Home > Reviews > HEREDITARY – Colin Stetson

HEREDITARY – Colin Stetson

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the days and weeks after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Hereditary quickly became one of the most anticipated and critically lauded horror films in years. It marks the feature debut of writer-director Ari Aster, and is a devastating familial drama dressed up as a psychological chiller. Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, wife to Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and mother to teenage children Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff), and the story begins in the aftermath of her mother Ellen’s death. Ellen was a secretive and somewhat unpleasant woman, and her passing initially comes as something of a relief to the family; however, before long, strange things begin occurring in the Graham household, many of which appear to be centered around young Charlie, who has a withdrawn and moody personality of her own. As the events become more and more disturbing, dark secrets from the family’s past begin to emerge, culminating in a shocking ending, bathed in blood and fire.

The whole thing is a slow-burn exercise in chest-tightening tension and oppressive atmosphere, anchored by a tour-de-force performance by Toni Collette as a mother whose grip on reality – and her own sanity – starts to come apart at the seams with each new revelation. The film eschews the gruesome gore and jump-scares typical of most contemporary horror films, relying instead on increasingly unsettling imagery and an overwhelming sense of dread and impending doom, which gives it more in common with horror films from the 1960s, 70s, and early 1980s like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Shining. What’s also impressive about the film is its mundane realism; these are (for the most part) normal people reacting as a normal person would in these extraordinary supernatural circumstances – Gabriel Byrne’s world-weary incredulity stands at odds with Collette’s increasingly panicked histrionics, while the ever-excellent Ann Dowd brings a homely comfortableness to her supporting role as a member of a grief support group to whom there is more than meets the eye. I thought Hereditary was a very good film on all fronts – both artistic and technical – with one notable exception. Can you guess what it is?

The score for Hereditary is by American composer and instrumentalist Colin Stetson, a saxophone player by trade, who has worked with a multitude of contemporary artists in the pop and rock worlds from Arcade Fire and Bon Iver to Tom Waits, Lou Reed, David Byrne, and The Chemical Brothers. Online material about Stetson indicates that he is a composer with an interest in the avant garde, the experimental, and the atonal, whose saxophone performances highlight his proficiency at ‘extended techniques’ including circular breathing, multiphonics, reed vocalizations, percussive valve-work, clicking keys, and growling. This is Stetson’s first major score – his previous work is limited to short films, documentaries, and small arthouse fare – so for the vast majority of people reading this, Hereditary will be their first experience of his work. Based on their reaction to it, it also may be their last.

Whenever I review horror scores like Hereditary, I’m constantly in a battle between my heart and my head. I’ve written this sentence many times before, but it bears repeating: many people will say that the film composer’s first, and possibly only, job is to serve the film and provide the director with the sort of music they ask for. Ari Aster was listening to Stetson’s solo work while writing the screenplay for Hereditary, and in interviews has called him his ‘muse,’ so it’s clear that Stetson’s unique musical style was strongly implanted in his head from the get go. Aster told Stetson that he wanted music which “felt evil,” and which avoided “any semblance of sentimentality or nostalgia.” In response to this, Stetson wrote a score which is filled with droning menace and discordant bursts. In interviews, Stetson says that he “wanted to avoid the ubiquitous musical tropes found throughout the genre and throughout film scoring in general,” and as such avoided the conventional use of strings, synths, and what he described as “creepy percussion’. Instead, Stetson wrote a score which is written mainly for woodwinds, brass, and Stetson’s own voice, but which is performed using those aforementioned extended techniques so that they are virtually unrecognizable.

What sounds like strings is actually a clarinet doubled with vocals, manipulated to within an inch of their lives. What sounds like synths is actually a contrabass clarinet and bass clarinet blended together, de-pitched and then magnified in post production to give them what Stetson calls “a deep, creaking, woody quality.” What sounds like percussion is actually the keys on the woodwind instruments, miked so closely and so loudly that, when the playback is heard, they sound like booming drums. From a technical point of view this is all quite fascinating, and from a collaborative point of view this is exactly what the director wanted. Case closed, job done. Except, of course, it’s not that easy.

While Stetson absolutely fulfilled the director’s artistic vision, for me the score was a failure. From the first frame to the last, Stetson’s music is all oppression, all the time, which for me shows a lack of appreciation for what film music, especially film music in juxtaposition, can do. By being nothing but ominous, Stetson misses several opportunities to make the film have auditory depth; I have always felt that, if a composer offsets the terror with moments of lightness, it makes the more horrific moments feel more horrific when they eventually come. Instead, Stetson makes everything feel horrific even when it isn’t especially so; simple scenes of someone chopping nuts, or making dinner, or crossing a street, are overwhelmed with doom-laden music, but there’s no payoff – nothing happens. It’s a red herring. Then, when something that’s meant to be scary appears on screen – a shadow lurking in a corner, a terrible revelation, an unexpected decapitation – the same music as before is still playing, so the effect is nullified.

Contrast this with classic horror scores by people like Jerry Goldsmith for The Omen, Krzysztof Komeda for Rosemary’s Baby, or pretty much anything by someone like Christopher Young or Elliot Goldenthal, and the difference is clear. These composers understood light and shade, narrative tension, build-up and release. The emotional horror movie high, when the audience is in the grip of the film and on the edge of its seat, feels earned, and is more impactful. From my point of view Stetson’s music doesn’t seem to understand any of this. Of course, this is only his first major score, and so this deeper understanding of narrative nuance and storytelling may come with time, but naturally many mainstream film critics, especially those in indie circles, have been praising his work to high heaven, which confounds me no end.

