No need for a spoiler alert here because I haven’t seen the film. To be perfectly honest, I can’t do horror films, it’s a weakness. But as Colin Stetson emphasized, what intrigued him about writing the score for Ari Aster’s new film Hereditary was not the pull to create tense, terrifying music, but rather the story the film told, coping with themes of deep grief and loss that further delves into regions of the psyche and spirit, in ways that can’t be simplified or pigeon-holed in genre, regardless of its specific mode of presentation. Aster’s film is closer to a drama or thriller, and the purpose of the OST is to create a dramatic counterpoint to the characters that weaves their fate.
Stetson’s soundtrack is loaded with tension and possessed by a certain fiendishness, and as an independent listen feels like the tug of an invisible force, malicious hands clasping at shoulders, rattling door-knobs and clutching corners, guiding the fates of a series of characters named in titles but faceless except for the sounds emitted. Stetson’s music, which includes an extensive solo and collaborative catalog ranging from classical to avant-garde to metal, has always been capable of conjuring worlds, and the cavernous hallways, creaking stairwells and dimly lit hearths that this soundtrack evokes have a haunting allure in and of themselves.
But this project is not an independent entity. Its relationship to Aster’s script is vital for an understanding of its purpose and composition. The process began approximately 3 years ago when the director reached out to Stetson with his script. All initial writing for the score came simply from the words without support of images. The sense of purpose he was given was to create the score as a character in itself, something “unambiguously evil”. The listener is not meant to be lead astray into sentimentality or nostalgia for the loss of a loved one, but rather to confront the lurking dread, fear and evil that haunts and preys on the characters whom it interacts with. The whole network of sound is a fatal web with insidious undertones. Stetson described his method as a “colossal exercise in restraint”, meaning the culmination had to be contained but never revealed in any single piece, movement or scene. The characteristic fits and starts are exemplary of this approach, consistently escalating from inner tremors to sudden gasps.
Speaking with Colin Stetson of his other recent musical projects paints a fuller picture of a virtuosic talent when one begins to experience the diversity of conceptual approach and musical flexibility. Last year, Stetson released an album with a band called Ex Eye, featuring Greg Fox (Liturgy) on drums, Shahzad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3) on synths, and Toby Summerfield on guitar. The music is incredibly heavy and dense, a far cry from the hushed restraint of Hereditary OST. Stetson stresses that the point with Ex Eye was adopting “maximalism”, creating “super-saturated forms” through “ultra-dense virtuosity”. Ex Eye’s debut was released last June on metal label Relapse Records and a follow-up project is in the works.
Another stunning record that required a style of collaboration different from that of the director / composer relationship was 2016’s Sorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony. In this case, the complete landscape was already in place, and Stetson says that the reimagining made little if any structural changes from Gorecki’s original, but rather meddled with sonic hierarchies in order to create new dynamics.
Colin Stetson’s adaptability as a composer, performer and collaborator all bears wonderful and chilling fruit in the Hereditary OST, fruit that hints at an uncanny deliverance. Whatever that deliverance may be, either in Ari Aster’s film or Stetson’s future endeavors, I’m morbidly curious to find out, and willingly accept a defiance of my expectations
interview by Andy Resto