I’m a fan of the beauty inherent in minimalist approaches to music. There’s much to be said about using the least amount of tools possible to convey a feeling or message with the utmost impact. Nick Pesce’s 2016 horror film The Eyes of My Mother, and Ariel Loh’s haunting, atmospheric score for the film, deftly embody the idea.
The film is a stark, black-and-white affair about a young, lonely woman (played by Kika Magalhães) in a farmhouse who gets her kicks in horrifying ways. Loh’s score matches that imagery. Each cue uses only a few synths or acoustic instruments, sometimes with the slightest bit of percussion, and the music sounds sublimely greyscale. But both the film and its score are able to pull extraordinary meaning from all of this. For example, an understated melody unraveling from a distorted synth patch, and backed with ambient synth pads, can awaken the mind and body to the slow-paced, big-payoff structure of Pesce’s film.
“I’ve always enjoyed a minimal and simple aesthetic,” Loh told Vehlinggo in an interview recently. “There is always something stark and clean about a simple design that often gives it more weight and effectiveness than something intricate and complicated.”
After a lengthy wait, fans of Loh’s score are now finally able to own and enjoy the body of work. Waxwork Records just released an exquisite pressing that, too, embodies the beautiful starkness of the masterful cinema of Pesce and Loh. Visual artist Nikita Kaun’s artwork for the package plays a key role in helping to elucidate the experience of this record.
As a whole, this is a record that can’t be missed — soundtrack lovers and fans of Loh’s other work, including the band Drinker, certainly can’t let this slip away. The release features a handful of cues that didn’t make it in the film, so what you’re getting is an even richer experience of the film score.
A Horror Film Grows in Brooklyn
One can trace the origins of The Eyes of My Mother and its score to Brooklyn, although Loh has since left that borough for Astoria, Queens. It was 2013 and Pesce and Loh were roommates. They had met through their friend network and quickly became close.
They both worked from home, so each person’s creative expressions found a way to naturally commingle. Loh slept in a bedroom with his vintage synthesizers and would experiment with dark, ambient sounds and drones in between his production work during the day, according to the score’s liner notes. Adding to the sound his analog synths would unfurl is a Roland RE-301, which creates the iconic tape echo and delay for which that company is renowned.
“In the early stages of conceptualizing the movie, Nick would come knocking on my door and ask me what I was playing and if I could record it for him,” Loh says in the notes.
This was more or less the start of the scoring process for Eyes — Loh and Pesce developed an “integrated workflow” that went a long way toward creating the mood and sonic realm for the film, according to Loh. Pesce would hand Loh some pieces of the screenplay and Loh would hand score cues to Pesce. This meant that most of the score was finished before the film was ever shot, Loh says.
Waste Not, Want Not
Loh’s economical approach to composition for the sinister Eyes score stems from an upbringing that reflected a particular set of values. His musical compositions are seemingly reflected through the eyes of his mother.
“Growing up as a Chinese-American kid, I was raised with a lot of the typical values of not wasting and not overcomplicating things,” Loh said in his Vehlinggo interview.
He grew up eating his mom’s home-cooked meals, all of which reflected those values — dinner typically consisted of a bowl of white rice and two dishes, usually one vegetable and one meat. The dishes were composed of only a few ingredients and were very simple, but they were always balanced and healthy, he says.
“I think with writing music, I oftentimes try and find the most efficient and simple way to say something,” Loh says. “Most of the cues in the score are usually one-to-three instruments or layers. There’s always room to hear — and taste — each of the elements — or ingredients. And they complement each other well without ever stepping over the other.”
‘Unsettling but Undeniable’
Loh is clearly not a dogmatic composer when it comes to synthesizers: He readily adds guitars and organic percussion where necessary. Essentially, he is someone who taps into the utility of a variety of tools to achieve his musical goals.
“I think the marriage of different sounds — acoustic and electric — helps to achieve a balanced and interesting sound,” Loh says. “There is a natural relationship to acoustic elements that is visceral, and another set of relationships that come from electronic sounds that we’ve developed since electronic music and synthesizers were around.”
An example of note? One of Loh’s favorite sounds is a theremin backed by an orchestra.
“There is an unsettling but undeniable quality about the theremin mimicking a voice over a bed of acoustic instruments,” he says.
