Twilight Zone composer Sarah Angliss: ‘I’m trying to make sound that gets under your skin’

Sarah-Angliss Sarah Angliss. Photo: Agata Urbaniak

Composer and professional theremin player Sarah Angliss talks to Holly Williams about creating the music for Richard Jones’ adaptation of the classic television show The Twilight Zone

A script that starts: “Sound is crucial and should be extraordinary as often as possible”, is a gift from any playwright to their sound designer. In this case, the line was delivered to composer Sarah Angliss by Anne Washburn, the American playwright who has adapted a new production of The Twilight Zone at London’s Almeida Theatre.

Whether a regular part of your childhood, or a cultural touchstone you’ve never seen, the one thing everyone will know about the television show is its theme tune.

The music throughout the five series, running between 1959 and 1964, was as influential to screen composers as the supernatural storytelling was to sci-fi and horror writers. The Twilight Zone has had a huge effect on the style – and sound – of our entertainment ever since.

Working with this musical legacy was a dream job for composer Angliss, and you don’t have to look too far to work out why director Richard Jones asked her. The pair had worked together on The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic, and Angliss’ compositional work has long revealed an interest in the retro-futuristic sounds of early electronic equipment, and the performance potential of machines and robots. Not to mention, she’s a professional player of that most sci-fi of instruments, the theremin.

“To me, it is just about the most exciting play to work on,” she says. “The Twilight Zone is a touchstone for composers like me who are into a particular kind of analogue sound culture.”

Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Franc Ashman and Cosmo Jarvis in rehearsals for The Twilight Zone. Photo: Marc Brenner
Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Franc Ashman and Cosmo Jarvis in rehearsals for The Twilight Zone. Photo: Marc Brenner

Another thrill is that TV network CBS is on board with the production – and has allowed her access to all the original recordings for the series. She’s been able to slice and dice these to fit Washburn’s play, which weaves together several of the original stories by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson.

“It was quite a coup getting the rights,” Angliss grins, before confessing that she and Jones ended up “in a completely paranoid state from listening to this music that’s designed to create unease for days and days. We got quite weird about it.”

She points out, however, that the original music is actually less special effects-spooky than people often think. Rather than being whizzily synthesised, it’s lushly orchestral.

“CBS used some of the finest composers of dramatic music,” she says. The most significant was Bernard Herrmann, the composer who created the theme music and who is also famous for his work on films Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver, as well as Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo.

With huge orchestras at their disposal, the composers emulated the likes of Sergei Rachmaninov, Olivier Messiaen, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky, all within short suites designed to fit the length of each episode.

It’s often melodramatic, helping to evoke paranoia and the paranormal. But it also provided the blueprint for sweeping, orchestral soundtracks. “All those films, such as Star Wars, that have amazing scores – this is where it came from,” Angliss says.

Sarah Angliss playing the theremin. Photo: Agata Urbaniak

The Twilight Zone stage production, however, intends to have its cake and eat it. With her interest in early experimental electronic music, Angliss is also stirring in those sorts of sounds.

“On the other side of the Atlantic, we were trying to forge our own idea of the future,” she says. “That was the beginning of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which was all about found sounds and tapes, and related to ideas of ‘musique concrete’ happening in Europe.”

Presumably we’ll be hearing some theremin too? “Actually, I’ve used it very sparingly,” she says, explaining that it’s almost too obvious a choice for telegraphing the supernatural. The music, here, should never slip into parody.

“I’m trying to make sound that gets under your skin. We’re not sending it up. The Twilight Zone works in exactly the same way as contemporary shows such as Stranger Things and Black Mirror, because it takes its own world absolutely straight.”

Angliss does, however, use the theremin as a way of manipulating other sounds, a kind of “gestural controller”. She says: “Instead of sliding knobs around a screen, I can pull a sound with my hand. You wouldn’t know you were listening to a theremin technique, but it creates fluid effects. Sound gets pulled and squashed, not what you’d expect an orchestra to do.”

Angliss has made her career as a composer and performer. In her own work, she has long been interested in Freud’s theories of ‘das unheimliche’ – the uncanny – exploring the unnerving intersection between the natural and the mechanical in composition and performance. That’s also proved handy on this project.

“An uncanny sound is something that’s familiar but wrong. Humans are attuned to sounds that have an animalistic or humanistic quality but those that don’t have these qualities worry us. For example, a machine that’s been modulated to sound like a human breath makes you feel uneasy because you don’t know which it is. Anne [Washburn] and I spoke at great length about how we could use sounds that are somewhere between machines and humans to destabilise people.”

Working with Washburn has been a joy. “She has a deep understanding of what sound can do,” says Angliss. She won’t discuss precise examples for fear of giving away which of the original stories are included in the production, but does say: “We’ve had long discussions about entities, and appearances, and happenings, and the way they’re expressed through sound: is it a biological thing, a mechanical thing, a liminal thing? It is a delight to work with a playwright who really cares about sound.”

The Hairy Ape review at the Old Vic, London – ‘utterly extraordinary’

Angliss is candid, however, about her relative inexperience in the theatre – this is only her fourth production. “I’m on a steep learning curve,” she says. “When I did The Hairy Ape, I had to learn QLab [sound cue software] on the job – I’d never seen it till I walked into the Old Vic. Yet when I open up Max/MSP [interactive music programming software], sound designers look at me like I’m slightly crazed.” Her other shows were Once in a Lifetime at the Young Vic, again with Richard Jones, and The Effect at the National Theatre.

Working in the theatre is hugely exciting, but Angliss is also slightly baffled at what she perceives to be the rather rigid structures followed by the vast majority of theatrical sound designers. “People are working in an odd way. As a musician, I find it counter-intuitive to be working with frozen cues that trigger things, like little unexploded bombs. For me, sound should be as in-the-moment and responsive as dialogue.”

Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill in The Effect at the National Theatre in 2012. Photo: Ellie Kurtz
Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill in The Effect at the National Theatre in 2012. Photo: Ellie Kurtz

She recognises that economics and practicality play their parts – with the current system, she doesn’t need to be there to ‘play’ The Twilight’s Zone’s score each night, for example. Despite this, Angliss is fired up by the thought of what might emerge in the marrying of live theatre and electro-acoustic composition; she is keen to produce music for a reactive, real-time play. “Music should be as responsive as the actors,” she says.

So what about the famous theme tune; will it be getting an airing at some point in the show? “I’m sworn to secrecy,” says Angliss. “But you would feel very disappointed if you didn’t hear it, wouldn’t you?”

The Twilight Zone is at the Almeida, London until January 27; sarahanglis.co.uk