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How Colin Stetson broke all the rules and created this year's scariest film score

Melody Lau

The suspenseful strings in Jaws. The screeches in Psycho. The truly terrifying piano notes in Halloween. These are sounds many people immediately think of when discussing classic horror movie scores. That is everything Colin Stetson wanted to avoid when creating the music for Ari Aster's feature directorial debut, Hereditary.

The film, which follows a family haunted in the aftermath of the death of their grandmother, was originally written with Stetson's music in mind. A successful saxophonist in his own right — his solo work has earned him two Polaris Music Prize nominations and he has worked on records by Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, Feist, and Bon Iver — Stetson's spellbinding instrumentals have slowly found its way on the big screen in recent years, including 12 Years a Slave, Outlaws and Angels and The Rover.

For his latest film score, Stetson entered the horror realm. Tasked with building tension and keeping viewers on their toes, Stetson was able to work from the ground up, partnering with Aster in the early stages of the film to compose something that checks off all the objectives of a scary score, but done in brand new ways. Here, Stetson draws from a stable of acoustic sounds, trading conventional strings and synths for clarinets, contrabasses and processed vocals. The results are guaranteed to give you nightmares.

We spoke to Stetson about his work in film, his experience working with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who tragically died earlier this year, and what other projects he's working on.

How did you first get into scoring films?

[Director Alexandre Moors] reached out to me and Sarah Neufeld six years ago and presented us with the idea for doing the score for The Washington Snipers. I had wanted to get into scoring for some time, but I was touring so much and those opportunities, unless you really fish for them, don’t tend to come around. So when that one came up, it was just a really good opportunity to open that door and to start exploring it. We had a lot of fun doing that score and then right after, things just started regularly coming in.

Was there a learning curve you had to navigate since scoring involves more collaboration than, say, working on your own music?

It’s a very, very different experience and it completely depends on not just the director that you’re collaborating with, but a whole host of other factors and people involved in the production. So yeah, it’s far more collaborative than something like me producing my own solo music which, at this point, is just me by myself until the very end, in the last bits of mastering.

I guess I would compare scoring more to working with bands and working on a song with songwriters. When you step up to somebody else’s world and somebody else’s song, you really have to identify what the song needs from you and how to make it happen. So I try to approach the scores in the same way. That means trying to first understand what the director wants, what it is that they envisioned and what the overall arc of the film is, then stepping back and figuring out what’s the best way to give the character of the score a voice.

Director Ari Aster wrote Hereditary with your music in mind. What were those early conversations with him like?

Ari called me a few years ago and said that he had been writing the script with my music heavily on his mind. So we started out talking about it and he sent me the script, and I was immediately interested. There’s nothing really like it. It’s brilliantly written, it’s very lean and it does exactly what it needs to do. It was good to get in from the ground up that way because it really afforded us a long time to build things and to let certain things breathe and sink in.

Were there certain horror score tropes that you wanted to avoid when creating music for this film?

Absolutely: all of them [laughs]! I actively tried to not watch any horror films when I started developing the sounds, and certainly when I was in the midst of scoring it. The majority of films seem to have a reliance on high strings, eerie percussion and heavy use of synths these days. So I just kind of made it a point to outright avoid all three of those and figure out how to serve them up in completely different ways through unconventional means.

How did you do that?

I found new sounds through the instruments that I play, but also through unconventional processing of certain instruments. So one of the throughlines in the score is voice. There’s an enormous amount of voice used and sometimes you’ll actually hear it. It’ll sound like drone, but the majority of what you don’t think is voice — what people probably think is synths or strings — that is all just coming from an unconventional capturing of vocal parts that I did myself.

You’ve noted Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Prisoners soundtrack as an influence on your Hereditary score, and you briefly worked with him on the music for 2016’s Arrival. What was it like working with him?

I love Jóhann. I’m still enamoured with that Prisoners score, as I was with a lot of his work, but that one in particular was just perfect. I forget what the circumstances were, but he reached out to me about doing something for Arrival. So we hung out in Berlin and I did some remote scoring for him, and then more in his studio in Berlin on a number of occasions. He was incredibly curious and ambitious in his sense of musical discovery. So much of what he did was so unique and had such a personal sound to it. To be able to engage with such a beautiful talent, even for just a few moments, was really special to me.

We did a lot of work on things that never saw the light of day, but some of it actually ended up coming out on the Mary Magdalene soundtrack. They were finishing that film right before he died so it was nice that some of that work we did together ended up coming out and people are able to hear it.

Are there any other film composers you would like to work with?

Oh, for sure. I would love to work with Jonny Greenwood. He continues to reinvent himself and he’s always bringing such unique approaches, something that’s very specific to every film that he works on. And one of my favourite film scores of all time really is Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line, so those are the two that I would love to collaborate with.

What else are you working on this year?

I am currently scoring a TV show for Hulu called The First. So my summer is really just working on that and another solo record.

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