Colin Stetson is the radically experimental composer, solo artist, and multi-instrumentalist behind Ari Aster’s grief stricken horror extravaganza, Hereditary and the beautifully layered, transcendent score for Hulu’s The First. Internationally recognized for his innovative horn playing, Colin has crafted an addictive sonic identity that fuses together the masterful practices of free jazz with refined minimalism, soaring electronic palettes, and the unapologetic character of metal. As a touring and session musician, Colin has contributed to the artistic pursuits of icons and household names including Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Bon Iver, The Chemical Brothers, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, Feist, and The National. As an independent artist, Colin has released a varied, mind expanding, and critically acclaimed body of work under the auspices of Constellation Records, Relapse Records, Kartel Music Group, 52 Hz, and other notable imprints. In our focused discussion, Colin reveals the logic behind his groundbreaking work on Hereditary and how he musically colors outside of the lines with tenacity and precision.
You are originally from Ann Arbor. Can you tell us about the catalyst behind your pursuit of music? Which saxophone masters and avant-garde artists would you include in your pantheon of influences?
I started playing in school when I was nine. It wasn’t really until I was about 15 that I started studying privately with a serious teacher. That was the impetus for becoming a serious player. I was inspired by this teacher who had seen something in me and then I realized it myself. After that, things changed pretty drastically in terms of what I wanted to do.
My list of influences is long — a grab bag of different era players. Some of my favorites are Ben Webster, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins. I’m a huge fan of Henry Threadgill, Thomas Chapin, Peter Brötzmann, to name a few.
What events led to your entrance to film scoring?
The first score I was offered was by a director named Alexander Moors. I don’t know which album it was through Solar Records, but it was just one of those things where he was truly with my music. He reached out to me in hopes that I’d score his film, Blue Caprice, which I then did. It was as simple as that. Just somebody who didn’t know whether I was interested or already active in film scoring decided to reach out. I had wanted to do it, but it was one of those things where there was very little time. When it came up, I was able to fit it into the amount of touring I was doing at that time, and it opened the doors for more opportunities.
How much of your scoring approach is reliant on theoretical concepts or “rules” of music?
I don't deal a whole lot with the rules, or rather if there are rules, they’re rules I set up for myself. It’ll be a set of rules I put in place to serve a specific purpose for a specific job. For something like Hereditary, I did set up a couple of basic rules about certain things I would not do, and then I just avoided those things entirely. Early on, one of the main rules had to do with the overall emotionality of the score. Ari Aster, the director, specifically wanted there to be no sentimentality, so there was an utter avoidance of that. For me, a major rule in that score was to avoid all utterance of more conventional themes and melodic motifs. Anything that really attracted more of conventional attention to itself for the viewer, I avoided. Whenever I saw things come up in that regard, I backed away.
Repetition was not a thing. Nothing that you could sing. Hooks that were only memorable in the feeling that they leave you with rather than, “Oh, that thing is stuck in my head now.” I didn’t want there to be a conscious memorable theme for a viewer to latch on to and distract them from what’s happening in the picture like, “Oh, I like that music.” The next time that theme comes back, they would be expecting it.
That’s more of a functional rule because it’s trying to address the score as it’s going to be functioning on the level of experiential for the viewer. A lot of the rest are aesthetic rules — trying to keep it lean and cohesive, not have it be this sprawling character of the score. For Hereditary, I wanted people to be in the moment and have no impetus for reflection, making everything as immediate as possible. Those were the rules.
Hereditary presents a traumatized portrait of an American family after the matriarch passes away. As they grieve, the family members are haunted by mysterious and deadly occurrences. The film can be described as incredibly visceral and refreshing in the way that it preys upon registers of human emotion in uniquely evil manners. After familiarizing yourself with this rattling story, what themes offered the first spark of inspiration in establishing the tone of the film?
The first step in establishing the tone was to reread the script. There were obviously a few different ways that it could have been represented musically to the outside. One could look at it like, “Are we going to be, in any way, walking a fence with the audience, hitting at whether or not this just a story of grief and loss? Is something more insidious happening?” That would have been a completely different take. Are we establishing that something sinister is the character from the film from the outset?
Talking with Ari about what he wanted, it was not ambiguous in any way. He wanted it to simply be the feeling of the evil from the opening shot. What the job ended up being for me was to make my score the fifth character in the family. You sense the specter of the grandmother, but more literally, this sonic manifestation of all of the different aspects of the narrative. There were a lot of paths it could have gone, but the one chosen was not that of non-ambiguous evil.
