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The Sound Of 'Candyman' Comes From A Hauntingly Cyclical History

Veteran sound artist and composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe composed the score for the recent remake of <em>Candyman.</em>
Desdemona Dallas
Courtesy of the artist
Veteran sound artist and composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe composed the score for the recent remake of Candyman.

In the opening moments of the new adaptation of Candyman, the searing sound of sub-harmonic frequencies unravel into a grim symphony of voices. Directed by Nia DaCosta (Little Woods) and co-written with oscar-winner Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Nope) as a "spiritual sequel" to Bernard Rose's 1992 adaptation, Candyman is soundtracked by veteran sound artist and composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Throughout Candyman, Lowe's voice and modular synthesis compositions showcase his disciplined practice of conjuring ambient drones and a binaural sound world that enhances the film beyond the normal scope of its already dense and thoroughly explored folklore. In tracks like "The Sweet" or "Leaves a Stain," Lowe's score doesn't merely complement the action of the scenes; instead, he evokes the emotional conditions of the film with sound, using ritual hums and murmurs, accelerated and unified by undulating improvisational harmolodic expressions that draw on sonic legacies of horror storytelling.

Lowe's solo recorded works span nearly two decades. In this time, he has regularly collaborated with his spouse Rose Lazar, new age music pioneer Ariel Kalma, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson and the award winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, known for scoring the HBO miniseries Chernobyl and DC comics psychological thriller Joker. Monkeypaw Productions (Get Out, Blackkklansman, Lovecraft Country) contacted Lowe in the early months of 2019 with an offer to score an unnamed horror film. Lowe explains that he quickly agreed, exchanging ideas with Candyman's lead producer Ian Cooper on how to bring the adaptation to life. "It's a project that I wanted to be involved with," he says, "due to the fact that not only am I a fan of the original film, but also [writer] Clive Barker's whole cinematic universe and also Monkeypaw and what they've done with the film projects they've made and embraced."

The myth of Candyman first surfaced in "The Forbidden," a short story penned in 1985 by Barker in his horror fiction zine Fantasy Tales, and was republished in volume five of his Books of Blood anthology series the next year. In the original story, the title villain is a white man stalking victims in urban Liverpool, as an examination of British class politics during the Thatcher era ideology of "one-nation conservatism" within a free market economy. In Rose's film, set in 1992, a white Chicago academic investigates the folktale and finds herself in an encounter with the tragic origins of Candyman, whose backstory has been updated: In the film, he's a freedman in the late 1800s named Daniel Robitaille, who fell victim to mob racial violence after the discovery of his involvement in an interracial affair. DaCosta's adaptation branches off from Rose's cinematic take on Barker's literary universe, while also extending the scope and perspective of the Candyman mythology into the four-hundred-year long epic of African-American history by investigating Chicago's history of institutional racial conflict. "There is a continuity, and I think that's due in large part to the fact that Jordan [Peele] co-wrote the screenplay with Nia DaCosta, but I feel like this film in particular has Nia's stamp on it," Lowe says. "I feel like this is something that she really saw through, and I think she's a phenomenal filmmaker. I really love the way that she works. She and I had a lot of conversations about a lot of different things."

Rose also relocated the story to the Cabrini-Green public housing projects in Chicago, after having visited the city for a film festival. Intrigued by the increasingly high murder rates in the Chicago metro area at the time, Rose wanted to focus on the harsh conditions of Cabrini-Green and its majority Black residents as the subject of his film. The setting is also the location of DaCosta's film;in a case of art imitating reality, Lowe lived a few blocks from Cabrini-Green, and saw Rose's adaptation of Candyman upon release. While working on the score years later, Lowe thought about the victimization of Black people and the weird, violent energy that was present around him and in the film: "I went through that, being in that city," he says. "Your world is different when you're out on the street at 3:00 in the morning and a cop pulls over, gets out of the car and pulls his gun out of the holster, and you're the only two people on the street."

Departing from, while still paying homage to, the placid minimalist compositions that Philip Glass had done for the first two films of the franchise, Lowe applied an anthropological approach to Cabrini-Green, its past and its gentrification, including newly built condos that create an illusion of change and progress. Lowe elaborates that the entire composition of "Rows and Towers," for example, is made up of layers of his own voice, "with the exception of the skittering insect-like sounds that float around through the composition." He sought to sonically Xerox the film through an uncanny acoustic equivalent of an "all seeing eye." Movements in the broader symphony of Lowe's score ambiently lavish the ears of viewers, while also carrying an unsettling undertone. Buried auditory passageways embedded deep inside of his tense, suspended collision of vocal and orchestral textures mimic and build upon the call-and-response tradition in African-American music that can be traced from sacred hymnals to the secular work songs that inform the 20th century continuum of the blues, jazz and soul. The soundtrack itself has been laced with encrypted voice recordings collected from the actors, which Lowe later "manipulated into this bizarre apparition that floats around these already ephemeral voices." Embedded even further inside of that, he says, "some of the voices sound more like woodwinds or like brass; [they] don't actually sound like a voice."

