Interview with Joseph Bishara

Photo by Dean Karr

Any horror composers worth their screams will go into the darkness to unsettle, or outright scare their audience – most often with a tone that usually begins with a stalking, string sustain, and ends up with a shrill, seat-jumping brass instrument axe to the skull. But what’s rapidly distinguishing Joseph Bishara as one of the most provocative adventurers in a genre where many tread all-too-safely is that he doesn’t give a shit about the “rules,” or providing any comfort zone, flinging himself into his work with a disturbing abandon for maximum shock effect.

Where more mainstream scare soundtracks are just content to drop a battery of percussion onto the floor and call it a dissonant day, Joseph Bishara is truly out to kill, generating nerve-ripping strings, ear-decapitating hits, or sonic tones that rip through the veil of horror score “normalcy” into a truly disturbing place often devoid of much harmonic refuge. From “The Gravedancers” to “Dark Skies” and “The Conjuring” Bishara’s effectively sadistic tone poems for spectral sacrilege, alien possession and demonic exorcism generate the feeling of grasping through a suffocating, razor-blade filled darkness, with a psychopathic spirit just waiting to rip you forever into their awful plain of anti-existence.

The fact that the ominous-looking Bishara has played said demons and angry ghosts himself in movies he’s scored says much about how in tune he is with the experimental netherworld that totally uncompromising horror scoring comes from. It’s work that also conveys a devilish sense of enjoyment in leaping into a disturbing, music-in-name-only Twilight Zone, even though this “Further” is exactly the last place that the Lambert family wants to be dragged back into. But given the screaming audience reaction that turned James Wan’s crafty, small-scale take on “Poltergeist” into an indie hit, this poor clan will be cursed for quite a few sequels to come – beginning now with “Insidious: Chapter 2.”

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If the Lambert’s relatives The Freelings had little luck changing up houses after an other side attack that had them entering limbo again to save a small loved one, the spooks surrounding this family are going to make the return trip even more nightmarish – no more so than in Bishara’s scoring return to “Insidious.” For where the composer reflected this clan’s humanity in some hauntingly beautiful passages for strings and piano the first time out, the gloves are truly off here for an avant garde assault that shows the Lamberts that there will never be a place like home again, as a new wave of specters leap forth with a jarring barrage of orchestral effects, yet with the complement of chilling, chamber-sized melody to reflect human emotion in the horrific heart of darkness. Within this monstrous morass is the sense of sheer, confrontational joy that Joseph Bishara once again impresses with as he waves his evil sorcerer’s wand, conjuring one ungodly neo-musical effect after the other to create the real, uncut horror score stuff that viewers are hungrier for than ever as they once again line up outside of the Blumhouse.

From your own personal style there’s no mistaking that you’re a fan of horror movies. How did that love of the genre come about, and how did it develop into a musical one?

The first horror film I remember seeing was “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” around age 7 or 8 and was very taken by it. Not sure where my interest really came from, but as far as I can recall it’s always been there. Something was awake and interested in the other side of things. Similarly on the music side, it was always the more unusual sounds, the things that didn’t sound like everything else captured my attention and naturally the horror soundscapes tended to be the most extreme examples.

What are your favorite horror scores, and how did they influence your own approach?

Favorite horror scores – an incomplete list in no particular order; “Suspiria,” “Altered States,” “Halloween,” “Videodrome,” “The Amityville Horror” And no, these musical worlds even in my youth would give me comfort, perhaps the occasional creeped feeling but I liked it.

How much of an influence were “modern” classicists like Gyorgy Ligeti and Bela Bartok?

Hard to point directly at what was an influence since everything that is processed is an influence, but it’s all ultimately about taste – your taste influences your own musical choices as much as it does what you expose yourself to. I certainly enjoy and appreciate both of their works, and Xenakis, Crumb, Philip Glass, works by artists like Miles Davis, Zeena Parkins, Einsteurzende Neubauten, Coil, the incredible Diamanda Galas who I was honored to work with on the Conjuring score. And it’s always interesting to see how elaborate experimental works are notated and conceived, really it’s almost like working with newer languages as it’s literally communication with musicians.

