, Dunn gave Lowe a resounding “Yes.” In a phone interview, Dunn says, “He's one of the masters of anybody doing modular-synth music.” The project had the additional benefit of inspiring Dunn to set up his own recording space, Circular Ruin Studio.
Compared to Lowe's chthonic score, Philip Glass's soundtrack for the 1992 Candyman seems innocuous. With help from Matthew Morandi on contrabass and synth and Hildur Guðnadóttir on cello and voice, Lowe wrings maximal fright and suspense through minimal means, with demonic manipulations of his own voice haunting the score like ectoplasm. Heard detached from Candyman's images and on headphones, the music comes off as an epic series of unspeakable, infernal sonic events triggered by unfathomable nightmares. It's not a stretch to imagine that — experienced in a theater — these sounds will terrify with a vengeance.
In that NPR post, Brown notes that “the soundtrack itself has been laced with encrypted voice recordings collected from the actors, which Lowe later 'manipulated into this bizarre apparition that floats around these already ephemeral voices.'” The composer insisted on doing field recordings on the film's set, which he later incorporated into the soundtrack. “This idea of ghosts is something that I was circling around quite a bit,” Lowe told Brown. “In doing the field recordings or recording voices, I'm able to take, displace and recontextualize energies into a sort of apparition that weaves itself through the tale.”
When I tell Dunn the Candyman soundtrack is so relentlessly dark and chilling that when the remix of the Glass piece “Music Box” comes on, it felt like I could finally unclench my muscles for a minute, he laughs and says, “And we even made that a little darker, so....”
In Dunn's career, he's been much more accustomed to working with underground musicians on small labels than on big-budget movies. To produce and engineer music for a major commercial endeavor such as Candyman must involve more pressure and a different approach, yes?
Dunn admits that this dichotomy requires two different mindsets:
The music that I'm asked to make that's on a record is usually for somebody who has a very specific vision and they don't really have to answer to anyone. So you collaborate to help them see their vision through. Whereas in this capacity [for Candyman], it's more about supporting Rob and getting all the details so he can see the bigger picture of the full score and just be fully creative about the whole thing. So we can meet deadlines and do double the work and make sure that we're keeping up with stuff, and I can do more mundane things like file management and editing, giving my opinion here and there about some things, how it's fitting in the score, dialing sounds for him. So it's a more fluid workspace because the music changes. It's not like you have set songs. As the movie's getting edited or changing, you're also having to adapt. It's sort of a moving target the whole time. You're basically trying to keep it moving along with the film crew.
Dunn says Lowe came into Candyman with a definite concept of what he wanted to achieve and that he tapped Dunn for his uncanny talent for manifesting a sense of “space and extreme frequencies."
Dunn continued: "He also knew I was experienced in a lot of different situations. So he leaned on me a bit to help him suggest [ideas] here and there. But he always had a clear vision of what he was doing. That's not always the case when you're working on a score. With Mandy, I was way more involved with the writing. With Rob, it was much more supportive or sound-design things I could add.”
Given how unsettling the soundtrack is, did working on it every day take a toll on Dunn's mental health? "It's interesting," he said:
We started it at the beginning of last year, before COVID. Then the schedule and pacing got changed because of [the pandemic]. It intersected with some stress about keeping the studio alive and people's health and New York, which was completely scary during that time. When Black Lives Matter protests started, it intersected even further with the message of the film and some of the context of the film. It really became a psychedelic experience working on that music, but also seeing what was going on in life and processing the whole thing. I wouldn't say it was detrimental to my mental health, but it definitely was enlightening on a lot of levels. COVID was a part of the intensity of the project. It's hard to untangle all of those things and also the plot of the film. Because it got delayed and came out so much later than the protests, people don't know that it was already conceptualized prior to the major protests last year.
In Lowe's liner notes for Candyman (out digitally via Waxworks, with LP and CD release scheduled for later this year), he writes about “the importance of the blackness and the black experience in the story. Understanding as a black artist the pain and trauma of history for black bodies.” With these ideas in mind, it's curious that the other musicians and producer are not Black. I ask Dunn if he knew the factors behind Lowe's decision-making process. He said:
Rob is the composer, so anything anybody did was filtered through his experience and attitudes. The decisions to involve these people obviously are related to something he wanted to do musically that he thought expressed how he felt. Some of that is always about translation or sympathetic listening. No matter who would've been there, it still would be Rob's voice in the end. So I trust his perspective on that.
I don't think Rob is thinking that you can't be sympathetic to that if your race is different. He chose people who understood that we were at service to what he needed or wanted to do or say. Whatever he was doing was the paramount focus.
The beneficial aspect of being involved in what was predominantly an all-black cast and crew and writers and directors and Rob doing the score and the film itself and having it happen during COVID, living in New York in a predominantly Black neighborhood [Bed-Stuy] and experiencing the protests, I'm thankful for the experience. Because had I not been working on the film, there are aspects of it that I would not have learned as much as I did about myself and my own perspectives and community. That's the real gift of working on the score.
With Candyman's soundtrack racking up accolades, Dunn forges on in Circular Ruin. He's currently producing the new Zola Jesus record and has a project brewing with Uncut Gems composer Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), but he can't reveal details yet. Dunn's also slowly working on a new solo album, the follow-up to his 2018 LP, Beloved, and plans to do another record with Shade (Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O'Malley), featuring Lowe as guest star.
Since moving to New York, Dunn's established himself as a rising force in the cinematic-music sphere, and his new home base with Circular Ruin is becoming what he calls “a cool hub in New York for a lot of creative stuff.” (Ben Greenberg of the band Uniform is his business partner.) “I feel lucky. People already knew my work [when I arrived here]. If I had moved here in my 20s, I probably would've died. In my mid 40s, I feel like New York has been a nice push. It's lit me up to refocus some energies and [go in] different directions.”