Colin Stetson Interview: ‘Barkskins’ composer
You could say that “Barkskins” showrunner Elwood Reid and composer Colin Stetson were meant to work together. “When we met [about the show], it was this immediate camaraderie, immediate good vibes. I adore that man. It turned out he was a bouncer in a club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I grew up and went to school, and this club I played at four times a week,” Stetson revealed during Gold Derby’s Meet the BTL Experts: Composers panel (watch above). “So we no doubt had crossed paths many times. We talked about the show. I loved his vision for it, which was very, very unconventional as far as pieces of its ilk that I’ve known of. We bonded over a mutual love of black metal and I was in from the first hour.”
Based on the novel of the same name by Annie Proulx, the Nat Geo limited series covers the deforestation of the New World and features an ensemble cast led by David Thewlis and Marcia Gay Harden. From the get-go, Stetson establishes an unsettling sound in the pilot, which he is submitting at the Emmys — a sonic manifestation of “man vs. nature” and the vast mysteriousness and uncertainty of nature and the forest.
“The first meeting I had with Elwood and the director, David Slade, David turned to me and I didn’t know exactly what the direction was, so I was assuming they would be some element of convention to the approach, and he dispelled all of that in one second,” Stetson recalled. “He just said, ‘I want this to be terrifying. I want to truly portray the sound of the forest, something that is true wilderness, true lawlessness. I want this to be you feel the music as the sound of the blood pumping through your ears as you’re running for your life.’ So that’s my wheelhouse. I was like, ‘OK, great! I know how to start.’ Truly the spark of it all was the sound of the forest and it is a remarkably poetic and mysterious, but it’s also remarkably vague as an indicator of music and where we’re going to go from there.”
Stetson, whose credits include “Hereditary” (2018) and Hulu’s “The First,” decided to create the “sound of the forest” literally and metaphorically instead of choosing one or the other. For the latter, he centered on the sound of air.
“Not of blowing wind, but just of the airiness of this ambient texture of air blowing through leaves, rustling through the trees,” he explained. “And you also have this ever-present creaking of the very gradual sway of tall trunks and limbs. And I took those two things in mind and merged the combination of my own voice singing undulously, creating melodies. Most of the cues are based on a bed of melodic flow-based vocal that is mic’d to be very, very airy … and a section of contrabasses that are playing along with my sum notes in unison and creating this unison in undulation in melody and then mixed very, very hairy, very string-heavy and creaky, groan-y so you get that feel of a visceral crunch and sway at the base of everything.”
And for literal forest sounds, Stetson turned to animal recordings – including from one you would not find among the trees. “I pulled numerous field recordings of a lot of different kinds of birds, finches and ravens, lots of squirrels — mostly red squirrel sounds, which is an awful bark but one that I’ve heard so many times and I was very excited to use it in music — and then actually I snuck in a sea lion because it was just perfect,” he shared. “I used these sounds and stretched them and run them through various harmonic generators and processes so they can become part of the melodic and rhythmic textures.”