Dara Taylor's Spooky Music Compositions

Hauntingly whimsical are the first two words I use in relationship with music composer Dara Taylor's Women in Horror crafted sounds. Immersed in music beginning with her formative years, Dara spent her life in both upstate New York and New York City, acquiring degrees in music from Cornell and NYU until moving to Los Angeles. The west coast has given her music composition gigs on films like Ride Along 2 (scoring assistant) and television's Agent Carter (score programmer). If any of that wasn't impressive enough, Dara's also been nominated for a Hollywood Music in Media Award for Best Original Short Score for the thriller, Undetectable.

Becoming a well-rounded music composer has not deterred from Dara's first love. As she puts it, "horror/thriller is my FAVORITE genre to compose". As she makes her way in a most reverenced space in the film industry, Dara reached out to discuss some of her favorite horror film scores, what a lot of the work she does entail, and her deep affinity for American Horror Story

Great music in a horror film really sticks in the memories of fans, so much so that it evokes a range of emotions. What are some of your favorite horror film scores and what types of memories have they conjured for you over the history of your viewership?

Hmmm...there are so many. Though if made today they’d probably be classified under “thriller” I feel you can’t fully appreciate today’s horror scoring without acknowledging the greatness of Bernard Hermann’s score of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho (and really all of their collaborations were gold)! 
More than relying on jump scares, Hermann perfected that feeling of uneasiness and oddity and of course that famous shower scene! It was also right around this time of the early 60s that classical composer Gyorgy Ligeti wrote Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna and classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki wrote Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima which, once Kubrick put them and others in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining respectively, would change the landscape of horror music forever. 

This is where all of the high-string-clusters-to-signify-something-creepy thing started. Some of my other more modern favorites include Christopher Young’s Hellraiser and Drag Me to Hell, Charles Bernstein’s A Nightmare on Elm Street films and Marco Beltrami’s Scream films. In addition to being very smartly written, these scores elicit an immense amount of storytelling during moments as mundane as watching a plastic bag in the wind (i.e. Drag Me to Hell).

Is horror the genre that got you interested in scoring?

Actually, it’s the other way around! Honestly, before I started to score them, horror films used to scare me. I’d watch them, but I’d be terrified, haha. But when I began writing music for them (and had an INSANE amount of fun doing so!) I was able to sort of “take a look under the hood” so-to-speak. I was able to learn the conventions and grow an incredible appreciation for both traditional horror and those films that break those conventions.

Is there a particular instrument that resonates with horror most effectively?

Historically it’s the “theremin” which is that weird other-worldly sound you hear in old 1920’s Dracula/etc. films but that has more or less become a parody nowadays (though I did use a bit of theremin in a short I scored a couple of years ago). Today almost anything can be used in a haunting manner, though high strings and distant piano tend to evoke a certain ethereal tension that’s used quite often. Oh, and children singing - there’s nothing creepier than a singing child!

How would you describe film and television scoring to someone? What kind of work goes into the process to make it the best it can be?

Like everything in the entertainment industry, it’s a lot of work. I’d say 50% of the work is actually composing and the other finding the next gig! But it’s also incredibly rewarding. I usually start off a project by either watching a rough cut (or if I’m lucky enough to be brought on early reading a script). I then go through the film with the director/producer and together we discuss where music should enter and end and the general vibe of each moment. Then I go home and write and send drafts over to the director and we work together until we get the best music for each scene. The only way to achieve this however is through teamwork! Listen to the director and listen to the film. At the end of the day it’s all about what enhances the viewing experience of each scene so there’s usually a process at the end where I just go through and delete some stuff. It’s always audience over ego.

Speaking of teamwork, the process seems to keep you on your toes and demands an intense level of organization. Was it always easy for you to adjust? How have you found your rhythm when working on a project? 

You’ve hit the nail on the head. Organization is key! I always find it helps when you can form a real relationship with the people you’re working with. This way it feels more like a group of friends building a house together rather than a construction worker/contractor vibe. I’ve always tried to stay organized in the jobs I’ve had before this, so it was a relatively easy transition in that regard. Plus there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of meeting a deadline! 

That being said, communication becomes a large part of that. Even before I speak budget, I like to figure out the project’s timeline and give specific dates for anticipated deliveries. This way, everyone knows what they’re getting and when and it keeps the process very transparent.

Do the images film and television provide assist with the process of scoring? How do or don't they?

Absolutely. You can always tell the difference between a piece of “film-style” music that’s been written to actual picture and something that’s just been written to an idea. The picture provides the arc, the ebb and flow, and when it’s very powerful, it can even subliminally exude some themes. 

I remember once listening to an actor’s delivery of a certain line and immediately their theme popped into my head. All the incredible and hard work that everyone before you has put into the film helps inform your decisions on how to underscore them musically.

What horror-related film or television shows are you watching on your downtime?

American Horror Story! I’ve loved every season and it’s so smart and wonderfully executed. I’ve also watched quite a bit of Supernatural (and actually began working in the music department for the show last year) and just started getting into Grimm. Movie-wise, the Insidious and Paranormal Activity franchises have been a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. And Ethan Hawke’s performance in Sinister was bone-chilling. But really, my all-time favorite horror films are mostly by Hitchcock...the master of suspense!

Describe your dream project. What kind of film or television series would you absolutely love to score?

I actually love the rhythm and growth that TV provides, so my absolute dream project would be something like American Horror Story. The great thing about horror-themed TV is there’s a much longer leash in terms of experimentation and individuality in music. When you get a chance, listen to some of Mac Quayle’s score for American Horror Story: Freak Show. It’s so unique to the general tapestry of TV music and again, very smartly written.

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