As a fledgling filmmaker in the early 1970s, John Carpenter took to scoring his own films for purely financial reasons, but rather than abandoning this approach when his budgets increased, Carpenter stuck with it, writing the music for all but four of his features. These chilly, pulsing scores, characterized by droning synths, skittering percussion, and minimalist melodies, have come to define his work as much as his use of actor Kurt Russell, the widescreen frame, or the Albertus typeface.
While Carpenter’s scores, compositionally, aren’t drastically different from the primitive organ noodling of Herschell Gordon Lewis (another genre director who scored his own films), the icy, brooding atmosphere of Carpenter’s synth-based compositions enhances, rather than merely accompanies, his images. The horror master’s music pervades his films like a life force, permeating the negative spaces in his widescreen frames with an ineffable mood of disquiet. The arpeggiated, Goblin-derived menace of the Halloween score pervades that film with a subconscious evil even greater than Michael Myers himself, while the Anti-God of Prince of Darkness finds its corollary in Carpenter’s multi-layered music. The filmmaker could also cut loose from time to time, as his bluesy, rollicking scores for They Live and Big Trouble in Little China attest, though even here Carpenter’s sound is more textural than melodic.
Performed live on July 12 at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C., a grand Classical Revival opera house, Carpenter’s music took on a strikingly anthemic quality. Beefed up with a six-piece band led by Carpenter and featuring his son, Cody, on lead synth, these atmospheric themes transformed into head-bopping darkwave. The moody theme from Escape from New York turned into a hard-charging opener. “Coming to L.A.” from They Live became a jazzy jam session. The Halloween theme’s opening strains were greeted with the enthusiasm one associates with, say, the Stones performing “Satisfaction.”
Clad in all black, the 68-year-old Carpenter seemed to be having fun, showing off some goofy dad-dance moves and delivering a bit of goofy, pre-scripted banter between songs. Billed as a “retrospective,” the show did indeed have the feeling of a legacy act playing the hits, despite the fact that Carpenter’s current tour marks his first time performing live. To see Carpenter in concert in 2016 is undoubtedly an exercise in nostalgia, an inevitability the man embraces by projecting clips of his films (in the wrong aspect ratio, unfortunately) on a screen behind him as his band plays. This was fun, even if the clips weren’t always synched up to the music especially well. (The stark commands from They Live worked quite nicely though.)
More interesting, if less immediately satisfying, was Carpenter’s newer compositions from his two Lost Themes albums, during which the screen was simply projected with shifting colored lights. In these moments, rather than reliving Carpenter’s greatest hits, the audience could, if they were willing, allow his music to project new movies directly into their mind’s eye.