The Story Behind the Haunting, Unconventional Music of 'Hereditary'
There's no genre of film with more entrenched musical tropes than horror, its jump-scares and screeching violins having been codified by legends like Bernard Herrmann, who composed the score to Psycho more than a half-century ago, and polymath director John Carpenter, whose frantic, pulsating beats made everyone terrified that Michael Myers was waiting in the backseats of their cars. As horror enters a new era, with production houses like Blumhouse and A24 releasing recent genre-reimagining films such as Get Out, The Witch, and more, it can be challenging for composers to consider audience expectations while also forging new ground.
That's what Colin Stetson faced when director Ari Aster asked him to create the score for Aster's first feature, Hereditary, a nerve-racking family horror story that brims with tension punctuated by gruesome violence. It's at once familiar and unique; there's no tangible monster, the dialogue between family members is as ordinary as it is effectively horrifying, and the grounded and supernatural intermingle in surprising ways to create what could be 2018's defining horror movie.
Stetson's solo work has appeared in films before (most notably "Awake on Foreign Shores" off New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, which provides the background to a lynching scene in 12 Years a Slave), and he's worked with pop artists like Arcade Fire, Feist, Bon Iver, and more. In Hereditary, however, his droning woodwinds take on a sinister new hue, meshing seamlessly with the tone and beats of the film.
"There's a whole sense of hiding in plain sight for me for the whole thing," Stetson said over the phone in discussing his approach to writing his first feature-length score. "There are quite a few tropes in this genre," he added, saying his goal was to revamp and come at those tropes from less conventional angles. Because I have never composed a horror music score, I talked with Stetson about how he achieved the film's signature tone without lapsing into staid clichés.
Thrillist: I read that Ari Aster approached you to work on the score because he'd been listening to your music while he wrote the screenplay. What made you decide to take on the project?
Colin Stetson: It's impossible to hear Ari out, and to hear him talk about his ideas, and not be sold. He's very convincing. He knows exactly what he wants. The script was what sealed the deal for me right away. So that was years ago, I think it might've been at least three years ago that he contacted me, right as he was finishing writing the first draft of the script. I read that, and we just kind of verbally agreed that it sounded like a good thing. I figured he'd keep me informed as to when things were coming along.
And so, as they do in the film world, there were revisions, and then there was also trying to get funding and all that fun stuff. He'd check in every six months or so and tell me where things were at with the project. When -- I guess it was last year, or the end of 2016 when things really started heating up for him -- the funding had come in, casting was underway, and then he sent me the revised version of the script. I just started writing the score to the script in, I want to say, either December of 2016 or January 2017.
Did you write only to the script, or had you seen any early versions of the film to guide you?
Stetson: I wrote a great many of the main themes and tonic elements in those early months before they'd even started with principal photography. It was about as good as the process can go, because so much of the time you're brought in at the very last minute, and the editors and the directors have been sitting with other music, random music from all sorts of things temped into all the different scenes, and you've got to try to find a cohesive structure and character for the score, but at the same time knowing that you've got a number of people who have all gotten very accustomed to hearing a theme to play out a certain way.
So that can be incredibly frustrating at times, when you're playing against people's ingrained associations. We didn't really have that here. It was refreshing working with [Aster] in this regard, where even where there was something temped that wasn't what I had originally written for the film, I could replace it with things that accomplished similar goals yet in completely different ways, and he was right on board.
So how exactly does that process compare, workflow-wise, to working on your solo projects, or even with other musicians but on a purely musical project?
Stetson: Every relationship, every interaction is completely different. That's the long and the short of it, kind of. When I'm doing a score, generically speaking, I approach a score the same way conceptually as I approach doing arrangements with tracking horns for a songwriter on a particular song. So you talk to them. You see what's on their mind, if they have specific thoughts to what it needs. You listen to the song, you figure out what exactly you think that it needs, and then figure out what is the leanest, most direct approach to accomplishing that goal, giving the song what it needs, but not bloating it or having too much ego involved.
That's mainly how I try with the scores as well: Just identify what is the thrust of it, what's the structure, what's the best way to accomplish the goal of it all. Establish what the instrumentation is going to be, how you're going to find the sounds. Of course, a lot of those things will continue to unfold and develop through experimentation and trial and error.
And how did you wind up finding the sounds and instruments you chose to go with?
Stetson: I was trying to accomplish the same goals of tension and release, but not using the sounds that are conventionally associated with the genre. Since you want to do this to avoid those sort of pitfalls, but also to maintain that sense of theme, the sounds that you're hearing are not what you associate with [the genre].
