Ghost in the Circuit: An Interview with Composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe

A deep dive into the sonic world and working methods of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, with a focus on his work on the most recent "Candyman."
Alex Broadwell

Credit: Desdemona Dallas

In a 1948 article, The Slow Motion of Sound, Jean Epstein envisions a radical path for the future of film sound. With the fire of a manifesto, he diagnoses that since its inception, the soundtrack had been bound to “old forms of speech and music,” and “would reveal nothing to us of the acoustic world but what the ear had itself been used to hearing for as long as one could remember.” 

But the essay comes at a turning point. Epstein cites improving recording technology as heralding the potential for a  “deeper and more accurate realism,” one that might puncture toward and reveal inner worlds and other occulted currents—“The voices of consciousness, the old repeated melodies of memory, the screams of nightmares and the words no one ever uttered.” 

He advocates a sonic magnification through slowing time to a granular, microscopic scale: one that would reveal in a thunderstorm an “apocalypse of screams, cooing, rumble, cheeping, detonations, tones and accents, most of which do not even have a name.” He employed such techniques in his masterpiece Le Tempestaire (1947), layering variable speed wind and sea sounds, accompanied by simple melodies. And he looked forward to what the future might bring—where twelve years later Stan Brakhage would call for seeing grass with such new eyes one might not know the word “green,” Epstein wanted to “hear the grass grow.” 

Today there’s more raw possibility for film sound experimentation than ever, and the lines between non-diegetic and diegetic sound have grown blurrier. Examples include Jacques Rivette putting performing musicians conspicuously in the background in Duelle (1976), Cliff Martinez incorporating elements typically considered sound design into his score for Drive (2011), and the late  Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborating with experimental musician Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe on the score for Arrival (2016), for which Lowe performed vocals—wordless and strange in their own right but rendered more alien still through effects processing, echoing the distinctly unfamiliar but beautiful alien language in the film.

After a 6 year run as part of Chicago progressive rock band 90 Day Men who went on indefinite hiatus in the early ’00s, Lowe has released solo or collaborated on well over a dozen records, through which he has explored the range of his voice’s timbral qualities and its non-linguistic musical possibilities. Lowe’s other instrument of choice is the modular synthesizer, a largely customizable grouping of electronics that allows one to work with whatever sounds and functions one wants, as opposed to a traditional keyboard with one or two oscillators baked in under the hood.

In 2012, Lowe composed for and briefly acted in a southern gothic ghost story, Last Kind Words. Over the following handful of years, he performed and collaborated on film scores with Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir for films like Sicario and Mary Magdalene. And this year he finally earned what seems like his big break as a film composer, with Candyman (2021).

For Candyman, Lowe composed a complex work that explores in-depth these contingent boundaries and dialectical relationships between sound design and music, non-diegetic and diegetic sound, organic and electronic, while also pushing forward experimental techniques. Vocal field recordings take on an insectile quality as foreboding as that of on-screen bees; covertly electronic vactrol percussion pulses off-rhythm with heels on the floor at the scene of a double murder; and lighting fixtures in an apartment complex hallway oscillate alongside the score as a character passes them. 

Diegetic buzzes like this sound innately musical, so it’s difficult to separate them from the score, which in turn makes the score feel more present and  in-world, later amplifying the film’s sonic flourishes of terror.  There’s a cursed quality to the whole thing, as though a collection of hushed voices want to slip through, out of the past and into our world. “The voices of consciousness, the old repeated melodies of memory, the screams of nightmares and the words no one ever uttered.” The struggle to decode these musical sounds instills a desire to listen more attentively to the sounds of the world in the film. And where are the boundaries of that world anyway? What does “diegetic” even mean in the context of a ghost story, where the membrane between our world and another is so thin? 

Lowe joined me from his studio for a Zoom call, where we discussed his career and the theoretical and practical underpinnings of his work on Candyman.

NOTEBOOK: I read that you visited filming locations on Candyman to make field recordings, was that while the production was going on?

ROBERT AIKI AUBREY LOWE: That’s correct, it was part of my initial proposal. I proposed a few different things and one of those things was to be on location, in real time with the shoot. It gave me the opportunity to see Nia DaCosta at work. I was familiar with the work that she had done with Little Woods, but it was nice to be in the space with her so I could see her true approach: how she dealt with the actors, how she directed the actors, the movement in the scenes. That was important, to build that greater relationship. 

