College sophomore JD Askin spends most of his time in his dorm room — a cozy nook in South with a red rug, a keyboard, rainbow water speakers, a lone strand of multicolored Christmas lights and not much else. Askin, a New York City native and resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is a primarily self-taught musician dabbling in a multitude of genres and mediums. At 21, he is in the process of scoring an independent horror movie called 30 using only his keyboard and Logic Pro software.
Scoring 30 served as Askin’s primary project during his time off from school last semester. Over the summer, he scored a clip for an environmental science documentary produced by a small company that he had sent some samples to; soon Will Battersby, the producer for that project, asked if he would like to score his upcoming horror movie. The film, based on a graphic novel, investigates the tension between mankind and wildlife. The project constituted a challenge for Askin, as he has no formal training in scoring, nor has he ever worked for hire.
Askin began conceptualizing his score before even seeing footage of the film, which revolves around a former couple that decides to investigate abnormal animal behavior in the woods. The first step for Askin was to collect natural sounds, like ants crawling on bark and the rustle of leaves; he then added human breath and what he called “sinister shrieks.” He combined these natural noises with various built-in sound effects and filters on Logic.
“The director and producer told me they wanted more musicality,” Askin says with a sigh. His solution involved adding instrumentals, like harmonica, and default patches in Logic. Ultimately finding Logic’s instrumental choices limited, he turned his collection of noises into MIDI tracks. He then improvised on the piano while watching the film and using the MIDI tracks he had already prepared. Ambient drones, cinematic textures, percussion made from ceramic pots, wind chimes and a metal trashcan all made their way into his tracks.
The results of his composition thus far are too unique to be called “traditionally creepy.” One can only imagine that the diversity of noises piles layers of intensity onto the cinematography. In contrast to commercial horror movie music, the score for 30 is energetic, with added intrigue from the variety of added natural and high pitched noises. In one instance, a girl sings softly in Sanskrit over an eerie hum; in another, the pluck of a finger instrument somehow sounds like clanking silverware.
Working on the film helped Askin parse out the differences between film music and standard compositional fare. “With film music you’re really supplementing a story,” he says. “It can be a little tricky as a composer because you want to complete an idea, but you’re basically working for someone else.” Working under the eye of a director can put a damper on creative freedom but can also provide humbling scrutiny.
“I wasn’t aware of the sci-fi, horror movie clichés,”Askins says. “There was one point where I put a really atonal drone in a scene where a snake was going by, and [the director] was like, ‘Yeah, we can’t have that.’ … So I learned that you have to subtly creep people out.”
As for Askin’s own story, the next chapter is unclear. After he completes the film score, he’s not sure what he’ll do next. “I don’t really look at it as though I have this specific end goal,” he says. “I take things in the moment, and if there’s something that inspires me, then I’ll definitely go with it.”