Sarah Angliss on Crafting the Score for ‘Amulet’ with Ancient Instruments, Electronics, and Robotics

By 12th August 2020 Blog

Sarah Angliss on Crafting the Score for 'Amulet' with Ancient Instruments, Electronics, and Robotics

Following the release of Romalo Garai’s directorial debut ‘Amulet’ in US cinemas and on VOD, Sarah Angliss shared her approach to crafting the score for the film. Renowned for creating finely-wrought music combining voices and instruments with her bespoke electronics and hand-built music machines, Sarah’s score was described in The New York Times as an aid to Garai’s slow teasing of the story with “sharp, resonant details amid wails from a banshee chorus”.

“If I was trying to sum up the score for Amulet, I’d say its soundworld is built from ancient raw materials that are transformed into something unmistakably new. Voices, recorders, bells, carillon and viola da gamba all feature. These are augmented, transformed and sometimes completely denatured using bespoke electroacoustic techniques. Vocal and instrumental gestures are stretched over time like liquorice, for example, to create moments of stasis or time-slip. Small breaths and creaks of a voice or string are amplified, giving them enough presence to feel as though the house where the story is situated is a living, foreboding presence.

When director and writer Romola Garai approached me to write the score for Amulet, this became the essence of the piece. Amulet is a horror film – one in which both the screenplay and score upend certain horror conventions and put women’s voices centre stage. We wanted voices to sound as though they could hail from anywhere – they sing of a universal female experience. Inspired by gestures in Scandinavian cattle calls, Latvian a cappella and Lydian English lament, I created something that took elements from each. Lyrically, the vocals old Norse (a woman’s prophecy in The Poetic Edda) with fragments of poetry created by Romola herself. Even when the singing is triumphant or ethereal, it’s laced with a sense of vengeance and malevolence.

I like to think Amulet is the only horror score to conjure a daemon using a contrabass recorder. The contrabass is a pretty awkward instrument – it’s hard to wrangle for more than a few minutes – but the effort is undoubtedly worth it. The instrument speaks with a very husky sound, rich in breath noise, one that’s hard to identify on first listening. As a lot of the creep in this film involves plumbing, I felt this instrument had all the right sonic associations.

I chose to work with early instruments as they have a fragility of tone that really lends itself to the work I create. A note played near the bridge on a steel string doesn’t have quite the same the unnerving instability of the same note on gut, for example. Working on a small budget, I created the whole score using just five musicians. With such a small ensemble, we were able to avoid click tracks and perform freely as we watched the picture lock. I hope this created a fluid result.

In this project, studio recording happened part-way through the composition process. I used the stems as staging materials from which I make the final piece. I spend a lot of time exploring the inner details of the recordings, particularly the vocals which are subtly stretched by increasing amounts from the opening seconds of the film. I love revealing the inner world of sounds and making fleeting details macroscopic. I use the software MaxMSP extensively in my work to do so, dipping into a toolbox of bespoke digital effects I’ve devised over many years performing live.

I find any drama is more cohesive when the music slips in and out of sound design. I love it when the audience can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Amulet was my first filmscore and I have to admit I wasn’t aware that this it’s fairly unusual for the composer to focus on these details. Fortunately I worked with a great sound designer Nick Baldock who was very open to this way of working. I hope collectively, through the music and edit, we created a sense that the music really does emerge from the creaks of the staircase and noises in the plumbing – that the house is a sonified character of some kind.

Romola was keen to have a young girl’s voice in the last few minutes of the film and we agreed this voice shouldn’t sound trained. By sheer chance, a few weeks before I embarked on Amulet, I saw The Honey Hahs – a trio of three school-age sisters from London who sing and perform their own rock songs, with impressive harmonies. Robin Hallett, the middle sister, agreed to sing. I think she was twelve at the time we recorded. She’s still far too young to see the movie – I hope she enjoys listening to her contribution in years to come.

It’s been a strange experience stranded on the settee in London, mid-pandemic, watching Amulet roll out across the US. This is my first feature film score and it was quite a boost, in the middle of the gloom, to find the film had finally reached an audience. This is a project I’ve found fascinating from start to finish – I’m very interested to see what Romola Garai comes up with next.”

The Amulet score was performed live by vocalists Sarah Gabriel, Melanie Pappenheim and Robin Hallett, instrumentalists Stephen Hiscock, Steven Bentley-Klein and the composer.