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Mark Korven on ‘The Black Phone’ and His Career Composing Horror Scores

The cinematic sound of horror has drastically evolved and expanded over the years. From sweeping orchestral productions to minimal synth endeavors, extended technique experiments to jazz and funk-infused bangers, classical-inspired choral pieces to sound design soundscapes, and back again. Wonderfully mirroring the range and exploratory nature of the genre itself, horror is an excellent playground for composers who seek to push musical boundaries and emotional buttons in equal measure.

One such musical explorer is the Toronto-based composer Mark Korven. A gifted multi-instrumentalist, Korven’s internal drive to probe the depths of sonic possibilities has resulted in solo albums, film and TV work, and a versatile skill set that includes a wide array of exotic world instruments. Although his resume includes everything from westerns to documentaries, shorts, TV movies, and shows, it was his work with horror that truly catapulted Korven into the film scoring spotlight. That, and his legendary bespoke creation, The Apprehension Engine.

Though perhaps best known for his eerily enveloping masterpiece for Robert Eggers’ The Witch and its follow-up, The Lighthouse, Korven’s genre work is extensive. Highlights include Vincenzo Natali’s cult-classic Cube and In the Tall Grass, Dean Kapsalis’ devastating The Swerve, Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City, Anthony Scott Burns’ Our House, and TV work that includes The Terror, Them, and the Stephen King-inspired Chapelwaite. While each is significantly different in tone, setting, and subject matter, Korven’s vivid and terrifyingly original music unites them all.

For his latest work, Korven teamed up with modern horror master Scott Derrickson (Sinister) on his new film, The Black Phone. Based on the Joe Hill short story of the same name, the film is as tender as it is frightening. Set in suburban Denver in 1978, the story follows young Finney (Mason Thames) and his spirited sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). After Finney gets abducted and imprisoned by a local predator known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), he begins to receive calls on a disconnected phone from The Grabber’s previous victims. Ultimately, The Black Phone is an emotional and tense thrill ride that creeps under the skin only to eventually squeeze your heart from the inside.

Highlighting the more horrifying aspects of The Black Phone is Korven’s music. Pulsating, dark, and unsettling, Korven’s potent cocktail of acoustic abominations and synthetic sound-swirls descend upon the film with fervor. Heavily atmospheric and reflexive, it’s as if the score is soaking up Denver residents’ fear only to reconstitute it in an aural form. Like a sonic response to The Grabber’s impact on the community around him, Korven’s music delicately ventures into the dark recesses of collective trauma. A beautiful balance of bleak realities and the enduring strength of hope, Korven’s masterful understanding of sound and the power it wields solidifies The Black Phone as a modern horror classic.

Inspired by the film and Korven’s contributions to it, we here at Vehlinggo decided to give him a call. With The Black Phone’s recent release on Peacock and the score’s recent vinyl release from Waxwork Records, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. As well as digging into his approach for The Black Phone, we discuss his monstrous music creation The Apprehension Engine, his career in horror, the power of restriction, and so much more. It’s a fun conversation with a proper modern horror maestro. One that proves that horror folks are indeed some of the nicest folks out there. [Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

mark korven the black phone soundtrack vinyl score interview waxwork
Photo Credit: Waxwork Records.

Vehlinggo: First off, congrats on the huge success of The Black Phone! It’s been so wonderful seeing it do so well. 

Mark Korven: It’s really like the Duracell bunny — it just never, ever stops! It’s been great.

I have to admit; I love the Korven-Derrickson combination. How did you initially connect with him, and what were your early conversations like regarding the film’s musical direction? 

Honestly, my agent just told me that he had been in touch with Blumhouse and that this project came up. I basically met with [Derrickson] in a Zoom session, he liked my attitude and my music, and they asked me to do it. It was very simple, actually.

He said that he was looking to make it really, really creepy. But he also wanted to make it very contemporary sounding and different, while steering away from the horror cliches a bit and incorporating a little bit of an ‘80s thing as well. So, sort of a hybrid of more contemporary sound-design horror and the ‘80s synthesizer kind.

The Black Phone takes place in Denver in 1978, an evocative setting. It’s very similar to some of your other works like Cube, The Witch, and The Lighthouse in that these are all highly vivid environments — but I’ve always appreciated how your music doesn’t rely on that. How do you approach settings like these without letting them ultimately define your sound?

