Let’s face it; if not for the sounds of saws cutting bones, crows cawing, or doors creaking, horror movies wouldn’t freak us out as much as they do.

But thanks to brilliant screen composers who have an arsenal of tools, techniques, and tricks at their disposal, these savage soundscapes can make us either shudder in our seats, or jump right out of them.

Toronto’s Mark Korven, who’s been scoring for horror films since the late ‘90s, has developed a way to create those responses without relying on studio technology. Along with Toronto luthier Tony Duggan-Smith, he’s created The Apprehension Engine, a Canadian invention that crashed into our consciousness two years back when a video of Korven playing it and explaining what it does was posted on YouTube.

It has since racked up more than seven million views, and Korven says Duggan-Smith “has received a stream of requests to build it, including some from a few fairly big names I’m not at liberty to discuss.” He says the unique instrument, which famed musician Brian Eno has called “the most terrifying musical instrument of all time,” costs $10,000 (USD), and about 10 have been bought so far.

“The idea was to create something that would enable me to create horror soundscapes,” Korven says. “I wanted to get away from sampling and using sound effects, and I wanted something that was acoustic. But once I got it, I couldn’t resist plugging it in and using pedals to get more effects,” he says, chuckling.

Korven says after conceptualizing The Apprehension Engine, he drew up a diagram and asked Duggan-Smith to build it in two weeks. “I told him I wanted a spring reverb, a hurdy gurdy, and an e-bow [the hand-held electronic bow for guitar], since I love using it. He loved the idea. He was, like, ‘This will give me a break from the endless stream of building guitars.’”

Korven says he never scares himself with the sinister sounds the “steampunk”-looking instrument produces. “I’ve been scoring a lot of horror films, and it’s become a relaxing thing, a cathartic thing,” he says. “It’s like having some internal tension, and you can express it in a musical way and expel it.”

“I want to be outrageous in the sounds I come up with.”

Korven has a response for purists who might question whether The Apprehension Engine is an instrument or not, and even if it makes actual “music.” “My definition of music is sound that has some kind of emotional impact,” he says. “On the other hand, something that is unbelievably bland like muzak, I don’t consider that music.”

Korven concedes that The Apprehension Engine is not an instrument in the traditional sense, since “it’s hard to do anything melodic or harmonic in a conventional way [on it],” but adds that “its restrictions make it creatively freeing. It’s like a foley box, it’s not a cohesive whole, and the possibilities are endless.”

Korven says that when he’s commissioned to make a soundtrack for a horror film, he “just experiments. When I sit down with it [The Apprehension Engine], I’m not thinking notes and harmonies. I’m thinking, ‘How can I hold the e-bow in a different way,’ or, ‘How can I touch something to create a sound I’ve never created before?’”

Korven describes his sound as “my brand of sonic lunacy, that’s funky and dirty.” He says that as a screen composer, “you can spend your entire career doing what directors ask of you, but I have all the freedom in the world to do what I want to do. And what I want to do is to be free sonically, and outrageous in the sounds I come up with.”

Tatiana Zagorac grew up surrounded by pop music. Whether she was sitting in a car listening to the radio, or taking in the latest music videos on TV, she says “the structure of a pop song is something that has just always been clear to me.”

That ingrained understanding of pop arrangement now plays multiple roles in Zagorac’s life. As a songwriter for CYMBA Music Publishing, the Edmonton native gets to exercise her songwriting skills for artists all over Asia – although she often has to re-work her North American aesthetics to fit a more J-Pop or K-Pop mould. “I think writing there has changed and developed my skill set in a huge way,” she explains. “I’d been a lyric person all my life, and suddenly the lyrics were the least important part. It forced me to develop my melody writing quickly.”

Satisfying her urge to churn out Top 40-style hits through her work with CYMBA has allowed her personal project, Talltale, to skew in a more electronic direction. To Zagorac, experimenting with electronic music gives her the opportunity to “completely shape the sonic landscape that your songs live in.”

Her latest album as Talltale, A Japanese Fever Dream, draws inspiration from her years of working abroad. Opening track “Tokyo,” feels like a stroll through the city’s neon-soaked anime centre, Akihabara, while “Shed My Skin” sums up the surreal state of drifting through a foreign place, in the lines, “Already feels like a memory/ already feels like a fever dream.” It’s a lush, cinematic record that’s an ode to a country, but also celebrates a wanderlust spirit that’s always seeking new perspectives.

