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The ‘Natural Made Unnatural’: Colin Stetson Discusses His ‘Color Out of Space’ Score

Colin Stetson was so plugged into director Richard Stanley’s vision for new film Color Out of Space that he had a theme ready before he was even hired for the gig.

Some time ago when Stetson, the score composer, multi-instrumentalist, and famed saxophonist, read that Stanley was returning to the director’s chair with an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, he quickly went to work on what would later become “The Color” theme.

“… That day I was playing in my studio on a Rhodes [piano],” Stetson told Vehlinggo in a recent Skype interview. “I started working on something and I was like, ‘You know what? That’s the theme for The Color,’… based on what I had read about the movie that day. And I think it was two months later or something that I got the job.”

It takes a special kind of composer with a gift for blending tendrils of convention with a beautiful onslaught of unsettling and engaging sonics, and the Montreal- and Vermont-based Stetson was certainly up to the task. Consider his unorthodox and revered score for Ari Aster’s Hereditary or his courageous ear for the avant-garde on his solo records.

Stanley’s Color Out of Space — starring Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer — is absolutely drenched in a burst of intense sensory experiences that yield a beautiful nightmare. The film’s richly layered visuals, histrionic and thoughtful music, and guttural wails of pain and regret resonate deep inside you. The colorful effects, especially, lend a classic but otherwordly feel to your experience that Stetson complements with haunting aplomb.

In our Skype exchange, we discuss Stetson’s work on the score, which you can listen to on streaming services, courtesy of Milan Records, and even pre-order on vinyl from Milan/Waxwork. We dive into the process, philosophy, and emotions that surround his extraordinary work. (I know it’s only February, but this is already one of the best scores of the year.)

colin stetson color out of space interview photo
Colin Stetson has played sax with the likes of Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, Bon Iver, and on scores by the likes of Jóhann Jóhannsson. In his own right, he’s scored several films and TV shows, including ‘Hereditary,’ ‘ Color Out of Space,’ and ‘The First.’ Photo supplied but credit unknown at this time.

Vehlinggo: I saw Color the other day. It’s an amazing film and I thought the music was extraordinary. But to get started, I was thinking about our conversation last year about your Hereditary score. For that you were involved fairly early on. For Color Out of Space, how much were you exposed to what the film was going to represent? Did you write to picture or were you all the way at the script stage or somewhere in between?

Stetson: It was pretty much write-to-picture, but they had not gotten to effects. So when I was scoring, I really didn’t have that to go on. [I] just [had] the descriptions that Richard had conveyed to me — and all of the concept art and these long, extensive talks with Richard about what his concept visually would be ultimately; and also what his concepts for it were in terms of the cosmic nature.

So when you made these sonic palette decisions, how did you make them and why did you choose some of the choices that you made? This is a very different score than what I’ve heard from you from Hereditary or The First or some of the other stuff that you’ve worked on.

I started working on Hereditary, as I told you before [in our previous interview], a year or more out. With Color, it was really quick. But that being said, the first thing I did was read the script and then I did write the majority of the major themes in the span of — I don’t want to make it seem too brief — but it was a span of about a week or two. It was a very fast-paced, very highly-focused period of days where all of those things came to fruition.

And so the overall aesthetic of the film, the sound of The Color, The Color themes, the Gardner [family] themes — all of that happened based on [reading the] script and conversations with Richard. That was before I really saw picture. And then obviously there was an enormous amount of writing to do after I started actually tracking the picture. The score itself ballooned into something close to 85 minutes of music or something — maybe more — as they tend to do.

Colin Stetson. Photo credit unknown.

Not to keep returning to Hereditary, but I think it’s interesting to refer back to something we discussed last year about the nature of the music; compared to Color Out of Space. For the former, you mentioned that people hadn’t realize how much of the score relied on your manipulated voice, compared to synths or some other instrument. I didn’t hear that on Color, but maybe it’s there? It’s such a beautiful and richly layered onslaught of controlled chaos that perhaps I’m missing something. 

So with this one, it utilizes my voice, but nowhere near to the extent that it was used in Hereditary. On Hereditary it was a foundational element. [For Color] it was something that I used where it was useful, but the foundations of this one are completely different.

I can hear that. 

[For] the sound of The Color, Richard’s first question posed to me was —  I’m paraphrasing, no doubt — “What exactly is the sound of an alien, an advanced alien life form who manifests itself in our world as a spectrum of light and color that does not exist in our reality?”

So when faced with my favorite kind of big, broad, ridiculous question, I did a very quick bit of concept searching and since the whole of the film is based on this cosmic entity coming and morphing — polluting [the Gardner family] and ultimately destroying their minds and bodies, twisting them into something alien — I wanted to lead with the idea of “the natural made unnatural.”

“…I wanted to lead with the idea of ‘the natural made unnatural.’”