Yeah, that’s a good question, Rachel. I would say that, in general, when I work with Rob Eggers, he really doesn’t want period music. At all. But he wants it to evoke the period in some kind of subliminal way, more like the mood of the story. So like for The Witch, it was giving people the impression that it was 1600s New England without doing anything that’s at all period—just giving it that [vibe].

And so, for The Black Phone, it was really playing to the subtext of it. Obviously, because it’s a horror movie, it’s fear-based. And, I really didn’t want to reflect that too much with the period and the setting, but rather, really play to the characters. As a composer, I’m really about subtext. That’s my world. So, I’m generally not a slave to the setting of the story. It’s more being responsive to the subtext and bringing that out through the music. Whatever is not on screen visually, or conveyed through sound, or through dialogue, that’s my job. It’s my job to find that subtext spot to invoke.

Were you able to score “to picture” on this project? Your music feels very intimate and organic here. 

Well, they already had the film cut. So, I basically just started coming up with general sketches, and I would send that to Scott, and he would then tell me if I was going in the right direction or the wrong direction. It was actually a really great relationship, because we were very much on the same page when we were working on the film. And I’m delighted to say that the music that I delivered to Scott for the film was what wound up in the film. Often, I can’t say that. When I went to the screening in L.A., it was the first time I saw the film mixed, and it was so great to be able to say, “Yep. That’s my score up there.” You know, instead of, “I wrote a great score, but it got lost.” Which sometimes happens.

“As a composer, I’m really about subtext.”

You mentioned the characters a moment ago, and while this score isn’t heavily thematic, I did feel like there were some musical nuggets of characters in there. Did you have subtle ways of representing these characters in the score?  Like, sounds or tones you connected and used to embody them? 

Yeah, I’d say for The Grabber, I used a lot of friction sounds. I used these things called “friction mallets,” and they’re like Super Balls — you know, like a rubber ball that you would bounce when you were a kid. It’s on the end like a lollipop, and you can basically use those and rub them against pretty much anything. You can rub them against a wall, a mirror, a cymbal, a gong, or whatever, and it creates really creepy sounds. So, I used that a lot for him — that eerie rubbing sound. And also, a lot of strings played in very unconventional, groaning sort of ways.

Anything specific for Finney or Gwen?

No, it was more playing to the fear. With Gwen, I would bring out more [of the] lighter, more feminine sounds. But, like most horror films, it’s more about the villain. With The Witch, you know, the music wasn’t about the characters of the family at all. It was all about the witch. And I think The Black Phone is largely the same. Until we get to the ending, where things get a little bit more emotionally evocative, then it does become all about Finn’s victory.

Seeing as you’re known for creative instrumentation, I have to ask, did you use a phone in any capacity for this score? 

[Laughs] You know, that’s a great idea. I kind of wish you were around when we were forming concepts for the score. But no. That’s something I never actually thought of, but it’s a great idea.

Composer Mark Korven plays his bespoke instrument, The Apprehension Engine. The device is used to expand the sonic palette used in horror scores.

Well, I can’t have you here and not ask about The Apprehension Engine. Did you use it all for The Black Phone?

Very little. If I recall, I used a few friction-type sounds, but not very much.

As I’m sure you well know, the Engine has become a bit of a horror and musical icon and is very often associated directly with you. So, how has its creation and popularity impacted your career over the years? 

Well, it wasn’t the intention, but it’s definitely made me more noticed in the industry, which is cool. I mean, the reason why I created it was that I just wanted to get away from machines, computers, and keyboards and just start playing something through my fingers. Just creating soundscapes in a very tactile way and getting back to the guttural, primitive roots of horror music, you know? So, that was the inspiration.

I kind of wish that someone would come to me and say, “We love The Apprehension Engine. We want you to do the entire score with The Apprehension Engine.” That would be a blast, and a real challenge! But I thrive on restrictions. It’s like what Stravinsky once said, that the greatest freedom is within restrictions, within boundaries, and walls. That’s where you can really let loose creatively. But, if you have too much freedom, then it can be oddly restricting.

“… If you have too much freedom, then it can be oddly restricting.”

There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page.

Exactly. But if you’re given a certain direction, and you know you have to write a story about a girl who plays hockey, and there’s a ghost involved, you go, “Oh, okay. I can work within those parameters.” And then off you go. You start writing. But if you’re confronted with just a blank page, that’s hard.

