And that’s an intentional and crucial part of Korven’s approach. While he uses the familiar chaotic and malevolent strings that we’re so used to in the genre, their source is less traditional, at least for a modern score. Appearing are the Spanish Viol, the Finnish Jouhikko, and the Swedish Nyckelharpa, stringed instruments that range from the 14th century to the 18th, as well as the infamous Hurdy-gurdy (probably still best known from the Donovan song so memorably used in David Fincher’s Zodiac), together with the cello and waterphone (the latter of which was a staple of Bernard Herrmann). So while the instruments themselves are perhaps appropriate for the film in terms of period, they also work to unsettle us a bit – they’re certainly familiar, but there’s something in there that we don’t recognise.
And then there’s The Element Choir, a group led by folk artist Christine Duncan who are responsible for the frankly horrific choral parts in the score (horrific in a good way, of course). Just listen to the wordless underlying chorus in ‘A Witch Stole Sam’, or the floating, ghostly voices in ‘William’s Confession’. They’re also responsible for the most terrifying moment in the score, ‘Witches Coven’, which is essentially the chorus furiously chanting incantations in an unknown language. It’s a chilling moment, and I say that listening to it on a Tuesday afternoon. Do I dare play it late at night?
I’m not especially prone to hyperbole, but much of The VVitch is a deeply uncomfortable listen. As mentioned earlier, it’s full of dissonance and atonal pieces, with the score constantly shifting and warping, creaking. The percussion sections sound like they were literally created with tree branches and sticks, something that feels consistent with the setting of the story and the imagery that comes with witchcraft. And there’s one moment during ‘Caleb Is Lost’ where the strings produce this horrible gutteral growl that genuinely made me shiver.
I haven’t seen the film of The VVitch so I can only go by this soundtrack, but what Mark Korven has composed is able to work all by its lonesome, which is not always guaranteed when it comes to these kind of scores. But it’s an utterly rewarding listen, not only in the way it’s able to creep you out but also the haunting beauty contained within, such as the two solo string tracks that bookend the album, as well as ‘Isle of Wight’, which is a wonderful folk song. Get ready for The VVitch – to quote the tagline for a classic horror movie, it knows what scares you.