A lot of the foundational sound ideas came from that concept. Then the other thing was, I read a lot of sci-fi. My partner and I at the time, she had been just finishing the Three Body Problem trilogy, which I subsequently read and can’t recommend enough. So that brought us to the conversation wherein we were talking about the idea of… higher dimensional beings and objects. We talk about the kinds of densities of information that some higher dimensional life force could [or] would necessarily speak with, if it was to speak or to transmit information.

And so the idea was to start with the sounds of coral reefs, which are quite dense and cacophonous. [There were] sheets of percussion and words and moans and stuff… layer[ed] on one another. I think I started with a sheet of maybe five or six of those over the top of one another and then run through various harmonic generators and processes and then on top of that, layering organic, non-conventional use of conventional instrumentation like I’ve done in the past for everything. And then I very quickly started to establish what the cosmic blueprint of The Color would be.

color out of space soundtrack vinyl colin stetson score waxworkSo I had that and started to run with the idea of this natural made unnatural. So there are quite a few sounds from nature that I use as foundations. In the very first scene, when the voiceover of [Ward Phillips, played by Elliot Knight] is discussing the preamble, there’s this expansive mystical screaming that’s happening and bellowing over the hills.

And that’s the sound of a bull elk in the rut that I took and had manipulated in various ways — and so there’s that terrifying bull elk flux scream. There is a similar one, but in a very different way, from a bison. My favorite one is a Sandhill crane, which is the most terrifying fucking sound on its own. When you try to unlock it, stretch it out, and look at it from the inside out, it even got me. There are a lot of things like that, in which I was amazed at some of the little gems waiting to be discovered.

[Then there is] the Gardners’ theme. We’re talking about a family who left the city to find maybe some sort of a misguided attempt at discovering some never-had, idyllic past and so there’s this kind of quaint, melancholic theme that represents them.

The whole point of the score becomes: “How do we get from point A to point B? How do we go from that quaint, pastoral vignette to the utterly bat-shit explosion that happens at the end?” And I wanted to have a little seed in there that sounded almost like a Jaws-ian motif that could start everything.

“How do we go from that quaint, pastoral vignette to the utterly bat-shit explosion that happens at the end?”

This was the most fun, because it allowed me to flex all of the muscles that I got to use with Hereditary — where you’re still telling a story, a very organic story, one that you want to lead people, but to not… do what horror scores and tropes tend to do, which is to point at every artifact and every moment. [I wanted to] really do something that keeps people engrossed, while always retaining the element of surprise — but at the same time to really go far in the direction of themes. With Hereditary, it was the opposite. I wanted to avoid them at all costs until the last scene payoff, where I finally got to reveal what had been there before.

But with [Color Out of Space], it’s all about just establishing these really ingrained, big, far-arching themes. It was so fun to play with that and to get to inundate [the themes] and see how they mutated over the course of the [110-minute run time].

color out of space score vinyl colin stetson soundtrackWhen you were approaching the scoring of it — once you got the gig — how much did you feel you had to live up to the reputation of SpectreVision films that have come before, like Mandy, or even just the weight of the Lovecraft element or a director like Stanley? I mean, were you thinking “Oh crap, I really have to nail this!”?

There was no way that it was going to sound like Mandy, because the film did not require in any way something that sounded anything like that. And so I wasn’t worried about being derivative in any way. The only thing that I wanted to make sure that I kept myself to was always pushing to make sure I went as far with ideas as possible.

And at certain times when I went maybe a little conservative with a scene, Richard would tell me that he thought we could go further. And I appreciate when somebody sees when I maybe missed something or I’m feeling a bit of restraint where I shouldn’t.

“Richard would tell me that he thought we could go further.”

Overall, it was really the fun. The challenge of the thing was to come back on every scene and think, Is this going far enough and have you sold it? It was a ball to work on.

It was an intense two months, because basically it was two months of 12- to 15-hour days — there was a very brief window and a lot of information to get into. But it allowed me to do all of those things that I have been doing, that I just mentioned, plus I’ve been enamored with the idea of these ultra-dense sonic spaces — these hyper-layered musical spaces. The last scene — with “The Color” theme — when you break that down into layers it is so thick. Mixing that was both absolutely tormenting and thus the most fun.

I could do remixes of that for days — just with playing with layers — because there are so many things that are hidden. They’re certainly being heard, but the fact is that they’re all in this cacophonous layering that then eventually becomes the single spiny, writhing entity at the end. I was going for something that conjured up the visual with every turn and hopefully it came through.

More on “The Color”

Stetson: Ultimately, my favorite track is “The Color.” I like it when the shit hits the fan. I like when all of the threads finally come together and it’s just absolutely bombastic — it is a brain tickler in every way. There are so many things that are going on. The arpeggiations that are happening in the saxophones. That is a place where you will not know it’s vocals. Some of the overdriven, shout-chorus stuff is all vocals, but it certainly won’t sound like it. That probably is my favorite piece to listen to.

Color Out of Space is out now in a limited number of theatres and Stetson’s score is available on streaming and download services via Milan/Sony, as well as a vinyl pre-order via Milan and Waxwork.

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