As far as the field recordings were concerned, it was important to me to have the energy from that space as elements inside of the score. One of the locations is a laundromat, which is returned to a couple different times, so I did recordings of the washers and the dryers. I went to Cabrini Green where the row houses are, which are still standing—the high rises had been torn down many years ago. I took field recordings around the row houses, inside of them, inside of electrical boxes, recording the wind hitting the outside of these metal boxes, the doors creaking. Insects, just natural air and wind. Those sorts of things.

NOTEBOOK: I think the score encourages a deeper listening that renders a lot of the sound design in the film musical in a way. Like with rain falling on the hospital roof in waves, or bees plinking against a mirror. Even Sherman’s voice and his groaning, humming, breathing, it interacts with the vocals on the score in a really interesting way. 

LOWE: *hums Sherman’s song* I personally think that the score should be as integrated as possible in a film. I’ve always thought that about film music. Even big orchestral works, it has to live as a character within the landscape of the film. So because I deal with so many different types of sounds, different colors of sounds, and sonic elements that have these multi-timbral qualities, specifically something like the human voice, I thought it was important to be able to blend that into situations where the score is taking place of any non-diegetic sound design. I think my work, my output, as far as film is concerned, lives in this world where it blurs the line between score and sound design, and it’s just about this idea of integration. Being able to massage it into scenes and even anything thematic for characters or particular scenes, the score becomes a character in that moment that’s engaging with the action happening visually.

NOTEBOOK: And then there’s the blurring that happens between your synthesizer and instruments, like “physical modeling” on the synthesizer side. Could you talk about how you would use that in a track?

LOWE: Due to the fact that the film is about mirrors and reflection, I wanted to be able to play with illusion, which is something I do with my work in general. I like the idea of blurring the line between a physical object and something intangible like electricity. I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating ideas about physical modeling and using electronic circuits to make sounds that could trick the ear into thinking that it might be a woodwind instrument or a violin. 

I’ve also done that a lot with my voice. Naturally my voice can go a lot of different places and the way in which I use the body to push out the sound, it could be mistaken for something that it’s not. Because the human voice is such a multi-faceted instrument, I think it should be utilized in such a way. And you can really create narrative without language, without words. This is something that I think the voice has been tethered to for so long, creating a narrative with language. And being that vehicle for language is fine, and it’s great, obviously, but I think that there’s so much more that we can do with our individual voices, because each one is unique, and you can truly create a narrative without saying a single word. 

It was important to be able to play around with sound and produce a work that was a fully electro-acoustic work, but at certain points you can’t distinguish electronics from a voice from an acoustic instrument. I feel like a lot of time these days I hear film scores that lean into this concept of sound design, or multi-timbral aspects, but a lot of it seems like comes from a very specific sonic space, and I want to be able to break out of that, and have something that’s familiar but something that you can’t quite peg down.

NOTEBOOK: I feel like there’s a lot bubbling up that you might struggle to hear or struggle to decode in the score... I’m interested in this tension between signals and noise, it feels like there are a lot of signals that are hiding in or trying to get out of noise, and it reminds me of moments on screen, where Candyman might be in a mirror but you just have to notice if you notice.

LOWE: Right. One thing I was thinking about a lot was this idea of apparitions. Ghostly elements that would float throughout, that would carry different energies, and things that didn’t need to be overt but that would blend into a particular situation in the film, and would carry a psychic energy. So it’s something that you may pick up on, and may be there subliminally, and that was also a very big part of what I was thinking about in terms of how the cues were designed. 

NOTEBOOK: How did you come to re-interpret the Philip Glass composition for the Music Box track?

LOWE: There had been a lot of back and forth, because there is something about that Philip Glass score. It is iconic, it is very recognizable, and I think it’s very strange for a horror film, it works very well within the context of the original film. There was talk of having some sort of relationship to the original film by way of the score, and initially I really pushed back on that idea because, I love the score and I love the film, but I felt that this score needed to be able to stand on its own and exist in its own universe, because I think what we’re doing here is worldbuilding, and even though it’s a part of a legacy—and the film does have a legacy—it needs to stand as an independent work, which I think that it does, very much so. I really wanted to be able to put forth a score that could stand next to the Philip Glass score without necessarily referencing directly. 

In the end, they asked if I would try to do a reinterpretation of one of the pieces, and so I took the music box, and I think I played it a half step up from where it is. It was the last thing that I performed and put together for the score, everything else had been finished, and that was important for me because I wanted to be able to try that interpretation that would live inside of the world that I had already built. So even though it’s recognizable as a Philip Glass work, it’s something that is fully integrated into the score that I created, outside of the purview of that original score.