The other aspect of this, of course, is the fact that a soundtrack album exists, which people can buy and listen to. As I mentioned earlier, the musical and technical aspects of Stetson’s music are very impressive, especially with regard to the unique instrumental combinations and the extended performance techniques. But, my God, the album is an absolute nightmare to sit down and listen to. Anyone with an ear for extreme dissonance, groaning and wailing, and abstract sound effects, punctuated with ear-drum splitting explosions of noise, will find Hereditary to their liking. However, anyone who values out-dated concepts like themes, melodies, harmony, consonance, or anything resembling actual music will do very well to stay away.

I actually don’t think I have the vocabulary to review Hereditary in the usual way, because it exists so far outside the film music world I know. I can’t talk about themes or motifs, because there don’t seem to be any. I can’t talk about the overarching structure of the score because it doesn’t seem to have one. I’ve already talked about the unusual way Stetson uses his instruments and his own voice to create these nightmarish sounds, so to repeat myself again here would be redundant. Beyond that, I find myself struggling to comprehend much of what’s going on during its entire 71-minute running time – not because it’s especially intellectual or complex, but because you have to describe it like you would sound effects, rather than how you would music. It’s loud. It’s grating. It’s mostly an ambient drone underpinned with bass rumbles, but sometimes it becomes obnoxious and shouty, like during the conclusions of “Book Burning” and “Joanie”. Much of the 8-minute cue “Steve” is like this too, as are the brutal and brain-crushing pair comprising “Peter” and “The Attic.”

There are great guttural groans, and sequences of incessant percussive clattering too, as well as a few especially disturbing moments where a phalanx of marine mammals appear to be emerging from the depths, booming angry whale song at you – listen to “Dreaming” for a prime example of that sound. Sometimes it appears to be mimicking the sound of nature or the human body – the flapping of bat wings, pencils scratching on paper, or the sound of breathing and your heartbeat pumping in your ears, which is most notable in “Séance Sleepwalking.” At other times it appears to be channeling household appliances or pieces of software. There’s a recurring noise across several cues which sounds like a warped version of the startup music from an old version of Windows, while in “Aftermath” and later in “Second Séance Pt. 3” it sounds as though Stetson may have sampled the noise of an industrial jackhammer.

Throbbing pulses combine with screaming saxophones in “Brother & Sister” and again in “Charlie,” the latter of which sounds like it might also make use of a didgeridoo, but I can’t be sure. This might actually be one moment where Stetson takes a musical concept and relates it directly to a scene – the circular breathing required to perform the traditional Australian Aboriginal instrument cleverly mirrors what is happening in the film at that point. There are perhaps two other moments in the score which come close to sounding like actual music: at the beginning of “Mothers & Daughters,” and in the conclusive pair “Reborn” and “Hail Paemon,” where bitterly morose woodwind instruments combine with deep voices, metallic chimes, and darkly twisted pseudo-brass fanfares to create an uneasy liturgical sound of demonic worship. However, even these moments of relative beauty quickly fade away into more tortured anguish. The one and only piece of score which sounds like something approaching traditional action music is the sadly brief “Chasing Peter,” which only lasts for 37 seconds but has some knockout percussion rhythms and finishes with a massive collision of garish, Stravinsky-esque brass.

I’m not really sure where all this leaves me in terms of a recommendation. Stetson’s music is massively challenging on all levels, and anyone whose tolerance for extreme dissonance is low will find themselves switching this off almost immediately. As film music, as I mentioned earlier, I think it represents a storytelling failure on the part of both the director and the composer, and in context it harms the film more than it helps it – but this is the director’s vision, and one has to respect that Stetson provided music which spoke to that. As a standalone listening experience I found it tough going. Really tough, in fact, almost to the point where I couldn’t stand to listen to it anymore. But, still, there’s something weirdly fascinating about what Stetson is doing here, and as an intellectual exercise it’s interesting to actually sit and listen to how he works his clarinets, how he uses his voice to create a multitude of unearthly sounds, and how it all comes together in the end to form a twisted hymn, worshipping at the altar of a vile and corrupted church.

Buy the Hereditary soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Funeral (6:06)
  • Mothers & Daughters (3:00)
  • Brother & Sister (2:26)
  • Charlie (2:56)
  • Party, Crash (4:45)
  • Mourning (4:45)
  • Aftermath (4:22)
  • Séance Sleepwalking (4:56)
  • Second Séance Pt. 1 (0:57)
  • Second Séance Pt. 2 (0:40)
  • Second Séance Pt. 3 (1:16)
  • Classroom (2:05)
  • Dreaming (2:29)
  • Book Burning (1:47)
  • Joanie (1:47)
  • Get Out (1:21)
  • Leigh’s Things (5:42)
  • Steve (8:17)
  • Peter (3:40)
  • Chasing Peter (0:37)
  • The Attic (2:25)
  • Reborn (3:51)
  • Hail, Paemon! (0:55)

Running Time: 71 minutes 17 seconds

Milan Records (2018)

Music composed by Colin Stetson. Album produced by Colin Stetson.

  1. Michael
    June 15, 2018 at 5:05 pm

    “Based on their reaction to it, it also may be their last.”

    Yeah. Because composers are picked to score films depending of the reaction of film music fans and critics.

    • June 15, 2018 at 6:05 pm

      Your continuing ability to completely misunderstand the points I make astounds me. Well done Yonathan!

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