Something that might be a little more obvious is that all of the low information, all the more ominous drone material, might sound somewhat synth-esque, but it's all low woodwinds -- contrabass clarinet, primarily, and a little bit of bass saxophone, bass clarinet, as well as quite a bit of voice. I would say that the majority of the sounds throughout the whole thing are created with my voice, but you'd never know it to hear it. Most of the moments where you think that you're hearing a violin or some section of orchestral violins doing suspension or mounting dread moments, that is invariably not violins, not strings at all, but high woodwinds, clarinets, soprano saxophones. There are a couple moments where there actually are strings, but you'd never know that because they sound more like a swarm of bats then than they do anything like the sound source.
It was really just using different methods, cross-pollinating throughout in a sonic way so that nothing really was what it seemed on its surface.
How do you process the contrabass clarinet or the bass sax to accomplish those synthy, droning sounds? Because it didn't feel like I was hearing woodwinds most of the time.
Stetson: Well, although I did use different processing on certain sounds, there really is very minimal affecting of the sound more than creative use of reverb to give the illusion of space. Most of that is just playing those instruments in ways where you're -- it's a woodwind term terminology and it doesn't sound like what it is -- but it's called voicing. It's the way that you're using your throat while you're playing it, not actually singing, although I do that as well through the instruments, but you manipulate overtones. So you can do these overtone sweeping things, which can resemble phase sweeps on synths.
But when it comes down to it, it's all organic, and it's all being played by me in real time, so I can track it to picture in a way which is so specific. With the exception of a couple moments of violin patches, everything on the score was played by me. I'm there in my studio with the picture, and I can come down to a breath, or a strange little turn of volume or overtone; everything gets stitched right into the picture. My main goal was to imbue the whole thing with a breath, and not just speaking literally of the sound of breath, but to have each movement of the music coming straight out of the film -- not having it be more subconsciously predictable by utilizing more conventional forms and structures musically. I wanted to avoid that so you really didn't know what was happening, when things were going to drop, if they're going to drop it all.
I was wondering if there was some sort of sequencing, because there is that droning repetitiveness. But you're playing live to the picture throughout the entire recording process?
Stetson: Exactly. There's no sequencing or looping or anything, although it's not a purity of structure like it would be on a solo record where everything was rendered in the same moment. I do allow processing, and I do allow overdubs and things like that, obviously, because this is orchestration and the arrangement can build on these things.
What about the voice? I can't recall at any point thinking, "Oh, that sounds like a person singing."
Stetson: There are a couple moments where there's obviously a more drone-y, chanting vocal element. It's tough to quantify an actual amount, but it could be as much as 40 or 50% of the actual musical math on the score is coming from my vocals.
If I was giving you a play-by-play, and we were watching or listening to a certain track, I could point to a particular sound or particular arc of bending of notes and chords, and then you'd probably say, "Oh, that sounds like somebody's doing a synth sweep, or a really slow bend on a team of strings." And that's all just coming out of my throat -- you know, singing and recording it through my neck with the way that I do it with a solo recording and performance.
You put the mic right against your throat?
Stetson: Yeah. There's a lot of that raw tonality coming from the throat, which gives me an enormous amount of freedom to move things wherever I want them, whenever I want them. All the other instruments I'm playing are an extension of that, and like I said, all trying to service the main goal of establishing exactly what you need without doing it in ways that draw attention to themselves or that are immediately discernible.
I want to know about how the score developed toward the end, at least from my memory of watching the film: As the action is getting more and more intense and the emotions are ratcheting up, there seems to be this major arpeggio, but with these dissonant notes peeking through. How did you compose that finale, which is epic and almost hopeful, compared to the more ominous droning part of the opening of the movie?
Stetson: I find myself really spoiler-wary when I'm talking about the structure of this thing. I can say that this: The whole structure of the score mirrors the structure of the film, and it does so in every way that it's built up. So the culmination of the film, the ending of the movie, there's a coming together of all the vast elements that have been hiding in plain sight throughout the course of the score. When they do come to fruition, it's been building, but you'd never know the specific path that has all been laid out there for you. It was one of the more fun aspects, seeding things from different perspectives throughout.
The character of it was so intrinsically tied to the development of the picture, and hopefully [the score] does not attract attention to itself. It may be a silly sentiment, but if you're thinking at first watching, "Wow, the score right now!" I don't know that you're really in the movie. The score has to do what it has to do, but in a way that doesn't make you say that. You can appreciate it, but you should hide it in the narrative in such a way so that maybe that thought doesn't happen so much.
This interview has been edited and condensed.