One might say that modern cinema’s scoring for Satan and his clergy hailed from Poland, as the cooing voices, sinister ceremonial melodies and eerie atmospheres of 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” came from composer Krysztof Komeda. He’d provide his dark mass in impregnating service of his countryman Roman Polanski as they set up their coven in Manhattan’s Dakota apartments. Now decades later, Poland’s new scoring Abel Korzeniowski proudly continues the tradition by going back to the Blumhouse beginning his Eastern European neck of the woods, drawing upon all the forces of his country’s richly melodic traditions with modernist darkness to spare for “The Nun.”
Introduced in “The Conjuring 2,” the hell-sent demon Valak makes an unholy mockery of The Cloth to bedevil The Warren family’s investigation of a London poltergeist. With its ghoul-faced image and formidable powers, Valak wasn’t able to steal its victims’ souls, but it sure stole the sequel in much the same way that the evil doll Annabelle did for “The Conjuring.” Now given a 1951-set spin off all its own to expand The Blumhouse’s horror universe, “The Nun” retraces the demon’s steps to the Transylvanian address of the Abbey of St. Carta, where the innocent initiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) and the fearful Father Burke (Demián Bichir) try to discover the truth of Valak (Bonnie Aarons), with prayer their only weapon.
As atmospherically directed by Englishman Corin Hardy, who made the memorable Ireland-set spore horror movie “The Hallow,” “The Nun” offers many basement chambers, forbidden tomes, sealed rooms, and of course jump scares for Korzeniowski to investigate in the best tradition of Satanic church scoring. Known for his gorgeously lyrical scores to “W.E.,” “A Single Man” and “Romeo and Juliet,” Korzeniowski showed his more fantastical, and richly symphonic talents with the sci-fi animation of “Battle for Terra” and the surreal Disneyland music of “Escape from Tomorrow,” as well as the imagined human horror of “Nocturnal Animals.” But no project showed that Korzeniowski had the real supernatural stuff like his three season run on Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” for which the composer unraveled a gorgeously gothic, and symphonically rampaging take on a re-imagined league of literature’s gods and monsters.
Now Korzeniowski makes a full-blooded leap into darkness with “The Nun” with a combination of his orchestral aplomb and more frenzied, Blumhouse-style scoring where modernism rears its startling, white-faced head. Conjuring church-horror scoring at its finest, all of the gleefully familiar vestments are here, from gonging bells to Lamb of God Latin choruses and unearthly moaning. But Korzeniowski is sure to up the ante with a veritable witch’s cauldron of hissing “voices,” chain-rattling percussion, symphonic stomping and majestic Wrath of God orchestral lightning bolts. Thematically merging creeping suspense with demon-pouncing strings and only a few, tender violins to provide succor from the overwhelming evil at hand, Korzeniowski maintains his own voice while speaking in the dissonant spirit of the Blumhouse sound. But given Korzeniowski, perhaps it’s today’s horror scoring that gets possessed instead by his indelibly melodic voice for the silent Valak.
As a child, did you find anything frightening about the church or its servants?
I grew up in a Catholic culture. We were immersed in everything within the Rites. I went to church every Sunday, I remember attending school with all the nuns – where we were beaten with rulers. I don’t remember anything ominous about the church except maybe what was in the biblical stories that included so much violence from which the religion is based upon – all of them speaking about this higher power, this big image. This was my childhood.
Now you’re primarily known for doing these incredibly lush scores for movies like “W.E” and “The Single Man,” What was it like for you to go from the dramatic to the horror scoring world with Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful?”
It was very much surprising because I always thought of myself as a melodic composer. I had to find a proper contrast to what was being shown, not just jump scares or a lot of noises, but to show both sides of the situation. I thought of the sense of dread and the things that scare us more, to find that place of why we do the things we do to make my music “scary.”
Did you have an appreciation for horror films to begin with?
I am not a great horror film watcher. Often at times, they are too strong for me. I don’t usually look for them on my own. But one that did stay with me was “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” because of its sense of romanticism and its score by Wojciech Kilar. I can watch it over and over again.
How did you become involved with “The Nun?”
This was through Warner Brothers and New Line. They thought the film could use some of my approach based upon all my scores. I got a chance to talk to the film’s director Corin Hardy, who was still filming in Romania at the time, and we connected very well. This was a really easy understanding about “The Nun” from early on because I was shown a lot of the principle photography at an early stage. That let me accumulate layers upon layers of ideas for the film.
I’m a big fan of Corin’s “The Hallow.” What was your relationship like with him on “The Nun?”
We worked very closely, and went step by step with the score. Corin really tried to make this as an atmospheric European horror film, to immerse the viewer to believing that they were in this abbey.
You can say that the start of the “modern” satanic score goes back to Krysztof Komeda’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” What kind of scores in that genre stand out for you, and did you want to pay homage to them with “The Nun?”