I understand Ari Aster, the director of Hereditary, spent considerable time listening to your music during his initial creative process. What were the ideas you explored together in the early stages of the project and what musical experiments did they lead to? What was your most meaningful take away from being involved in Ari’s filmmaking process?
It was a pleasurable, no-nonsense working relationship between the two of us. If there was ever a time I had missed a beat, or there was something else that he was looking for, he was very direct. The best thing about working with Ari is that he knows exactly what he wants. He presented his ideas upfront, so there was very little guesswork in terms of what I needed to do. In the beginning, the two of us had enough time to talk through things, so I knew that I had the freedom to interpret everything in a myriad of ways as long as I adhered to his basic rules I mentioned earlier.
I guess the takeaway was his ability to have such a long game for the film. It was an expansive long game, all set in his head. The finished product looks and feels so close to what his script looked and felt like when I first read it. At the same time, the few moments where things had to change drastically, were things that he had estimated to be a certain way. When we finally got to them, it was a good lesson in knowing how to be, knowing when to be, and taking the initiative to improvise when your previous ideas turn out to not necessarily feed the narrative as best as they could.
It was a good experience. I was happy that we started it as early as we did. Ari got in touch with me years before the film came out. It must have been a full year before he had even gotten funding — maybe even longer. When he finally got funding and had cast the film, I was already on board and started writing for it based of the script, so that they could have a lot of music to go on while they were shooting.
Are those exact cues that you pre-recorded what we hear in the final movie?
A lot of it did. It populated the temp of the music and then, of course, going into edits, there are always changes. When I started to score it through to picture, it had to be stretched, prodded, and added to — everything had to be orchestrated. The main aesthetic, the themes, those were mostly established early on.
Your sinister score for Hereditary strays from run of the mill horror treatments, implementing saxophone, clarinet, French horn, and trumpet among other forms of haunting instrumentation. How would you describe the musical world you crafted for Hereditary? What guided your decision to lean into a predominantly acoustic palette for the film?
I wanted to approach all the real sonic devices in Hereditary from this idea of hiding in plain sight. I wanted their sources to be obscured; I wanted their identities to be obscured. A lot of films will use low strings and synths to produce the low-end and drone material. I primarily looked to counter-based clarinets and bass saxophones to get that low-end. I experimented with different modes of playing and different modes of processing to get a quality out of them that I found to be a little bit more unique. Things like ubiquitous string suspensions, high violins, sweeps, and tremolo — all of them are used all the time to grab attention, especially in horror. To accomplish that, I mostly used a choir of clarinets, layering dissonant harmonies, which yielded some particularly warmly results. That was then processed further to create an effect that achieves something like strings. Most listeners mistake it for strings, but it was done in different ways. I just cross-pollinated back and forth to figure out new ways to get old jobs done and see what things resulted. That’s it in a nutshell. It just goes on, and on, and on.
Many have commented that Hereditary is disturbing to the point that they could only watch it once. Your music is reflective of each tormented incident, which we can only imagine required a lot of repetition and intense closeness to execute. Can you describe how you dropped into character during your writing process? Which cue was the most taxing to complete?
The first moment of the first act was the impetus for the rest of the major drama in the film. That scene was a bit more physically and orchestrationally demanding. The final scene of the film was something that was stylistically a bit more demanding and completely different than what had happened before and then realizing what that was going to be and shaping how everything else led up to it. The last scene ended up being the architect for the rest of the film.
I'm not too disturbed by gore. There’s really not much gore to speak of. There are some disturbing scenes when it comes to the psychology of the characters. There were some major moments where you knew you had a huge challenge ahead of you because it was so important to nail the inner experience of the scene. Honestly, the real emotional weight in the movies comes from the scenes that don’t have any music. That’s where I would find the most drama and experience the devastating grief in those scenes. I carried that through into other moments I was representing with music. It’s almost as if those moments were so heavy and emanated so much emotion that they were enough. It’s almost like the depth of them is what was holding the music back. They just sit exquisitely in silence. I pictured the music as being this separate character that has relationships with each of the other characters in the film. These conversations with them progress as the film unfolds.
For me, I just followed the edit. You have to follow faces and follow the picture. Our minds naturally drift, and our attention lies with certain focal points. Eyes are a huge part of that. If there was any representation of eye movement, you track a scene and identify where to compositionally focus — the angles, the lines, and what the action is going towards. Through this, you can find precise moments where your entrance can go unnoticed. It’s almost like you can come in when no one is looking because the viewer is so set on one aspect of the picture. If you time it correctly, you can enter the scene under their radar, so by the time they are conscious of the music being there, it’s been there all along.
