A Q&A with London-based film composer, sound historian and electronic artist Sarah Angliss

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  1. Your musical influences are eclectic—you’re into ancient music, but are also a professional theremin player. How did that come about?

    I’ve always been into manipulating sound. As a kid, I had an old turntable and Philips cassette machine which I experimented with endlessly to make imaginary radio shows about trips to the Moon. The turning point for me was catching an adaptation of Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ on the radio. It had a soundtrack by Malcom Clarke from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This led me to stumble on a photo of the Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Daphne Oram drawing sound envelopes on her invention, the Oramics Machine. Ultimately this led me to study electroacoustics at University, rather than go to music college as everyone expected. When I write music, I want to get inside the notes and compose with the inner details of sound – and I think that explains my focus on Baroque and Renaissance instruments. They have a natural, acoustic glitch at extremes of their compass – these and other idiosyncrasies offer endless possibilities for electronic manipulation. I’ve been combining live voices and ancient instruments and electronics for many years.

    I’ve been using the theremin since the mid-1990s as live instrument and an exploratory, composition tool. I’ve created software that enables a theremin to manipulate other sounds, something I use in many pieces.

  2. You build musical automata. What is that, and how does it influence your score writing?

    I started building my own automata (self-playing mechanical music machines) as I was searching for ways to make laptop-based music more engaging on stage. I loved how the laptop enables me to express musical ideas that no human can perform. However, the lack of physicality in laptop performance leaves me cold. Responding to this, I designed and built robotic machines which play algorithmic music on stage. One is The Ealing Feeder, a robotic carillon which plays 28 bells polyphonically at lightning speed (you can hear it on tracks such as Camberwell Beauty and Needle). It plays so fast, there’s a haze of metallic sound in the room. It’s physical imperfections and spatialization create a sonic complexity I could never get through sampling.

  3. You have conducted experiments into the psychological effects of infrasound. What is your perspective on infrasound today?

    Infrasound is an extremely deep bass sound (sound below 20Hz). It’s so low in pitch, it is on the cusp of perception – a sensation you feel as much as hear. In 2003 I became fascinated by two discoveries: Firstly, a physicist named Vic Tandy had some tentative evidence that infrasound, from something as mundane as a faulty ceiling fan, could create strange ‘haunting’ sensations. Secondly, the largest cathedral organs have had pipes so long, they create infrasonic notes. I assembled and led a small team of musicians and physicists from the UK National Physical Laboratory, as well as parapsychologists, to run some research experiments built into two concerts in the Purcell Room, London. We found, tentatively, that music does indeed have some disturbing effects when it’s laced with infrasound (it imbues some audience members with a sense of unease.) As we were dabbling in the realm of ‘ghosts’, our experimental concert series became a story that spread around the world. The biggest cinemas and theatres have bass systems that can play infrasonically, so there are endless possibilities to explore.

  4. What was your work on the film, Amulet, and what did you gain from that experience?

    Amulet is an extraordinary British horror film from Romola Garai, that starts as a slow burn mystery before taking a sudden, breathtaking swerve. I was asked to bring the voices of avenging, triumphant female goddesses into the film. I did so by setting a prophesy from the poetic Edda for a declamatory, female trio who sing in tight harmonies. To this, I added kulning (eerie Scandinavian herding calls). I wanted these voices to reverberate emotionally through the film, so I used a few fragments as seeds which I smear and stretch sonically to create sinewy, humanistic wails.

    I gained a huge amount working on Amulet, as this was my first feature (until now, my scoring has been mainly for theatre). In the studio, I discovered how expansive I could make the soundtrack using just a small musical ensemble. Film, like theatre, enables artists from disparate disciplines to collaborate, creating an intense sensory experience that’s far more than the sum of its parts. One of the most satisfying aspects of the job was shaping my cues so they seem to slip in and out of the creaks, grease and dust of the house. I later discovered it’s quite unusual for film score composers to work at this level of detail. I’m most excited when you can’t tell where the music ends, and the sound design begins. I feel this ambiguity enables the music to slip under the skin and be sly with the audience’s emotions.

  5. How does your research into the history of sound culture affect the way you make music?

    Enormously. I’ve been inspired by people’s first encounters with the phonograph. In 1871, there was the first machine to record and play back sound, and scientists and spiritualists alike were struck by the fact it could replay the voices of dead people. To them, that felt extraordinary. Strange stories also circulate around early radio and sound sampling. Testimony from those early adopters reminds us of the profound strangeness at the heart of disembodied sound – and by extension the heart of film. This is potent material for someone working in psychological thrillers or horror. It feeds into all my music – particularly my album pieces and the recent film score for Amulet.

    Archival research also encourages me to sidestep certain sonic cliches. When I created a realistic sound score for a WWII-era submarine a few years ago, my first iteration sounded just like an archetypal submarine movie soundtrack. Things improved as I reworked this, iteratively, with elderly veteran submariners. Together we unlocked the sonic memories in their heads, ditching any inaccurate tropes in favour of something far more truthful and compelling.

    Interview by Valerie Manahan

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