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‘Hereditary’ Horror: An Interview with Composer Colin Stetson

Multi-instrumentalist Colin Stetson’s contributions to modern storytelling are somewhat ubiquitous — whether you’re watching films or television shows, or listening to rock and pop acts. You hear the resonance of his potent and novel approach to horns and voice.

He composed the haunting score for Hereditary; has played sax on some of the scores of Jóhann Jóhannsson; and has lent his sax talents to the work of Tom Waits, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, The National, Lou Reed, and LCD Soundsystem, among many others. He’s also released a host of avant-garde solo albums that are some of the most engaging expressions of saxophone I’ve ever encountered. He and Kamasi Washington are among the most preeminent saxophonists we have in 2018.

I caught up with him over Skype recently to discuss his work. He was somewhat fresh off completing contribution to Rockstar’s new video game Red Dead Redemption 2 and composing a strong score for The First, a sci-fi show on Hulu that stars Sean Penn and Natascha McElhone and is about a company’s attempt to get to Mars.

But most notably, in the spirit of the season, we did a dive into Hereditary, Ari Aster’s complex family drama/horror film that has frightened millions since its release in June — not the least because of Stetson’s deeply unsettling and supernaturally engaging score that Milan Records has released. (We also ended up talking about working with Tom Waits, among other things.)

colin stetson hereditary

Vehlinggo: You rely heavily on wind instruments, like saxes and clarinets, which makes sense given your background. And you manipulate them in ways that help to create a massive sense of foreboding, and that helps to focus and magnify the complicated and often immensely strained family dynamics and sheer horror of the film. What advantage do woodwinds have in a film like Hereditary over, say, strings or synths? To what extent do you use synths and strings?

Stetson: I don’t know that I would classify it in terms of advantages. For me, approaching this movie in the way that I approached it — conceptually, thematically and in terms of instrumentation — was to really embrace the idea of hiding in plain site the whole concept of it. Because that really is largely what is at hand in the narrative at the heart of the whole film.

I wanted the most anonymous, most autonomous identity of soundscapes. Like you said, there’s a ubiquity in horror films of low synths and/or strings accomplishing all of that sub-information. [In addition,] you’re pretty much always going to have high strings and violins attaining all of your suspension and tension up above that ties everything together.

“What may sound like droning synths in the soundtrack are contrabass clarinets.”

You still accomplish those goals, but you do them… with different colors, different timbres, different sound sources. I take those sound sources and approach them in unconventional ways, so that even those sources are masked in some sense.

So what may sound like droning synths in the soundtrack are contrabass clarinets played in different ways. B-flat clarinet is responsible for suspension/tension-building material that most people think of as tremolo strings. If there’s anything that’s [most prominent] on the score, that would be my voice. No one would know that some of these tracks are built almost entirely around my vocals.

See, I wouldn’t have thought of that at all. I maybe assumed it was sample vocals through a synth or something like that.  

I recorded in different, unconventional ways, which allows me a lot of flexibility. The sound that’s captured is all of the harmonics character of [vocals] and none of the shape of a sung note. So you’re left with a kind of pure tone and timbre, but without the breathy aspect — without the oral cavity having shaped it into a vowel or consonant.

It’s a pretty nice tool, also because it’s just so intuitive. I’ve been singing for my whole life, so it’s really fun. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s one of those things that’s an important glue in a lot of the things I’m doing these days.

[Writer’s Note: I went back to listen to Hereditary, in light of this information about his voice (and also the clarinets). I’d listened to the score several times, within the film and on its own, and indeed what I thought was one thing is something wholly different. I urge you to listen to the score again in light of this interview.]

How do you get into the headspace for your scores — whether Hereditary or The First, which is more of a sci-fi/government drama and would seem to require a different palette altogether than Hereditary?

I suppose with something like Hereditary it’s not a huge stretch for me to go dark. For any of the things, I always start with just trying to clearly define what it is I’m doing; what’s the character. With Hereditary it’s very distinctly that.

The score plays the role of a separate character. Rather than have it do any conventional thematics that were specific to the characters in the film, I opted to look at it more in terms of the character of the score had relationships with other characters in the film.

“I opted to look at it more in terms of the character of the score had relationships with other characters in the film.”

