Colin Stetson has long been regarded as an excellent sideman for such luminaries as Arcade Fire, TV On The Radio, and Bon Iver, among many others. His avant garde use of the saxophone has set him apart from his contemporaries on his solo projects as well. Full of mood and strange sounds, Stetson pushes his instrument as far as it can go. He is a searcher and a true artist.
In recent years she has taken his skills to the world of cinema. His first score was for the excellent – if largely overlooked – DC sniper film, Blue Caprice. This year, he used his very particular gifts composing the score for the instant horror classic, Hereditary.
We discuss his work on that film and his efforts to avoid the typical tropes of scoring for horror films, as well as his career outside of the cinema.
How did you come to Hereditary?
It came to me. Ari (Aster) called and told me he was working on a script for his first feature length. He had been writing largely listening to solo work of mine and was inspired that, and wanted to talk to me about possibly using my music in a licensed capacity for the soundtrack, or potentially supplying the original score. I asked him to send the script over, and the rest is the rest. I immediately read the script and it reads exactly how it plays in theatres now. It’s incredibly lean and economic. It does exactly what it needs to do and not much more. I remember being impressed with the audacity of the whole thing. Just how effective it was as an in-depth character study in familial grief and dysfunction, and how he was able to couch that in the guise of a horror film, and have both of them intact in the end. I immediately wanted to do it. I’m pretty sure I was the first person on board -unofficially – in that production.
How did the subtlety and the leanness of Ari’s script affect your score?
I started writing the score for the film over a year before the Sundance premiere. Ari’s instructions to me were few and rather vague, but informatively so. He said he wanted it to feel “evil” and he wanted to avoid any and all sentimentality. The idea we came to early on is the score was not to manipulate people’s expectations, or to micromanage the emotions of particular moments. Rather to be this additional, unseen character of the unfolding scheme that we are dumped into in the beginning of the film. To be swept up in its momentum and carried through until the end. For me it was trying to establish what the character behind this diabolical plan was. Instead of trying to create themes for characters and scenes and things that are more conventional to film scores, what I decided is the score was going to have relationships with different characters. It would react to and play with them in different ways. There were particular ways I tried to deal with Peter. This lusting, mocking sort of playfulness to the evil in those scenes. Ultimately, you’re dealing with a film that is encapsulated in the last five minutes. The last scene is the unveiling of the purpose of all you’ve seen. It’s a triumphal ending for the people that have been pulling the strings throughout the course of the story. I worked kind of retroactively, in the sense that, if you look back, all the different motifs and the sonic palette are a trail of breadcrumbs, setting up that last cue – the song, “Reborn”. All the elements of Reborn are there (throughout the score), but they are restructured hierarchically to present itself in this triumphal mode. Whereas earlier on it’s just showing the evil nature of the character. The idea was for me to do this in a way that never shows its cards. I never wanted any of the movements to be obviously foreshadowing. If ever I did anything that felt too heavy-handed and it stuck out for me in a scene, I immediately killed it. I tried to avoid any conventional melodic motifs throughout the course of it. Because any time I did, it seemed to attract too much attention to itself. Then it took you out of the narrative to even minute little extents. Whenever I felt like there was a little too much gravity on the music, I pulled it back a bit and made it more mirroring and supporting of the action that was taking place onscreen. The method was to try and hide in plain sight the set up of this last event.
Were you cognizant throughout the composing of avoiding anything that sounded like a trope from previous horror films. For example: the sort of “jump scare” strings you hear so often?
As soon as I talked to Ari initially, an he showed me the script, we talked about what the mood of the film was going to be and what the score would potentially sound like, I started myself on a no horror movie or film score diet. I just didn’t watch or listen to anything because I didn’t want to be influenced by any current films or anything that came before. If I listened to or watched anything, it was more in the dark drama or thriller area. That’s how I saw the film. As more of an agonizing dramatic film rather than a straight up and down horror film. I certainly didn’t want to utilize any of the tropes that had been done to death onscreen. There’s certain moves that work reliably when setting up suspense or tension that you want to utilize in a film like this. But I didn’t want to do it in any of the specific ways I hear it normally. So, I would always try to find an alternative sound source. To manipulate sounds in a way that come off as ambiguous and anonymous in its origin. Take the inception moment of the film – the car crash – the thing that kind of feels like these suspenseful strings. That high information that’s pulsating…instead of using strings for that, that’s just a massive clarinet choir being played in a particular rhythmic way and being processed on top of that to create a bed and mood that has no obvious source. The low-end information, instead of using synths or strings The majority of the sounds over the course of the film are made vocally while being unconventionally mic’d. Easily over half of the sound is driven by my vocals. Which, if we’re talking about the score being the voice of this entity, that was a literal interpretation of that. Using the primary basis of voice, but doing it in a way, again, that obscures its source and retains an ambiguity.
Your primary instrument is the saxophone. How did that affect your approach to the score? Especially in your effort to find new sounds.
You’ve only started scoring for film in recent years. Is this something you see yourself continuing with?