Since 2007, Colin Stetson has scored no less than a dozen films ranging from shorts and documentaries to mainstream and foreign dramas. He's contributed music to a dozen more. That said, director Ari Aster's debut feature Hereditary marks the first time he's composed and performed a score for a horror film. Stetson's music has lent itself to cinema in the past for its propulsively rhythmic circular breathing exercises, expansive tonal properties, and atmospheric tension, as well as its dynamics and motion. Usually, his music is inherently physical, lending itself beautifully to moving images. Aster wrote the screenplay to Hereditary while listening to Stetson's New History Warfare albums, and he gave the script readers the final volume's "To See More Light" attached. He didn't want a traditional horror score; he wanted Stetson's music. The musician didn't want to write one, either. Instead, he followed the director's lone instruction: To make it feel evil.
Stetson amassed his usual truckload of woodwind and brass instruments (and utilized his electronically altered voice and, in several instances, Sarah Neufeld's violin) in others. He strategized new methods for creating original textures and atmospheres, utilizing harmonic abstraction rather than melodic repetition in his cues. His clarinets and bass clarinets are de-pitched; sometimes they sound like wood creaking, other times they are merely distorted and recognizable for what they are. Sounds effects are layered atop or inside drones, and others are stripped away from them; his guttural Tibetan-style throat chants emerge from darkened corners and swirl together with them and his saxophones. In the opening "Funeral," bass clarinet drones, violin, and electronics meet treated brass in an understated yet suffocatingly taut articulation of what's to come. On the long cue "Steve" near set's end, he employs a Giacinto Scelsi-esque brass section and Neufeld's violin in a brooding conversation pattered with unidentifiable sonics moving from the back to the front of the mix. Silence too is a key motivator for numerous cues as pieces emerge slowly and purposefully out of it, layering in a sense of menace. Skittering sax flutters emerge in the center of the mix only to disappear again from "Charlie," while "Party, Crash" is an ever-so-slowly emerging architecture of rattling percussion, groaning saxes that sound like didgeridoos, and thunderous strings. Some tracks don't fully conclude so much as abruptly end, adding to the dis-ease and resulting in an album that is as compelling to feel as it is to listen to. If there is a companion to the music for Hereditary, it's the long out of print -- and ultimately unused -- collection of themes that Coil composed for Clive Barker's Hellraiser. This score is wonderfully effective in its role as a genuinely creepy, even dreadful collection of music for a horror film. But more than this, it's another compelling example of Stetson's seemingly limitless musical vocabulary.