Did your work as a sound designer on “Ghost Of Mars” have an impact on the sound-design like approach that some of your scores have?

“Ghosts of Mars” was more about working almost as programmer/remixer with the music John Carpenter had been making, manipulating and augmenting parts. Very enjoyable to get to spend that much time working alongside him and be a part of his creative process.

How did industrial rock also influence your scoring approach?

Joseph Bishara at Eastwood stage - Photo by Shem Andre Byron

Again here I think comes to taste – the sounds I was drawn towards were things I hadn’t heard before, and new ways of music happening. It grew out of a restriction-free environment, or at least a desire to create a place with relatively different restrictions.. Probably just that, reinforced that music isn’t always what people think it is.

As the music producer on “Repo,” what do you think it was about the project and its songs that made it stand apart from a typically sanguine “rock opera?” And did you ever imagine the film would get such a cult following?

While making “Repo,” it always had a feel of some kind of energy lining up that was literally on fire, there was a lot of attention on and going into it, but can never see where something like that will go and how. It was a beast of a project, but every day would be more creative fuel for that fire and was certainly rewarding to see just how deeply embedded some of those ideas have become. There was a very clear creative vision being followed with a team rigorously committed to it.

Having worked with “Repo’s” Darren Bousman and “Insidious’”James Wan so many times, how would you compare, and contrast their taste in music? What do you think makes for such good partnerships with both filmmakers?

With horror music really very similar in that they will key into sounds and pieces in the process while working and are open to hearing new things. They are very different personalities, though with both it feels there’s a trust there that enables us to just work. They get pulled in a lot of directions, so I think it helps for James to be able to have a sense of what I’m doing by talking about ideas, a reference point while dealing with whatever he has to. With Darren on the musicals in particular there is so much involved, not just music but literally the performances by the actors are being shaped and committed to in the recording studio so that trust goes a long way to be creatively free to play with ideas.

One of your most sonically effective scores was for “Dark Skies.” Did you want your music to mirror the alien frequencies that the characters think are beaming about their house?

Thanks, glad you think so. That was part of it, there was the alien tone that was a key element in the script, and although that was it’s own sound element it still seemed like a tonal design would assist the voice of the score in keeping the alien threat a constant presence. Scott (Stewart, director) wanted a more design oriented and untraditional score that was motivic rather than thematic.

“The Conjuring” had precious little melody in it aside from Mark Isham’s thematic contribution. But while that might not necessarily make for an album that’s pleasant listening, do you think it’s that kind of tonal mercilessness makes for a score that’s even more effective in the movie?

That depends on what you consider pleasant listening. I just bridge what I hear from the film into this world, and the album is a record of that. I hear very clear distinctions in what sound is used where, why, and how, though the words break down when it gets closer to how to describe these things. People seemed to find the result of what happened to be effective, so that reinforces the process.

Do you think horror is the one musical genre where anything goes, or are their rules there as well as to just how psychotic the music can get?

No rules.

Could you talk about how you like to ‘spot’ your scares? Would you say there’s any kind of formula for generating tension before the musical shock effect?

For myself it just comes back to feeling to the energy and shape of these things. It’s energy, and sudden musical moments have a whole range of their own as they don’t necessarily always have to take place across all frequencies. Finding the right range and tone for the feeling is an important part. James is very particular with sting placement along with Kirk, our editor on both Insidious films and Conjuring. Just try things until it’s feeling right.

Do you think there are points when a horror score is trying too hard to generate fright? And sometimes, do you think a lack of music is more terrifying?

Yes and yes. Particularly having absorbed so much horror, it clearly feels sometimes when score is pushing an element of a film that is not there it that can register as an untrue translation, defusing tension. Silence is very much a part of music, and can absolutely serve a kind of feeling that can’t be expressed with sounds that are added. Silence can create a listening space, where rather than give you something else to listen to it enables you to hear things.

You might have the distinction of composing music for playing the monstrous Lipstick-Face Demon in “Insidious” and Bathsheba in “The Conjuring.” How did that second acting career come about, and how do you think the music you know you’ll be writing affect your performance?

