• Ben Erickson

The Nun

The Nun is a gothic supernatural horror story directed by Englishman Corin Hardy. The prequel is set in 1950s Romania and focuses on the origins of the demon Valak, previously appearing in earlier films of the shared Conjuring universe, with a score by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski. He comes from a family of musicians, studying at the Academy of Music in Krakow under famed concert composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and moving on to score numerous Polish films. His work on the films A Single Man and W.E. each earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and he has won several prestigious awards for his compositions besides, best known for his contributions to the television series Penny Dreadful. Korzeniowski happens to be the most recent in a long line of Polish composers whose influence has shaped the modern cinematic scoring style for horror. The original 1968 Rosemary's Baby and a handful of other films by director Roman Polanski were the first in this line, composed by Krzysztof Komeda. Pendericki's work too, though not written for the screen, has also been used in film to great effect, including the original 1973 The Exorcist and The Shining, birthing new musical ideas in cinematic horror and developing the genre as a whole. Korzeniowski admitted that his work on The Nun also pays homage to Wojciech Kilar's score for Bram Stoker's Dracula, which has had a marked impact on horror scores for its unique thematic conception. The first two Conjuring films were directed and scored by James Wan and Joseph Bishara respectively, joining forces again after their success on the popular 2010 horror Insidious. Bishara came to film music through a blend of classical music heritage and industrial rock, offering inventive techniques hand in hand with string quartets and warped pianos that have created a distinct quality of sound to his writing. Korzeniowski's writing definitely captures the spirit of this chaos while developing its own thematic continuity for The Nun. However, the habit-wearing demon certainly pushed the self-professed melodically driven composer to abandon melody for much of the score's design, turning instead to extended techniques and concise aleatoric passages. Korzeniowski spent ten months working on the score, crafting a particularly challenging sonic experience for the viewer. The orchestra was bolstered with seven massive bass drums and all manner of dangerous percussion, adding a bombastic layer of dread, but by far the most effective artifice was the choir. Sacrilegious imitations of pagan rites and Eastern European Orthodox influence take hold as the male vocalists chant with a deep, ungodly range. The bass chorus signals Valak's presence, joined by what sounds like a death metal band vocalist howling and grumbling into a microphone as they recite a chant for the demon. This chant is introduced early in the film with Valak's first appearance ("Sacrifice") and appears more as the dominant thematic musical element. A similar device supported by basso voce is performed by double bass and celli, used to represent the Cârța Monastery. It is first heard as Sister Irene, Father Burke, and Maurice travel to the abbey immediately following a dire angelic outburst from the chorus over a decadent landscape shot ("The Abbey of St. Carta").

Valak's chant is the dominant figure of the score, moving with slow but sinister purpose. The chromatic ascension in its latter half serves to heighten the demon's power upon falling once more to the reciting tone. Sister Irene's theme has a modest design to match the rosy and humble demeanor of the character, embellished with a cheerful skip-step figure in the first phrase. Lastly, the baleful Abbey motif begins on the low A-flat tonic, used as a transitional device to mercilessly plunge the viewer into the dark depths of the Abbey without warning.

The treble chorus meanwhile continually attempts a séance throughout the film, hissing as if part of a witch coven alongside a number of brass players who were instructed to hiss into their instruments. In addition text from the Latin mass permeates the score, taken up in the treble voices to encourage the good will of Sister Irene ("Valak"), and signifying the find of a certain holy relic with the words Sanguine Jesu Christi ("Handmaid of God"). Sister Irene's theme is imbued with stolid hope, led by flutes and a radiant, lyrical soprano. It follows her progress throughout the investigation, accompanying her introduction in the film ("Sister Irene"); cautiously reappearing when the group reaches the abbey and earnestly returning once again when she takes her final vows. The "Handmaid of God" cue uses changing time signatures between 6/8 and 5/8, allowing for an elaborated turnaround in the string pattern that subtly puts the listening off-kilter with the soprano entry.

Given The Nun is one of five films now produced in the first shared horror universe its use of aleatoric music raises an interesting question of whether or not the films should account for musical continuity. The very question of how one might capture musical continuity within largely aleatoric compositions, or whether it is enough that each score contains aleatoric textures, is itself a difficult one. When asked about this in an interview the composer said, "I usually don’t really want to reference other movies, but I did watch the first two Conjuring movies to see what the audience wanted to expect in a thematic way towards the film. I felt I owed it to the audience to understand this relationship with these movies and their scores. If I had written The Nun without the knowledge of the previous films, I would have written it in a more romantic style, with more counterpoint and less electronics. I tried to make this more of an earlier form of horror scoring, and more orchestral than the previous films, which were more modern sounding." Note: In the simplest terms aleatoric music can be described as a musical composition containing elements of chance or indeterminacy. Certain elements such as pitch and articulation may be defined, while other elements such as tempo or rhythm may be left undefined. The score in many cases will appear as a relatively limited number of measures, with each bar indicating a change in pattern or style for each instrument, and rather than beat in time the conductor will cue each individual measure change separately (as can be seen by Korzeniowski in the recording studio here). And the peak of these passages typically results in a thick web of inconceivable dissonance suitably applicable to horror. The romantic qualities Korzeniowski referred to are still present in the thematic material and elsewhere, if minimalized. The heroic horn blast for one, performed at Maurice's sudden reappearance late in the film, is an amusing example of such. And even the "Handmaid of God" cue suggests an inclination toward romanticism with undulating strings motivating a soprano choral entry (see excerpt above). This same cue that engrosses our attention leading into the final act contains a grave utterance of the words Finit Hic Deo, mirroring the sentiments written across the ominous wooden door in the lower abbey depths. The end game furthermore sees the most critical and drastic union of the composer's architecture, combining the myriad devices created thus far and facilitating the eternal conflict of heaven and hell in its emotional affection. Altogether Korzeniowski has written an incredibly thoughtful and satisfying score for The Nun, richly invested with pure musicality and visceral fear on a scale deserving of a grand gothic cathedral.