The First takes place in the near future and follows a bold crew of astronauts attempting to land on Mars. The music you created summons a constant sensation of forward momentum, treating the audience to a truly dynamic, and atmospheric sonic voyage. Can you elaborate on your personal goal in making this palatial score?
The goal is similar as in any score, which is to try and mirror and best serve the narrative given what I think it needs. For something like Hereditary, as I said, there were very distinct rules and regulations about what I would allow myself to do and what its character was aesthetically. With The First, it was almost the exact opposite. There were no boundaries whatsoever. That’s not to say that I didn’t want everything to still be cohesive, but after I established this trifecta of disparate musical devices — sonic sources, those being pretty much the arpeggiated saxophones as they would be represented in my solo music; the more drone-based element of things, which can be used either in more consonant or dissonant scenes; and then the very sparing solo piano, recorded muted and very close, just to give it an opposite extreme, texturally and dynamically.
I definitely didn't want to shy away from the epic and from things that are more ubiquitous in space travel shows and film-like big horn fanfare. I feel like there is a good reason for their near-ubiquity, and it's something that I love doing. So, I wanted to delve hard and far into that, but at the same time, be able to counter-balance it with really fragile, vulnerable moments on piano, or on solo instruments like a woodwind.
Anybody who’s seen the first episode of The First knows it’s not just a show about triumph. The majority of it is the human drama, dealing with grief and loss, some pretty horrific moments. To be able to counter-balance all that epic triumph and more beautiful emotional reflection with things that could have felt entirely comfortable in the Hereditary score — that was fun. That’s what I wanted to do from the get-go. Just because it’s a near sci-fi drama, it doesn’t mean the music has to only be beholden to a particular formula. It gave me a lot of opportunities, much more than I’ve ever had in any single job to cover all the bases and run from one goalpost to the next.
As a professional horn player, you have collaborated with the likes of Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Lou Reed, Bon Iver, The National, Angelique Kidjo, and many others. Can you elaborate on the unique benefits of exploring your artistry with such a broad diversity of talent across genres? How have these experiences affected your output as a solo artist?
Making sure that you're always challenging yourself — with regard to style, genre, different artists with complete opposite aesthetics — ensures that you're not just bringing one sound and one approach to the table. It's severely limiting if that is indeed what you have to offer. I've always tried to do as much as I can across the board, because A, I'm interested in lots of different music, and B, it's just so much more rewarding to be challenged in that way — to force yourself to adapt, to be malleable, and to see a new landscape of a song or an album, and pick apart what exactly it needs, and how best to implement that. I have been really fortunate to have the experiences that I've had with all these different artists, and I've learned so much over the years.
Working with storytellers, the best songwriters tend to be serious storytellers, so one of the main things about telling stories is that its theater. If you're doing your job right, you're stepping out of the way of narrative, of the characters that you're portraying, and the imagery that you're propping up. That was huge for me musically, especially for my solo material because I realized that the best service you can provide is to get your ego out of the way, be free to have the music be whatever it needs to be, be it fragile, vulnerable, just decrepit. The music can tell stories and you, in a sense, are not present, or you shouldn’t be. I think it’s important to make sure you’re not doing things to put your stamp or a sense of identity into something. That is the first and most significant rule I have.
To date, what have been the performance highlights of your life?
I've had so many. I've had so many I can't ... I've had some really amazing shows in Berlin. I had a recent one at Kraftwerk — this really big and old power station. It was a tremendous show --- an enormous and powerful sound system in a cavernous concrete hall. It’s hard to beat something like that in terms of a raw, Grayskull type fucking “I have the power” moment. It was truly enjoyable.
Are there any personal rituals or food and drink that enhance your creativity and prepare you to find your best musical ideas?
I have a shit ton of personal rituals — different breathing exercises, meditation, and exercise. They’re kind of across the board. There’s a lot of that that goes on in my life, so it’s not like I'll meditate and then have great results right after or something like that. It’s not quite so cause and effect, but certain practices in my life make me able to be more present, more aware, and a little bit more mindful when I'm making the music I'm making.
Food wise, I eat a lot of eggs. I have a pretty Japanese morning over here — green tea, eggs, and rice, some element of fish and pickles. It’s a ritual, and it’s very particular food. I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation between my Japanese breakfasts and my output as a musician, but there could be.