It kind of combines for me in my head and in my body with the motions of the characters. It grows organically from things like posture and stance, motion will sometimes trigger a note array or rhythmic pattern or vice versa. During shooting it can be difficult to focus too much on writing as it’s a physically consuming process, though I did end up with musical ideas to work with from both Insidious and Conjuring shoots. It’s very interesting to be standing on a set, literally in a scene and hearing it as it’s happening.

Have you ever scared yourself with your music? And on that note, what scares you in general? Do you believe in the subject matter your scoring?

I’ve startled myself with loudness, but that’s the nature of what happens sometimes when working with large dynamics but genuinely scared, no. I don’t really have any general fears in particular. Situational fear, of course – there are many moments that could generate fear while in them but no standing phobias or concerns. I believe in a world of people dreaming different lives, and within those dreams exist all possibilities.

After scoring your first studio films with “Dark Skies” and “The Conjuring,” was it harder to go back into the relatively smaller world of “Insidious,” especially for James? Or does that lower budget allow for more creativity?

“Dark Skies” was Blumhouse, very much a lot of Insidious post team at work there and on the production side. But Conjuring, though small by studio standards was definitely a larger film with more people involved all around. Back into “Insidious: Chapter 2” was not unfamiliar for any of us. The schedule and budget collide into a formula that allows the score to happen. Insidious 2 came together pretty fast, but I again had some advance time to develop things since I knew it was coming.

A lot of your string work in both “The Conjuring” and “Insidious” seems to imitate the sounds of ghostly howling and screaming. How did you achieve those effects?

These are all sounds I hear, and the rest is more of a translation. Both were developed on paper away from picture; “Insidious” at its core was string quartet writing, while “The Conjuring” grew out of brass voicings. It wasn’t intentional to sound like ghostly howls or screams, but apparently that’s what I heard when I went there. The connotations even for me continue to link themselves as the process moves. It can start with any connection or shine within the material – an idea or something in it will literally shine more than others.

Was their a desire to do a “bigger and better” sequel score for “Insidious: Chapter 2,” or to strip back the sound to make it even more nightmarish?

Neither really, just more a matter of translating the same musical language developed in the first to the ideas in this film, which are a bit different. I’ve described it as where the score to first film has a more classic edge, this one has a more warped edge.

If strings embody the stalking of a killer, or ghost, do you think percussion represents horror scoring’s blunt instrument?

Not necessarily, it depends what you are doing and how it’s being used.

Do you think the movies you’ve scored represent a “new school” of horror films? And if so, what do you think makes them break from the past, especially in their music?

I’m not sure what they represent, it’s always about seeing through a film and it’s ideas. We’re making horror films, where things stand is shown to you later. Like medicine in that it’s a practice, with results left behind.

Do you think fans that listen to your scores will have more of an appreciation for experimental or “new” classical music that’s divorced from any sort of imagery?

If anything inspires discovering or rediscovering music that challenges ways of listening then great. There’s worlds of music out there, and more everyday.

With “Insidious: Chapter 2,” you could say that you’re the major “court” composer for Blumhouse Productions. What do you think makes their movies stand out in both fan appreciation and profit? And is there a formula to them?

Blumhouse is doing a really cool thing with being very proactive in making filmmaker friendly projects that artists can creatively stand behind. People like what they like, but I appreciate things like Lords of Salem getting made and released theatrically, where can play freely with ideas and imagery in an independent system.

Like “Insidious'” twilight zone of “The Further,” is there an unexplored, even more terrifying dimension that horror scoring can go into?

Always, you never know until you find yourself there. There is no ultimate.

Do you hope to score movies completely apart from the genre? And what do you think it will take potential, non-horror directors not to be scared of you?

I’m interested in darker material, it’s what holds my interest and doesn’t have to be purely horror, just the right flavor and sensibility. And if someone really is scared of me, maybe they should be.

Buy Joseph Bishara’s score to Insidious: Chapter 2 HERE

Revisit the first Insidious score HERE

And dare to do The Conjuring HERE

Visit Joseph Bishara’s Website HERE

Visit Joseph Bishara’s Label Store HERE for digital downloads, CDs & vinyl

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