The relationship between the score and [the character Peter Graham, the teenage son played by Alex Wolff] — obviously there is this lusting, sort of taunting that I had a lot of fun with approaching in that way. There’s this very distinct presence that had these separate relationships with them. And then also… there are very distinct moments of silence throughout the film.

Looking at those, as though those moments of silence are almost imposed on the character of score — those moments of palpable silence tend to be the most grieving, emotional, devastating, heartbreaking moments. So it’s almost like that real, raw grieving, and anything heartfelt, pushes the concept of the score into the shadows for a second.

When I first started working on [Hereditary], I was talking with Ari [Aster, the director] and he had very little in terms of parameters, but they were huge parameters: (1) It had to feel evil; and (2) It had to be utterly devoid of sentimentality. That was the extent of it.

I manufactured my approach based on that. I think probably the only time I let myself go a little sentimental was in the cue called “Steve,” which in the film happens when [Gabriel Byrne’s character, the husband Steve Graham] finally thinks he’s figured it all out. It’s a brief moment honoring his sincere sadness.

In terms of me getting into the mood… with this one it was beautifully shot. The script was tight from the first time I read it. The performances were stellar. All it really took was watching scenes. The scene around the dinner table with [Annie Graham, played by Toni Collette] and Peter — it’s something I did not score, but in terms of getting me… to that visceral, emotive, kind of frayed-at-the-edges feeling, it was the scene I’d go to if I needed help getting there.

Photo courtesy of White Bear PR.

You nailed it. It’s a really great score. There’s no way a composer could have achieved the heights required for a film with this much psychological or emotional complexity and utter horror with a straight-up synth score or traditional orchestration. It sounds like you had to pull out all of the stops when it came to doing anything traditional, which I respect.

My main prohibition on myself was to avoid all conventional, melodic sort-of themes or anything that attracted attention to itself. Every time I did something that seemed too noticeable or left you with a lingering melody, I backed off immediately. Because I only wanted it to be a felt extension of the unfolding drama, until the very end when the whole of the plot reveals itself. 

With your work on the rock side of things — with artists like Tom Waits, Bon Iver, TV on the Radio, and Arcade Fire — you’ve been exposed to different modalities of songwriting. What do you bring from those experiences to your scores?

The biggest thing is in line with what I was just saying — but then put that into practice with all of the different people I’ve worked with over the years. You have to identify what it is you’re making and, ultimately, your storytelling. The only thing standing at the end of the process is the story and you should not be in the picture. There’s no photobombing [laughs].

“There’s no photobombing.”

So, when I was working with Waits, the thing that I gleaned the most was to completely remove the sense of self — the ego – from what we were making. Ultimately, what we were doing was these vignettes — these scenes. There was this character, this place, these relationships, this imagery. Tom wasn’t there; he was playing a part in this theatre.

I think I was coming from a foundation of being a classically trained soloist, who also trained in jazz and played a lot of funk/R&B rock music. [The saxophone’s] role is a bit egocentric the way it’s presented. You step up a play a solo and show what you can do. “Look at these chops,” “look at this prowess,” “look at this work I’ve done.”

Going into a Waits session, when you’re playing a song that is all restraint, vulnerability, and fragility, you’re not showing up there saying, “Look what I can do.” In a sense you strip that all away and be what the story needs you to be. Then you extrapolate that onto every other job.

When working with a band or songwriter, first and foremost, it’s their song or composition: you’re servicing that. The question is do they know what they want? If they do, then how best to implement it if you agree? If you don’t, then what is it that you think it needs and how do you implement it in the most economic way possible — and in a way that does not reserve any shred of self? [A way] that just makes it so that the song stands up in the best way possible?

The same thing goes for scores. There’s restraint on something like Hereditary. There were a shit-ton of things that you could do with that film. It’s so beautifully made it would allow you to approach it in so many ways, but I only wanted to support it as it needed and avoid any sort of gratuity.

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The First is airing now via Hulu. Hereditary is available in VOD and the score is available via Milan and record stores. 

hereditary score milan colin stetson

Stetson’s exquisite solo work and work with others is available everywhere, too. I urge you to go down the Stetson rabbit hole. You will be pleased.

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