Back at home, Talltale is also finding success. Zagorac was named an “Artist to Watch” at the 2018 Edmonton Music Awards, and she took home the Electronic Song of the Year Award at the 2018 Canadian Songwriting Competition. While Zagorac says Talltale may lay low for the rest of 2019, save for a few upcoming music videos, she has her eyes set for new music in 2020: “It’ll be a big year for me!”

When Quote the Raven’s Jordan Coaker and Kirsten Rodden-Clarke met singing in an amateur choir in 2011, in their hometown of Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, they had no idea that it would chart a path for their musical careers.  Paired together to sing a duet, Coaker and Rodden-Clarke, who were the group’s youngest members, quickly found easy harmonies. “People said our voices blended well together,” recalls Rodden-Clarke.

Soon after, she began joining Coaker when he performed his own songs in downtown St. John’s, and later introduced him to the American folk duo The Civil Wars. The pair, who are musical rather than romantic partners, quickly bonded over the band’s singing style. “That was the be-all-and-end-all,” laughs Coaker.

In the years since, Coaker and Rodden-Clarke have taken a “path of least resistance” approach to making music. “Things have, hilariously, fallen in our lap over the last eight years,” says Coaker, pointing to everything, from serendipitous meetings to lucky breaks, that have given the pair a leg up.

“Things have, hilariously, fallen in our lap over the last eight years.” – Jordan Coaker of Quote the Raven

Quote the Raven’s 2016 debut EP, Misty Mountains, not only earned MusicNL nominations in both the Rising Star and Folk/Roots Recording of the Year categories, it also enabled the pair to connect with producer Chris Kirby – who then produced their first full-length album, 2018’s Golden Hour. It was that connection that secured their place at a songwriting camp, where the duo worked with everyone from Charlie A’Court and Keith Mullins to Gabrielle Papillon and Ian Janes.

“Every song we wrote that weekend, and whatever group we were in, there was magic in the air,” says Coaker. “We wrote 14 songs in four days.”

Coaker and Rodden-Clarke have also found a songwriting rhythm of their own. Coaker, who’s been singing since he was 17, tends to take the lead on melody, with Rodden-Clarke earning the title of “The Editor,” for the role she plays in refining and paring down his songs. “I’ll have, like, 10,000 verses written, and then she’ll come in and change a couple of things – and it works!” says Coaker.

Rodden-Clarke, who began singing at 16 after her piano teacher suggested it, then easily finds harmonies to blend with Coaker’s voice. “It’s natural for me,” she explains. “We know when we have a song that works for us.”

At the same time, both Coaker and Rodden-Clarke – who describe their sound as “pop/Americana” – admit that they sometimes feel like musical outsiders in their home province, where a demand for traditional music still dominates. “It can be hard to introduce new sounds or genres,” says Coaker, stressing that he doesn’t mean to sound negative. “There are only a few places [in St. John’s] where we feel we can go and have a good crowd.”

By contrast, the pair loves being on the road, especially when it affords them the time to make stops in smaller places. They’re particularly fond of Newfoundland’s West coast, where they always make a point of stopping on their way to catch the ferry to the mainland. “We’ve found there are nooks and crannies where people really appreciate us coming out,” says Coaker, who adds that they have no plans to leave the province they call home. “It has boosted our morale over the years.”

Quote the Raven (the band’s name is a nod to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem) has also delighted in watching their online audience grow in recent years, especially after two songs were added to the Folk and Friends playlist on Spotify. As of June 2019, their single “Laser Beam” had already been streamed more than 195,000 times. “It’s been crazy,” Coaker laughs, “because we came at it with no expectations. The power of the internet blew us away.”

But both Coaker and Rodden-Clarke, now working on their next album, emphasize that they’re not letting the attention go to their heads. Instead, they say they’re grateful for every opportunity they get to share their music – both in Newfoundland, and beyond.

“For now, we’re going to keep following this path, and keep doing things as they come,” says Rodden-Clarke. “But I can’t see why we wouldn’t still be doing this in 10 years. As long as people genuinely love what we are doing, that makes us love it even more.”