Komeda is certainly a highlight for me as a film music composer. He is the lighthouse to me for horror because he achieved something more than just the typical horror themes associated with horror film music. I also truly love Wojciech Kilar’s “Dracula” score, and wanted to pay homage to it with “The Nun.”
What do you think makes a “scary score,” and you ever scare yourself with “The Nun?”
I can’t say I know what a “scary score” is. But I can say what I feel when I write “scary” music, because we respond emotionally between what’s personal and what everybody else feels. I have to feel the sense of dread. I have to feel the jump scares — to know that their timing is right. My music has to affect me as if I was in the audience of “The Nun.” There are moments in this score where I would still jump every time I listen to it. It’s really strange because, sometimes, even though you know that something’s coming, it still startles you. So It’s that scary moment where the music is pulling our strings at precisely the right moment and we have no other way to react when it happens. It’s a knee jerk reaction, like where you hit your knee at a precise spot and your leg will always bounce! So there’s something to it in the horror film score, that part where it gets under your skin where it just stretches your senses and prepares you for the moment when that “jump” happens.
You could say that Blumhouse is the Marvel Universe of horror films, where it seems that every character is connected. When you got “The Nun,” did you just watch all of the Blumhouse movies to refer to the “Conjuring” universe to make sure your approached matched the other composers’ in it?
No, I did not. 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.
“The Nun” is an origin film for this demon, as well as set in the 1950’s. How did that play into the score?
Since “The Nun” was a period piece, it allowed me to use more elaborate melodic elements than “The Conjuring.” And because its setting is in an abbey in Romania, there are no modern musical elements like the other films. This helped affect my score by using Romanian musical elements, with the basic thinking that this was a part of Europe. So, there are influences of this being an Eastern Orthodox Church, with their characteristic of a male choir singing at an exceptional low range. This choir sounds an octave lower. Their basses sound just out of this world. It’s a very different type of singing, so I really wanted to have this quality in my choir where we could use singers who can go this low. Other voices were used for pagan rituals that were at the time described by the church as Satanic. Of course, they were not, but it is how they portrayed them – that pagans were something evil.
At points, these voices sound like a hissing witch’s coven that’s conjuring the devil.
Some of those vocal elements you mentioned—the hissing sounds, come from orchestral instruments, where the brass players were literally hissing into their instruments. Obviously, the throat singer was an important part of the score.
Blumhouse monsters don’t talk nearly as much as Freddy Krueger. Given that, how important was it for you to get inside of this demon’s head and speak for Valak?
The nun doesn’t speak much! Her theme in a way is a manifestation of that because it’s a choral phrase—like this calling, a sort of replacement of her voice.
Contrastingly, how did you want to portray Sister Irene’s goodness versus this overwhelming evil?
The spiritual aspect was equally important as came down to making that innocence feel real.
“The Nun” offers truly monstrous percussion, which at points sounds like chains being dragged across the floor and at others like some hellish Godzilla is stomping through the abbey. How did you achieve those effects?
For the first wild session, we did percussions, scratching sounds and orchestral elements. We also had seven huge bass drums that became an element of huge hits for the things we did throughout the score. We had a lot brass instruments playing to this drum that gave me an unusual type of brass chorus that naturally ring outs from this drum.
You’re a very melodic composer, where a lot of horror scores are very aleatoric and dissonant. How did you want to achieve that balance of crazy horror scoring and the kind of music you usually write?
I had to restrict myself to writing short and clean intensions with the score. This was a way of mentally trying to explore the intricate details in the performances that were beautiful and unsettling, On the other hand, I identified scenes that I thought really allowed for using horrific elements. Otherwise, I simply held writing those dissonant elements. I also waited for moments where I could use the orchestra in an epic way, or to evoke something metaphysical.
Having had your first taste of the Blumhouse universe, is this a galaxy you would like to explore further?
I would certainly like to have some time off, because horror scores can be taxing on my ears. Having worked on “The Nun” for ten months, I’ve realized how tired my ears have become because I always had to listen to the score at a loud volume to understand how it would work. I think that’s taken some sort of toll over that time. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the experience of working on “The Nun” with Corin – though I wouldn’t mind writing softer music for my next score!
Any concluding thoughts the state of horror scoring?
I think that there is room for music in the horror genre that goes beyond scaring people in the usual way. This is my goal – to write music that would stay with people besides the film itself. I think the horror genre allows for that.
“The Nun” spreads its terror on September 9th, with Abel Korzeniowski’s score available on WaterTower Music HERE
Listen to Abel Korzeniowsk’s scores for “Penny Dreadful” HERE
Visit Abel Korzeniowski’s website HERE
Special thanks to Alexander Portillo for transcribing this interview