Top image: Still, ‘Hereditary’ (2018) dir. Ari Aster

When Hereditary previews were first unveiled earlier this year, a story broke in the suburb of Innaloo, Western Australia, about a group of parents who thought they were treating their small children to a screening of Sony’s Peter Rabbit re-make. It was only when the lights dimmed however, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary began to play, with Colin Stetson’s nerve-fraying score ringing out like the shrieks of a wounded daemon, that their horrified parents realised someone had blundered. According to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald, “Parents were yelling at the projectionist to stop, covering their kids’ eyes and ears,” while others simply, “fled the cinema with their kids in tow.”

Having seen the film alone and at the back of an empty cinema, we can’t help but empathise just a little. It’s not just that Stetson’s score for Ari Aster’s remarkable debut feature elevates the anguish of each character to truly terrifying heights, but that it becomes one in itself, pinning you to your seat with catatonic force and holding you there for two hours while you gasp for air. The latest film from A24 is not so much a horror as, “a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare”, in the words of director Ari Aster. Combining grief with demonic possession and familial conflict, the film builds on the legacy of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to explore dysfunctional families at their corrosive worst.

Unlike other horror scores that announce their presence, Stetson’s work is subconsciously imbibed. Like the possessive spirits that pursue Toni Colette and her family, it feels largely unseen, tip-toeing behind you with a visceral energy you mistake for the pounding of your own heart until it delivers a moment of climactic paralysis. We caught up with the man behind the music, former Arcade Fire sax player, Colin Stetson, to discuss his role in the film (may contain spoilers).

Finn Blythe: Congratulations on the film, I was terrified but the score was brilliant. How did you first become involved?
Colin Stetson: Ari [Aster] called me. It must have been three years ago now, he was finishing the script and said he’d been listening to my music a lot while writing it. I figured that if he was able to make it the way that it read and the way that he wanted to make it, I’d want to be part of it. When things really started to roll in late 2016 and it looked like he was definitely getting it made, I began writing music to the script.

FB: So was it from the moment you read the script that you began to establish the character of the film’s score?
CS: Absolutely. The entire cue of Funeral for instance, all the main elements of that cue were things I wrote based off the script. The overall main character of the aesthetic, the instrument choices, the main themes, all of the leg work for that stuff was done early on.

FB: Would you say that because the score grew directly from the script, there’s more of an interaction between the score and individual characters?
CS: Yeah, the whole character of the score was designed to be just that: a character. It was less about specific themes and more about how the character of the score shared relationships with different people. It wants Peter, for example, it’s playing with him and it’s devious. With Charlie, it’s the focal point of everything. One of my favourite moments is at the end, the Steve cue where we really start to focus on his grief and sadness. I was trying to do two things: one, where it’s kind of playing with him, it’s mocking, but at the same time there’s a few tiny shreds of acknowledgement, letting the sentimentality of his moment come through.

FB: Speaking of individual moments, what was the importance of silence in the film?
CS: It’s huge. I never wanted the music to attract any attention to itself, I really wanted it to be seamless with the silence, as though the very nature of the score was almost an amplification of silence. The whole film is just shy of two hours and the score is almost 85 minutes, which is an enormous amount of music for a picture. Still, most people come away from it thinking, “Wow there was so much silence,” but it’s just that the silent moments are so accentuated and impactful. The decision, for example, to leave Toni [Colette]’s speech at the table silent, that interaction between her and Peter is made so much more real, raw and affecting because there’s no music trying to make you feel something.

FB: I know layering is hugely important to your process, but does a piece ever begin with just one emotion, instrument or note?
SC: All the time. A lot of people comment on Reborn and they’re like, “Oh my god that’s when it all came together,” and it is. By design, the whole score is a reconstruction of that piece of music. All of its elements have been, in one way or another, operative and ominous, hopefully hiding in plain sight, not quite revealing itself for what it truly is, and that’s a story of this triumphant return. The way I saw it, everything is at it’s core a reconstruction of that cue.

FB: Party Crash feels more internal than Reborn, it reminded me of a pulse, a heartbeat, it snuck up on me.
CS: Reborn is a fanfare, a coronation, this triumphant return, whereas something like Party Crash is really just the main impetus for everything. It’s that absurd and awful moment that really starts the momentum of the film’s narrative, that’s the point of inception. So I needed that to feel differently to the rest of the score, it needed to feel immediate and urgent. It creeps in through Peter’s experience, it’s desirous and the jumping off point for this spirit to go from Charlie to Peter. That manic energy is hungry, it’s rushing towards something and you know it is but you don’t know exactly what.

FB: How did you find coming up with a score that felt so dark?
CS: Approaching and expressing the darkness is maybe something that I have a greater affinity for. I’m not an overly dark person but my core understanding of the world is predominantly realistic, as are my views on what the nature of being is and the kind of animal that we are. So approaching darker themes, and darker means of attaining effects, is something that comes somewhat naturally to me and I’ve had some experience working on it.

FB: Am I right in thinking you used your voice for a lot of the effects?
CS: Yes. I think the first moment that it popped up is when Peter is in the classroom and sees his reflection smiling back at him. That’s me just doing this long drone chant, low in my range and also pitched down a little. That starts something that gradually reveals itself in the Reborn scene, but before then and all throughout, I was capturing the voice with a throat mic.

FB: And otherwise you used a lot of clarinet?
CS: I did use an enormous amount of clarinet. The more suspenseful moments, with these very stark, high pitched sounds – what might sound like strings being played in tremolo – it’s actually clarinets being layered on top of one another in a bunch of different ways with different polyrhythms and pitch classes to come up with these lovely little rubs.

FB: What was Ari’s involvement in the score?
CS: There was a back and forth on things, but in terms of the working relationship it couldn’t have been more positive. I was always respectful of his revisions because they always seemed to be very thoughtful. He was really into what I would be bringing, even if the things I brought were very different from the tempo that was in there. And when he had tweaks for me they would always make perfect sense and make the film work better in the ways it needed to.

Hereditary is out in cinemas now, buy the full soundtrack release here.