In Solo Works and Soundtracks, Colin Stetson Follows a Narrative


Baritone saxophonist Colin Stetson, who’s worked with acts like Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Tom Waits and The National, has become a sought-after composer of film and video game music.

(Photo: Jonathan Durand/

Colin Stetson’s music is not for the faint of heart.

The baritone saxophonist—whose solo recordings are a rumbling mix of low-tone drones, swirling melodies and a percussive combination of valve clicks and thumps drawn from his instrument—occupies an evocative musical category unto himself.

This might be what has made Stetson an increasingly frequent resource for directors and game designers, who have called on his perspective for the Hulu series The First, as well as the game “Red Dead Redemption 2.” And in 2018, he provided haunted sonic backdrops for Ari Aster’s terrifying occult film Hereditary. For his latest project, Stetson has ventured into another world of extremes with his score for Color Out of Space, a mind-bending science fiction venture that teams actor Nicolas Cage and director Richard Stanley for an adaptation of a H.P. Lovecraft story. The soundtrack is set for release on vinyl through Waxwork Records on March 17.

During a recent interview with DownBeat, Stetson chatted about his creative process and the difference between his approaches for film music and his own solo releases.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve done a few soundtracks now, so how does your process differ in making music for the screen versus your own albums?

I’ve always worked rather visually and narrative-forward when I’m making my own records, but of course it’s very different. I know that many people, the way that they score film is much the way that they make a record, where they write music, they write themes, they write some interludes, they write some variations on those themes, and they get them approved by the production. I track everything to picture. So, every inch of an 88-minute score has been scored and tracked into the picture largely by me, performing-wise. And so it does take an enormous amount of time in that regard.

But the biggest difference between a solo record and [soundtrack] is that film is a collaboration. I’m working for a director, for producers, for the filmmaking team. Each [project] is very different with regard to how much people are going to be involved and how vocal they are going to be in the process. But when I make a solo record, it is a truly solitary creative endeavor.

Has the transition to soundtrack work been a natural one for you?

It has ... practically all the directors I worked for early on approached me because they felt that the solo music was already very cinematic, very narrative, very visual in how they interpreted it. It was nice to kind of have that affirmation and acknowledgement that what I was seeing and trying to imbue the music with was translating to people on the other end who worked on a different side of things.

When you’re composing your solo records, is that “cinematic” quality something you’re reaching for already?

Very much so. The trilogy of solo records—New History Warfare one, two and three—there was a very distinct narrative; kind of this minimalist-surrealist adventure narrative that I used in conjunction with writing the music. It’s not that I need people to read that, or be privy to those stories in order to understand the music. In fact, I’d rather that I didn’t inform people as to how they’re supposed to experience it. It’s just a way that I work and a process that’s always been helpful to me, so that I can hold the music to the standard of eliciting the kind of imagery or emotional response that I want—or not. And if not, then what else does it need?

I read that for Hereditary, the director wanted your score to “feel evil.” Did you receive similar notes from Richard about the Lovecraft movie?

A lot of it was just questions, posing questions. I think initially, the first question came as an email: ‘Imagine that we have this alien life force, this thing that manifests itself as some kind of color on the light spectrum that does not exist in our reality. What does that sound like?’ That’s an awesome question. How do we portray those levels of information, but avoid the sense of this just being white noise and still music?

The first thing I did was take the sound of coral reefs, which is quite cacophonous, and this buzzing of percussive clicks and wheezes. I took a few of those and processed them in various ways, and then added to that some more unconventional woodwind playing that was run through similar processors to come up with what became the cosmic-color sound. It is hyper-dense information made musical, in a sense. That was where it started.

Your solo records are very much self-contained operations. Does it feel freeing to have so many more instruments at your disposal for a soundtrack?

I thrive in having pretty strict parameters. For instance in the solo music, I gave myself these rules some 20 years ago: no overdubs, no loops, no effects, no outside help. If I want to overcome a musical obstacle, I have to do it between myself and my horn. In scoring, I can utilize the same techniques and abilities that I’ve gathered in the solo years, but I’m not limited to them in terms of the music at my disposal. On this record, I’m playing everything on the record except for the strings. I still work largely in-house in terms of the way I like to challenge myself ... and then understanding when there’s certain tasks that really take the expertise of someone who has a lifetime of experience on their instrument.

It seems like you’re drawn to extreme subject matter for your soundtrack work. Are you a fan of horror and sci-fi?

I wouldn’t say that I’m a straight-up “horror fan,” nor would I really say that I’m a straight-up fan of any one genre of movie or music. I do like to work with people who have vision and are not afraid of doing something which may have effects. I feel like there’s no reason to do any of this, unless we’re making some amount of waves; unless we’re having some discernible effect on people. Playing it safe has never been very attractive to me. DB

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