Overall, the intersection of acoustic and electric (and electronic) sounds is a powerful way to connect with filmgoers.
“It is an efficient way of achieving depth, and it kind of attacks from both sides as far as evoking an emotion from a listener,” Loh says.
In early 2017, in the wake of the American release of The Eyes of My Mother, Loh and his friend, Aaron Mendelsohn, released their first work as indie band Drinker. Their debut single, “Which Way Is South,” carried with it the spirit of Air as if fronted by Alt-J’s Joe Newman. But, even more specifically, the compositions reflected the minimalistic work Loh employed on the film’s score.
In addition to his work with Drinker, Loh has produced for artists such as Yoke Lore, Cape Francis, Glassio, Plastic Picnic, and Sara Kendall, among others. Overall, there are sonics and methods that Loh brings to the table with his production work and his band that he has learned from scoring Eyes.
“One of the main aspects from film scoring that I carried over to my production work is the use of atmosphere and soundscapes,” Loh said. “It’s another tool for me in arranging and can be very effective in certain places in the context of electronic music or even a pop song.”
Drinker is perhaps the most obvious manifestation, showing “how the mood and palette of a film score can help influence a production,” Loh said.
In general, though, “I’ve had a few people I work with ask me about using some film score elements in the productions we work on together, and it usually blends very nicely and compliments the song,” Loh says. “I think everyone wants to be able to imagine their song in a film, and letting your visual imagination help influence the music is a great way to produce music.”
There were lessons learned from Eyes that translate to score work that came afterward, too. Loh’s currently working on the score for the feature-length documentary Bei Bei, which is about a Chinese immigrant in Indiana charged with murder and feticide because she tried to commit suicide while pregnant.
The heft required for this is not the same as with The Eyes of My Mother, given the nature of the medium. There are a lot more cues and the music is more constant, whereas in Eyes the music is “sparse and has a lot of weight the few times it enters,” Loh said.
“I think everyone wants to be able to imagine their song in a film.”
Another difference is the approach. This time, Loh is able to score entirely to the footage from the documentary, working closely with the directors throughout the editing phase to ensure the music works for each scene.
“Overall, I would say using music to help set the mood and to support the story that is being told is the biggest concept that I’ve learned and improved on from one film to the next, despite the execution of it being very different between the two,” Loh says.
A Score without Images
A cadre of labels such as Waxwork, like MONDO/Death Waltz, Lakeshore, Invada, Varèse Sarabande, and others release dozens, if not hundreds, of film scores on an annual basis. They offer fans the opportunity to take in film music they love in an isolated context. The experience is often entirely unique when divorced from the moving image.
In the case of The Eyes of My Mother, it’s particularly rewarding because the listener is able to listen to the film music, and the extra cues, in one fell swoop with no scarcity in between scenes. Loh’s work certainly played a key role in Pesce’s film, but on its own it’s a corpus that can imbue whole new sets of meaning in the listener’s life.
That is both the value and challenge of listening to a score isolate. A great score must serve a couple distinct but important roles. On its own, it must unveil a whole new journey, or, at least, offer an extension of the film experience. But when a viewer watches the film, the score has to, in a sense, disappear. It’s noticeable and memorable, to be sure, but it can’t detract from the story. It must blend in. Loh’s Eye score meets both standards, of course.
“I think it is a challenge to have a film score stand on its own without its counterpart on screen, but there is more opportunity to hear things you might not have picked up on before and to further explore the world and mood of the film,” Loh says.
He noted that the Waxwork release of the score includes a handful of tracks that didn’t fit into Pesce’s final cut. Thankfully, Waxwork encouraged Loh not to keep them on the shelf.
“… I’m very thrilled the folks at Waxwork Records loved it and encouraged me to release all of the b-sides on this record,” Loh says. “All the tracks were written and recorded within the time frame the movie was being made… all written as different moods and emotions for The Eyes Of My Mother. I feel very lucky to have these tracks released as an extension to the film — as opposed to being shelved — and hope listeners enjoy that experience.”
Loh’s The Eyes of My Mother score is available now as a 180-gram double LP via Waxwork Records in two variants: clear and white with black splatter and white, black, and red swirl (both depicted in images throughout the piece).