NOTEBOOK: It’s an interesting piece to pick because here it’s employed in the shadow puppet flashback scene where Troy tells a version of Helen Lyle’s story, the white main character of the 1992 film.

LOWE: Exactly, and that’s where it made sense to me, and that’s where I found, and we all found, that there was something in that moment that could potentially have that life again for that score.

NOTEBOOK: Could you talk about your collaboration here and elsewhere with Hildur—I’m not sure how to say her last name…

LOWE: Guðnadóttir, yes. Normally I do things on my own but I definitely wanted to involve other voices inside of this score, because [The film] deals with multiplicity of voices. I wrote and performed a good portion of the entire score, and then there was Hildur, and Matthew Morandi, who is a phenomenal composer and synthesist in his own right.

Hildur and I have been friends for some time and collaborated on different things. Her compositions are stunning and her cello work is amazing. When she and I and Jóhann Jóhannsson did the score for End of Summer, we realized where our language was together, and our voices when singing were paired very well together. I love this idea of playing between the voices, a sort of push and pull, these articulations that have similarities, but they are distinct voices that can sort of push in and out of each others’ spheres. 

So, I asked her if she would be interested in being a player in the score. She and I worked in the studio, where I did a microphone array recording around her, so I had different elements of the same pass to play with, and we did these vocal passages that I directed. So I took all of the cello recordings and the voice recordings and arranged them later on. And then Matthew played the majority of the contra-bass, as well as some modular synthesizer along with me, and some processing of field recordings.

NOTEBOOK: It seems like it was a fruitful relationship between you and Hildur and Jóhann over the years. I’m curious about your development and trajectory from scoring Last Kind Words in 2012 before working on a number of films with them, and then here with Candyman.

LOWE: I approach each project as its own thing, so I never want to repeat what I’ve done before. Say with Arrival, I would go into the studio with Jóhann and he would ask me to select a progression of notes and sing them in slightly different registers or slightly different ways and I would take that and I would interpret what he gave me and then we would play around with that, and that’s what came of the original demos we were working on for Arrival, which ended up being basically the main theme of the film. So I think it just has more to do with the circumstances, the story, how the film is being made, communication, and shared vocabulary. 

NOTEBOOK: You also starred in and performed music in A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness, does anything from that experience stay with or inform you today?

LOWE: It was a great exercise for me because normally I’m in control of the work that I do, but in that situation, being that it’s this unfiction, it’s all constructed moments. [Ben Rivers and Ben Russell] would ask me to carry out different actions, things that my body was not necessarily used to doing, so it was nice to be able to do that and have it be what it was, with the 16mm single takes. It was very stripped down, sort of a guerrilla affair.

NOTEBOOK: I guess we’ve been talking about collaborations with white artists and directors for a bit... Did working on Candyman feel like something of a release, in a way? Getting to work with a largely Black crew?

LOWE: It’s been really lovely to be in this space with other Black artists that have very clear visions, clear intentions. And it’s time. For me as an artist—even in the world of composition, you don’t hear as much about avant-garde African American composers. People don’t talk about incredible composers like Olly Wilson, responsible for establishing the first electronic arts program in a conservatory setting, at Oberlin in 1967. Nobody talks about that. So for me it’s really nice because I’m able to expand my voice and let it be heard in a larger context. And the film that I just finished scoring was a documentary for Yance Ford called The Color of Care, which should be out imminently, and I’m in the process of finishing up the score for a film by Mariama Diallo called Master, which I’m also very excited about. 

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of this history of Black artists nobody talks about, I think there’s something of that in the film, because it deals with taking Black people’s storytelling seriously. Every time Candyman comes up, he’s dismissed as an urban legend. But in the film he of course manifests physically, and I think that’s reflected in the score too, in how you move between abstract and concrete sounds. Could we talk about your modular set-up, and how the signal flow of a patch might work, navigating this abstract/concrete territory?

LOWE: I like using different types of sound sources in the synthesizer. I like what people might consider misuse of certain modules. People have these constructs of what you’re supposed to do with any instrument, but any given instrument you can play however you want. I don’t discount technique and traditions, I have a great love for all sorts of traditions in music, but what’s most interesting and most compelling for me is to be able to cultivate my own technique, and maybe not use the instrument in the way that it was made to be used. 