I have to say, I find it surprising that it hasn’t happened yet. I kind of expected that you would have people specifically requesting the Engine’s presence on scores. 

No, but I kind of wish that someone would eventually do that. Occasionally people will say, “We want it to be more choral,” for example. But often, since I did The Witch, people are coming to me sort of wanting what it is I do, which is kind of cool! I don’t find myself having to copy other composers as much as I had to in my earlier days, which is nice.

Looking at horror specifically over the last 10-20 years, I feel composers like you, Charlie Clouser, and Joseph Bishara have redefined the modern horror sound. Is that something you agree with or have thought about? Do you feel like a horror score pioneer?

[Laughs] It’s funny; maybe in a way. I haven’t really thought about it. But I don’t think we should leave Mica Levi off the list.

Oh, yes. Absolutely.

She has been very influential. And well, I mean, she was very inspiring for me. It was really Under the Skin. It was very alien, and I haven’t heard anything quite like it. So, I’d be flattered if someone thought that I was moving horror music in a new direction. Especially because sometimes, it can be a bit of a fight. When people come to you wanting your sound, you can get into a bit of a loop where you stop exploring after a while. So for me, it’s a constant push to look for new things and new sounds, keep pushing, and not fall back on the familiar. That is death to creativity.

You’ve definitely carved out an excellent niche for yourself in horror. That said, do you ever feel stereotyped? Do you ever wish somebody would come to you and say, “I want you to do this crime drama,” or just something a little less “genre”?

Yeah, in a way. I mean, I was certainly pigeonholed after I did The Witch. All my calls were horror calls after that. I do like the idea of occasionally stepping outside of the box. Like right now, I’m working on a sci-fi TV series which is really nice. And then, when you get back into the horror box, your batteries are recharged a little bit. You can look at it in a fresh way. I also, just as a person, like a lot of variety in life. I like new experiences and new things to keep me interested. So yeah, absolutely.

I’d like to ask you about Cube, because it is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and seems to be a bit of a milestone in your career. What was that experience like for you creatively, and how did it affect your career and output moving forward?

Good question. It didn’t really affect my career direction, because even though the film, for an underground indie-type film, was extraordinarily successful, I didn’t really get calls to do horror scores after that. Not until The Witch, which was almost 20 years later. But the experience of working on it was great. I was working with Vincenzo Natali, who did In the Tall Grass as well, and he is a great guy. He has become a very good, good friend of mine over the years.

I remember when I first saw that film. They had a very, very tiny little budget that’s not even worth mentioning, but I thought, “You know, there’s something about this film. I think it’s going to do really well. This director is on the way up.” So I decided to do it even though it was far below my usual budget. I did think it was special. And it’s nice that they’ve made all these sequels. I imagine they’ll probably do another.

It’s funny. I was watching Gravity Falls, and I swear they had a little segment that looked like it was a dedication to Cube. They were trapped in this room, and there were trap doors all around. So that was hilarious to see that.

Your Cube score has actually just been released on vinyl for the first time from Enjoy the Ride Records. And then we have The Black Phone from Waxwork Records, The Lighthouse from Sacred Bones, and The Witch from Milan Records. 

As a record collector, I’ve always appreciated the availability of your work. But I’m also curious, what are your personal feelings towards physical media and the value of having your work out there in a tangible way?

I love it. I’m a little bit old school. I still have a CD collection and a Blu-ray and DVD collection. I love the tactile still. And I love being able to look at an album cover, read all the credits, and stuff like that. Because online streamable media… just seems so ephemeral. It suggests a transitory worthlessness, as it doesn’t cost you anything, and it’s just a file. But when you have a vinyl record in front of you, with the cover, and you can put it on the turntable, I love that. It’s like it makes the music real.

“… I long for those days when I would sit down and just listen to a whole album front to back.”

It’s an experience. And it actively engages you. 

Yeah! And the other great thing is that when you put on a record or a CD, you don’t just listen to one track. You listen to the whole thing. One thing I really don’t like about myself is that I’m just like everyone else when I go to Spotify. I listen to one track, and then I’m off to another artist listening to another track, you know? So, I long for those days when I would sit down and just listen to a whole album front to back. I miss those days.

The Black Phone is currently playing nationwide in theaters and streaming via Peacock. In addition, Korven’s score is also now available to stream and on vinyl from Waxwork Records.

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