Discover the Apprehension Engine: Brian Eno Called It “the Most Terrifying Musical Instrument of All Time”

Apart from the occa­sion­al Blair Witch Project, scary movies need scary scores. But much like mak­ing a gen­uine­ly scary movie, com­pos­ing gen­uine­ly scary music becomes more of a chal­lenge all the time. By now, even the most timid movie­go­ers among us have sure­ly grown inured to the throb­bing bass, the tense strings, and all the oth­er stan­dard, increas­ing­ly clichéd instru­men­tal tech­niques used to gen­er­ate a sense of omi­nous­ness. Giv­en the ever-grow­ing pres­sure to come up with more effec­tive­ly dread-induc­ing music, the inven­tion of the Appre­hen­sion Engine was sure­ly inevitable. A part of the stu­dio of film com­pos­er Mark Kor­ven, it looks unlike any oth­er musi­cal instru­ment in exis­tence, and sounds even more so.

With a nor­mal instru­ment, says Kor­ven in the Great Big Sto­ry Video above, “you’re expect­ing it to have a sound that is pleas­ing.” But with the Appre­hen­sion Engine, “the goal is to just pro­duce sounds that, in this case, are dis­turb­ing.” What we hear is less music than a son­ic approx­i­ma­tion of the abyss itself, which some­how emerges from his manip­u­la­tion of a vari­ety of strings, bars, wheels, and bows attached to a wood­en box — as ana­log a device as one would ever encounter in the 21st cen­tu­ry. “I orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned the Appre­hen­sion Engine because I was tired of the same dig­i­tal sam­ples, which result­ed in a lot of same­ness,” says Kor­ven. “I was look­ing for some­thing more exper­i­men­tal, more acoustic, that would give me a lit­tle more of an orig­i­nal sound.”

Luthi­er Tony Dug­gan-Smith rose to the chal­lenge of craft­ing the Appre­hen­sion Engine. “You’re deal­ing with things that stir pri­mal emo­tions and feel­ings,” says Dug­gan-Smith of the sound of the instru­ment. Kor­ven thinks of it as “not music in the tra­di­tion­al sense at all,” but “it def­i­nite­ly evokes emo­tion, so I would call it music.” In a com­po­si­tion career more than three decades long,  Kor­ven has learned a thing or two about how to evoke emo­tion with sound. His best-known work so far is the score of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which no less a hor­ror and sus­pense con­nois­seur than Stephen King has named as one of his favorite movies of all time. “The Witch scared the hell out of me,” King tweet­ed. “And it’s a real movie, tense and thought-pro­vok­ing as well as vis­cer­al.” And as the gui­tar-play­ing, music-lov­ing King under­stands, we react to noth­ing more vis­cer­al­ly than that which we hear.

Though the first Appre­hen­sion Engine was built by its very nature as a unique instru­ment, it has­n’t remained a one-off. The first Appre­hen­sion Engine begat an improved sec­ond ver­sion, or “V2,” and now, accord­ing to the instru­men­t’s offi­cial site, “there is an offi­cial V2+ mod­el which we are ready to pro­duce in small num­bers.” Upgrades include cus­tom mag­net­ic pick­ups, a “Hur­dy Gur­dy mech­a­nism,” and your choice of two dif­fer­ent mount­ing loca­tions for the reverb tank. A hand­made Appre­hen­sion Engine of your own won’t come cheap, and all pro­duc­tion runs will no doubt sell out as quick­ly as the first one did, but if you need to strike true hor­ror into the hearts of your lis­ten­ers, can you afford not to con­sid­er what Bri­an Eno, no stranger to the out­er lim­its of son­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty, has called “the most ter­ri­fy­ing musi­cal instru­ment of all time”?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Creepy 13th-Cen­tu­ry Melody That Shows Up in Movies Again & Again: An Intro­duc­tion to “Dies Irae”

The Musi­cal Instru­ments in Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights Get Brought to Life, and It Turns Out That They Sound “Painful” and “Hor­ri­ble”

Nick Cave Nar­rates an Ani­mat­ed Film about the Cat Piano, the Twist­ed 18th Cen­tu­ry Musi­cal Instru­ment Designed to Treat Men­tal Ill­ness

The Strange, Sci-Fi Sounds of Skat­ing on Thin Black Ice

A Big Archive of Occult Record­ings: His­toric Audio Lets You Hear Trances, Para­nor­mal Music, Glos­so­lalia & Oth­er Strange Sounds (1905–2007)

Meet the World’s Worst Orches­tra, the Portsmouth Sin­fo­nia, Fea­tur­ing Bri­an Eno

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • radiocitzen says:

    Bri­an Eno did­n’t make the remark. The Dan­ger­ous Minds link was post­ed from dark_shark@twitter but was only a point­er to the arti­cle — the arti­cle does not men­tion Bri­an Eno or any kind of endorse­ment from him.

  • John Effinger says:

    Is there any way I can pur­chase one of tgese?

  • Jeremy True says:

    this reminds me of a friend of ours who runs a live loop­ing fes­ti­val in San­ta Cruz. he also plays jazz and world beat and new wave and any­thing else…
    but this video we filmed of a live “song” is very much in line with the arti­cle’s instru­ment. halfway thru he plays a “water­phone” i think…

  • Gene Engene says:

    It bor­rows a bit from the Hur­dy-Gur­dy in the hand cranked wheel, rub­bing against ten­sioned strings — also a bit of an oth­er-world­ly sound … not unlike the drones on bag­pipes.

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