With the modular synthesizer you have the ability to play around with the signal path and flow. It’s both the extension of one’s own body and a collaborator in the same moment-- it becomes an organism. So you have to create a dialogue with this instrument. 

I built percussive elements using low pass gates to create sounds that sound like you’re physically striking a membrane, like a skin on a drum. Also certain string elements that sounded like actual strings were Karplus-Strong, a series of delay lines that produce this plucked sound. And with granular synthesis I was able to manipulate certain sounds and make them unrecognizable as the initial source. 

One example of that would be voices that I recorded. On location I would take aside some of the actors and record them, prompt them to say certain words or phrases like “Candyman,” or “Be my victim,” and I would take that recording and granularize it, break it into particles, stretch it apart, turn it on its end until it became another sound that was no longer intelligible as a word, or recognizable as a voice, and so it became a textural element in the score. I used the energy of those words, peppered through the score. So you have this concept of the summoning that’s happening throughout, but it’s this subliminal push where you would never know the word was there, but its energy is underlying it. That was something I brought to the table initially as one of the things I wanted to do with the score, and I did all that processing with a module that functioned like a real tape machine but was a completely digital piece of hardware.

NOTEBOOK: Is that the Morphagene or something?

LOWE: Exactly the Morphagene, yeah.

NOTEBOOK: I like this idea of misuse, and maybe failure, in the modular synthesizer. It reminds me of Victor Frankenstein, sculpting with electricity, and then the monster—or the life—only comes out of his failure...

LOWE: Yeah! And that’s the thing, failure is not bad. Most people put a negative connotation on “failure,” but you garner knowledge from failure, so how is that a bad thing? You should be ready to fail, and you should be happy with failing, because you have a defined result, and you know what it was that you did, the result that you produced. Maybe that mistakism becomes something that you return to, or maybe you say, “oh I’ll never do this again because it’s not only not what I intended but not what I want.” But failure also leads to the potential for considering things that you may not have considered before, so there’s nothing wrong with failure.

I generally go into these situations expecting that things will not turn out exactly as they’re supposed to. I have a very particular aleatoric process that I get into when I’m doing my work. I like being able to roll the dice and not know what the end result will be, or have a notion of what something might be and have it be something else, because the potential for being able to utilize that result is far greater than not. There was nothing necessarily that was a surprise that was unwelcome.

NOTEBOOK: So failure and chance are built into or woven through…

LOWE: My practice, yeah.

NOTEBOOK: What are some ways you might actively use chance?

LOWE: With the voice recordings, I used indeterminate modulation sources in different voltage inputs of the Morphagene, and due to the fact that they were indeterminate movements, there was nothing syncing anything together. I started to get blurred, skittered, insect-like results, which I started to use in the score. They’re very prominent in Rows and Towers, which is completely composed out of voices. The body of the work, all of the movements, the long tones, the chants or the choirs-- that’s all my voice. And the buzzing and skittering around is a recording of Colman Domingo saying “Candyman,” that I distorted and manipulated, and became this, almost like a buzzing insect around the ear.

NOTEBOOK: And there are bees all over the film....

LOWE: Yeah, and I wanted it to be a direct relation to the events that were happening in the film, and the subject of bees comes up quite often, and I so wanted to have something that would ghost any natural sound of a bee, and have something that was sort of like an insect but something that was quite alien. I like the idea of having these sounds that will give you a hint of familiarity but then you can’t put your finger on it, you don’t know what it is, or it’s maybe not a sound quite like you’ve heard before. Those are the things that compel me.

NOTEBOOK: And some of these sounds are recontextualized through the film. There’s a sense of dread with the bees but they also signal this spirit of vengeance against gentrification that Burke cultivates. And the dread is compounded by things like the horrific oscillations of the police sirens that run throughout the film.

LOWE: I think there is ultimately a sense of dread, not completely overwhelming, but it is very ingrained in the construction of the world, which is very realistic. That’s a dread that I feel every day, the relationship I have to those sorts of sounds is not necessarily a positive one. But I did want to be able to play around with that and produce dread in my own way, and also have these moments that were ethereal or whimsical inside of that construct, because it shouldn’t be all dread, and I don’t think that it necessarily is all dread. I think it would suffer if it were not nuanced and were strictly just dread or fear. There is humor attached to it, there’s a complexity of the human that is all throughout this film.

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InterviewsRobert Aiki Aubrey LoweAudioLong ReadsSoundtracksJóhann JóhannssonHildur Guðnadóttir
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