A Look Back on John Carpenter as Composer

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by Cliffhanger

Last Friday marked the release of Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, a collection of re-worked theme music from the films of John Carpenter. To celebrate, we’re looking back on the musical legacy of the Master of Horror himself.

Though filmmaking was his first love, director John Carpenter had music in his blood. His father, Howard Carpenter, was a music professor at WKU, and headed the department from 1965 to 1975. John spent his formative years in Bowling Green before moving to Los Angeles to study film.

Carpenter made his early films on low budgets, opting to score them himself to save money. Despite coming from a musical family, John had no classical training and had never learned to read sheet music. Therefore, he created his films’ soundtracks in the most primal way possible: by sitting in front of a keyboard and seeing what sounded good.

There’s perhaps no better example of John Carpenter as composer than his 1978 masterpiece Halloween. Following the cult classics Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter’s third film Halloween became his breakout success, and influenced a slew of similar “slasher” films to follow. Central to the movie is its famous main theme, a dissonant, repetitive piano riff in 5/4 time and performed by the director himself. During Halloween’s credits, Carpenter lists himself as “The Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra,” in a tongue-in-cheek shout-out to his hometown.

Carpenter continued to score his own movies throughout the ‘80s and well into the ‘90s. The dark, atmospheric vibe of his themes became synonymous with ‘80s cinema. From the bleak dystopia of Escape from New York to the fast-paced action of Big Trouble in Little China, no Carpenter film was complete without a well-crafted soundtrack.

John Carpenter went on hiatus from filmmaking in 2001, returning to the director’s chair just once in 2010 for The Ward. More recently, his time off from the film industry has allowed him to focus on his music in a whole new way. In 2015, at the age of 67, Carpenter released Lost Themes, his first album of non-soundtrack material. A year later, he returned with Lost Themes II, and even began touring festivals with a live band.

Alongside his legacy as a filmmaker, John Carpenter’s impact on music has grown more prevalent in recent years. Two of Carpenter’s biggest fans are Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the synth band SURVIVE. These two producers are best known for their original score to Netflix’ Stranger Things. In a 2016 interview, Stein discusses John Carpenter’s influence on modern music: “People refer to things as John Carpenter-sounding when they’re synthy or a certain way. . . There’s a way he plays and a dissonance that was adapted in a lot of rap. Especially modern stuff is very influenced by the Halloween thing.”

Today, John Carpenter is celebrating the musical side of his career with the release of Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. A “greatest hits” of sorts, the album features new versions of 13 classic Carpenter themes, all performed by the man himself with help from his son and godson. In addition, Carpenter and his band will embark on a U.S. tour from October 29 through November 19.

Tickets for John Carpenter’s U.S. tour go on sale today and are available on his website.

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