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THE NUN – Abel Korzeniowski

September 4, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the constant battles I have as a film music reviewer is between music I like and music that is good. Sometimes it’s easy, because the two are the same thing. Often I listen to a score and there are great memorable themes and big sweeping orchestras and powerful lush arrangements; there is a gorgeous love theme, and sometimes bold and exciting action music. This is the stuff I like. Then you get into the meat of it and it’s filled with really cool compositional ideas and contrapuntal writing and rhythmic devices, interesting ways of using the instruments through the orchestrations and via extended performance techniques, clever thematic interplay, and so on. This is when you know it’s good in purely musical terms – and that’s before you even get into things like in-film effectiveness. The problem arises when there’s a conflict, when the music is undeniably superb from a technical and compositional point of view, but it’s something I don’t particularly like listening to, and for me that arises most often in music for horror films. The latest score to give me that problem is The Nun, which is by the outrageously talented Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski.

The Nun is the fifth film in New Line Cinema’s massively popular Conjuring/Annabelle horror movie franchise, and is a spinoff/prequel which focuses on Valak, the ‘demon nun’ who was revealed to be the antagonist at the end of The Conjuring 2 in 2016, and who has since become a looming, threatening presence across the entire series. The film is set in Romania in the 1950s and stars Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga as Father Burke and Sister Irene, who are sent by the Vatican to a remote monastery in Transylvania to investigate the circumstances surrounding the recent suicide of one of its novitiates. The film is directed by Corin Hardy, and it’s important to point out the casting of Taissa Farmiga, as she is the younger sister of actress Vera Farmiga, who plays the lead role in the main Conjuring films.

It’s interesting to note how, in the last few years, Abel Korzeniowski’s career has taken a bit of a sharp left turn. When he first burst into the mainstream in 2009 he was immediately pegged as a traditional European classicist, and scores like A Simple Man, Copernicus Star, W. E., Escape from Tomorrow, and Romeo and Juliet confirmed that with their gorgeous, soaring romantic writing. However, since he was hired to score the Showtime Gothic horror TV series Penny Dreadful in 2014, his music has grown darker; having spent three seasons in the fog of Victorian London, a new-found appreciation for more sinister musical approaches has emerged through scores like Nocturnal Animals, and the Polish-language serial killer thriller Ziarno Prawdy, and has now reached its zenith in The Nun.

For my money, The Nun is probably the best pure horror score since Roque Baños’s Evil Dead in 2013. However, whereas Evil Dead got all up in your face and screamed metaphorical obscenities at you, The Nun creeps up behind you and whispers them into your ear. It’s a score which takes the familiar conventions of church music – specifically voices – and turns them on their head, corrupts them, and twists them into something unspeakable. It’s a score which makes use of a large symphony orchestra, but has the players do terrible things to their instruments, including scraping and screeching their strings, hissing and growling into their brass mouthpieces, and slamming the backs of their bows into the frames of their instruments. The end result of all this is a score which is almost a literal nightmare to listen to – but it’s also absolutely brilliant.

The battle between good and evil that perpetuates the entire work is perfectly expressed in the opening cue, “God Ends Here,” which begins with a wonderful combination of swirling romantic strings, angelic voices, brass chords, and rolling timpanis. The male voices that enter the cue half way through the piece are intended to represent a certain type of liturgical chanting prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but then after around 50 seconds one of the score’s defining ideas is introduced: a throat singer, growling like some sort of horrific animalistic presence, which acts as a recurring motif for Valak, the demon nun itself.

The only other theme of real significance is the one for “Sister Irene,” a 7-note theme which uses woodwinds and a solo violin to carry the melody, and has a sense of innocence, a lightness, as well as some liturgical overtones through the use of choir. Hints of her theme run through the subsequent “The Abbey of St. Carta,” which features both male and female voices layered against each other contrapuntally, and carries a real sense of foreboding from the brooding textures in the brass.

Everything else in the meat of the score is pure, undiluted horror, and this is where Korzeniowski will lose a lot of listeners who simply cannot cope with this level of intense dissonance. “Sacrifice” introduces many of the ideas that Korzeniowski uses throughout this central core of terror, a battering ram of brass clusters, shrieking strings, low male voices, all building to a huge explosive finale. The entire 20 minute sequence from “Hanging Nun” through to “Burning Cross” sees Korzeniowski exploring the darkest and most antagonistic parts of his musical personality, and emerging with a range of sounds that are almost unimaginably horrifying. What’s impressive about this, though, is that he never sacrifices the actual musical content of the score: what could easily have been little more than disorganized noise is clearly and identifiably arranged with performance techniques that can trace its lineage back to a range of avant-garde composers, including Korzeniowski’s own former teacher Krzysztof Penderecki.

Not only that, there is also clearly an intellectual quality working through it all, where Korzeniowski returns to specific textures and sounds repeatedly to acknowledge events and ideas. “Valak” re-introduces the throat singing motif specifically associated with that character, and surrounds it with keening cellos, dark religioso choirs, and rolling timpanis, all of which give the cue a sense of destiny and importance. Later, frantic string runs and enormous outbursts of Kilar-esque brass-led action build up to an angry finale. The Valak throat singing motif re-appears frequently, in cues such as “Corridor of Crosses” and “Branded by the Demon,” keeping the habit-shrouded monster at the center of the score.