Lowe says that part of his proposal for doing the score was to be physically present on the set. Typically, film scores are superimposed over films at the end of the production process. Instead, Lowe thought of creating a soundtrack that interacts with the very fabric of the film's physical reality, gathering sounds directly from the source while in conversation with DaCosta's keen cinematic vision: "I mean, I can actually break down every part of [the film's] multifaceted intention," he says. Lowe references Paul Giovanni's soundtrack for The Wicker Man in 1973 as an inspiration for this approach. "Early in the film, when Edward Woodward's character gets to the island and he goes looking for this girl, he walks into the back room, they're all these kids that are singing gently," Lowe recalls. "That was actually done on set. Like, Paul Giovanni was a part of that whole world, and I think that's a large reason why that score is so incredible, because it's fully integrated into the film."

Lowe also points to the latent metaphor of Duane Jones, a little-known Black actor who played the protagonist of George Romero's classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead. "He's just trying to be as rational as possible, and he essentially is the hero of the film," he says, "only to be murdered at the end by a bunch of white people who shoot him on the porch because they assume that he's a zombie." Comparatively, Tony Todd played the same character in the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, before portraying Daniel Robitaille/Candyman two years later. Lowe contemplated this relation while arranging the film score, attempting to access the emotional energy that may have translated from one role to the next. "There is such an elegance that Tony Todd brought to that character," he says. "There's something that's so grand, especially for someone that has been murdered in such a horrific way."

In 2021, Candyman explicates racial violence as a trope woven into the fabric of America's social structure, while also rationalizing the traumatic implications of bearing witness to the many injustices and brutal mistreatments of Black people in a colonized society. Consider the words of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier who unfortunately, though gratefully, filmed the murder of George Floyd by on-duty Minneapolis police officers and offered her testimony during the trial of Derek Chauvin: "It changed me. It changed how I viewed life. It made me realize how dangerous it is to be Black in America." The film's leads, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an emerging visual artist, and his girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director — who, in the film, presents the works of contemporary Black artists such as Torkwase Dyson, Theaster Gates, and Arnold J. Kemp — feel this lasting intergenerational impact. Their experience is framed by a pointed portrayal of the art world as an atrocity exhibition of cult personalities to be sipped like wine by bored, cynical critics and the disingenuous investors of a luxury cartel. While in conversation with William Burke (Colman Domingo) an elder of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, Anthony McCoy is reminded: "They love what we make, not us." Alongside the film, Monkeypaw ran the #TellEveryone social impact initiative, which selects six art students from HBCUs to create and display Candyman-inspired art on campuses across the country, and the phrase "say my name" surfaces frequently in the film in remembrance of those who have been wrongly murdered by law enforcement, as a defiant dare in the face of the real-life horror of America's return to "normal" a year after the Black Lives Matter protests and in the midst of a seemingly accursed coronavirus pandemic.

Lowe's score echoes this; he says it was important to him to implant spiritual energies into the music, through a granular repurposing of found sound as diegetic foley effects lodged inside the world of the film. It's meant as an acknowledgement of our hauntingly cyclical history, as well as an act of paying respect to African-American avant-garde musicians who came before him such as George Lewis, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Olly Woodrow Wilson, Jr. "This idea of ghosts is something that I was circling around quite a bit," he says, ruminating on the ambiance and motifs recorded with an ensemble composed of Matthew Morandi, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Randall Dunn. "In doing the field recordings or recording voices, I'm able to take, displace and recontextualize energies into a sort of apparition that weaves itself through the tale." As a stand-alone listening experience, Lowe's electronic symphony of audio documents exist inside of the film's world, and transmit impressive stereophonic snapshots of the Candyman cinematic reality rather than simply draping over each scene as an additional emotional effect. His music actually is Tony Todd's Candyman, floating throughout and observing each moment before striking, while also being a thread between the characters and their personal histories that manifest and necessitate the legacy and twenty-first-century retelling of the myth of Candyman.

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