As I mentioned earlier, the intellectual quality extends to the performance techniques too, some of which are quite extraordinary. During the recording sessions for the score reports emerged that Korzeniowski had designed some sort of brand new notation system for his string players that would allow them to play highly unusual combinations of sounds that conventional notation did not usually permit. Whether this is true or not I don’t know – my lack of music theory knowledge lets me down here – but some of the things the strings do in some of these middle-album cues are truly mind-bending. And then there are cues like “Lost Souls” and “Anything But Holy,” which are just so unremittingly evil-sounding I don’t know how Korzeniowski managed to sleep at night after writing them. In these cues the music is filled with croaks, groans, hisses, sequences of col legno and pizzicato, tolling bells, and then it fills your head with guttural whispering, the voices of the damned emanating from hell.

Meanwhile, “Perpetual Adoration” and “Ice House” offer some of the score’s few moments of rampant action music; the former is a superb sequence for throbbing brass figures, while the latter has some brief tonality in the strings, and chilly female vocals, before they are quickly overcome with more ghastly dissonance – brass clusters, groaning strings, wooden thumping, and hissing into mouthpieces.

The score’s finale begins in “They’re All Gone,” which offers a brief moment of respite from the onslaught with light female vocals, warmer strings and woodwinds, and a slightly sorrowful, reflective tone to the brasses and strings. The subsequent “Handmaid of God” offers a forceful, determined setting of Sister Irene’s theme, orchestrated similarly to the opening cue, and punctuated with defiantly hopeful female vocals singing Latin texts – clearly, this is the heroic young believer steeling herself for a final confrontation, calling on God for strength and deliverance. “Into the Abyss” is all about tension and apprehension, and lasts for almost three nerve-shredding minutes, before being broken by a huge explosion of the Valak growl motif at the end; this leads us into “Possessed,” which is truly frightening, especially when the howling, moaning voices emerge.

Everything comes to a head in the conclusive “Deliver Us from Evil,” in which Korzeniowski offers a battle between two ideals, good vs. evil. Here, the Valak motif is surrounded by more powerful orchestral chords and bold, fierce dissonance, to make it sound even more threatening; however, Valak’s music is clearly counterbalanced by forces of light, represented by more of the tonal choral textures and warmer string and brass chords of Sister Irene’s theme, cutting through the darkness. This powerful musical battle allows the film to end on a high, and in the final cue, “‘Cause I Have Faith,” the warm cello chords feel cathartic, the subtle choral textures are breathing a sigh of relief, and the statement of Sister Irene’s theme indicates that she has been victorious – but it ends with a splash of darkness to signify that, as is always the case in films like this, evil remains.

As I mentioned earlier in the review, The Nun is probably the best horror score to emerge from mainstream Hollywood in several years. The compositional technique on display is excellent, the way the Korzeniowski uses his orchestra in an array of fascinating and complicated ways is quite outstanding, the intellectual content of the score is exemplary, and the way it remains wholly musical despite being a challenging listen is something worth celebrating. But, make no mistake: The Nun is a very, very challenging, sometimes quite brutal listening experience, which features long sequences of some of the most avant-garde, dissonant, and outright terrifying orchestral and choral writing you are ever likely to hear. So, to come back to the question I offered up in the opening paragraph: do I like listening to it? Hand on heart, no, not really. But is it good? Yes – it’s absolutely fantastic.

Buy the Nun soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • God Ends Here (1:42)
  • Sacrifice (2:30)
  • Sister Irene (1:07)
  • The Abbey of St. Carta (2:19)
  • Hanging Nun (2:51)
  • Valak (2:59)
  • Lost Souls (2:17)
  • Anything but Holy (3:23)
  • Veiled Mirrors (1:04)
  • Corridor of Crosses (1:33)
  • Perpetual Adoration (1:48)
  • Ice House (1:22)
  • Branded by the Demon (2:42)
  • Burning Cross (1:01)
  • They’re All Gone (1:50)
  • Handmaid of God (3:14)
  • Into the Abyss (3:09)
  • Possessed (1:42)
  • Deliver Us from Evil (3:06)
  • ‘Cause I Have Faith (3:32)

Running Time: 45 minutes 19 seconds

Watertower Music WTM-40106 (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Abel Korzeniowski. Orchestrations by Abel Korzeniowski. Recorded and mixed by James T. Hill. Edited by Nate Underkuffler and Lise Richardson. Album produced by Abel Korzeniowski.

  1. September 4, 2018 at 10:10 am

    A very honest and thorough review.

  2. Anthony Aguilar
    September 6, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    Fantastic review as always Jon! You’re always better able to describe what is happening musically than I am. I love what Korzienowski did with the orchestra here and the creative avenues he took.

    I also enjoy the music!! I guess that makes me very strange indeed!

  1. July 29, 2021 at 12:07 pm

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