Musical Duo The Newton Brothers Hit a Chilling Note With ‘Midnight Mass’
John Andrew “Andy” Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart, aka The Newton Brothers, have composed a chilling, subtle, and intriguing score for director/producer Mike Flanagan’s 2021 Netflix mini-series, Midnight Mass.
The work blends elements of church hymns with experimental treatments of acoustic and electric instruments, producing a creepily delicate, solemn yet sinister take on the horror genre.
FRUITFUL PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN THE NEWTON BROTHERS’ AND MIKE FLANAGAN
The Newton Brothers and Flanagan have been working together for close to a decade. The trio first collaborated on Flanagan’s 2013 work Occulus.
When describing their initial collaboration, Flanagan remarked: “I just loved their sound and we just got along great, too. It was really clear that we spoke the same language when it came to movies and scores.
“It was one of the more fateful hirings, I think, of my career. We never had anybody else since that meeting. It was always The Newton Brothers.”
It is thus no surprise that The Newton Brothers have collaborated with Flanagan on every single project of his since then, ostensibly developing their careers as filmmaker and composers in parallel.
This is an interesting phenomenon that is analogous to the working relationships of composers and filmmakers like Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan, John Williams and Steven Spielberg, Danny Elfman and Tim Burton, and other notable pairs.
‘MIDNIGHT MASS’ SCORE COMBINES THE KNOWN AND UNKNOWN
Part of the brilliance of The Newton Brothers score for Midnight Mass lies in its combination of predictable and unpredictable elements.
The plot of the series develops around a small, isolated island named Crockett, which has fallen into poverty in the wake of an oil spill that decimated their fishing industry. The people of the town are deeply religious and most of their social life is based around the church and church functions.
When a new priest, Father Paul Hill, suddenly appears to replace the mysteriously vanished former clergyman Monsignor Pruitt, a slowly building cascade of seemingly miraculous events unfolds.
The Newton Brothers play on this religious theme quite well, employing a handful of church hymns with refreshed harmonisations.
The duo is also well situated to accommodate this kind of work. Andy grew up in a Catholic Church, performing in Church services in middle and high school, and is deeply familiar with the canon of hymns.
Andy’s prior experience paved the way for further exploration in this realm.
In an interview with website SlashFilm, Andy mentions that: “I knew a lot of these hymns by heart, but I don't think I'd ever paid attention to, really, to what they were saying, which is terrible to say, but in the last two years, I've paid tons of attention.
“It's brought deeper meaning to all of them, or brought a deeper meaning to me with all of them.”
Examples of hymns The Newton Brothers reworked for Midnight Mass include “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Come, Darkness”, and “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Originally, the reharmonisations were recorded by the composers multi-tracking their own voices. Once the pair realised their concept was working, they enlisted the skills of a range of vocalists and recorded them all remotely in 2021.
THE MUSICAL AMBIENCE, TEXTURE AND MOOD OF ‘MIDNIGHT MASS’
In addition to the extensive repurposing of Catholic Church liturgical music, The Newton Brothers composed a range of hauntingly atmospheric cues (songs) for strings, woodwinds and electronics.
Their cues never feel overpowering. Instead, they slowly coil the tension of the accompanying scenes, allowing the dramatic horror to unfold in its own course.
“Mortuus Feles” translates from Latin as “dead cat”. The cue opens with a single stroke from a deep string instrument, followed by contrasting pizzicato and arco stabs that continue to grow in volume and density.
The instruments begin to rhythmically disintegrate into an atonal pointalistic portrait, until a pizzicato viola figure punctuates the passage.
The cue quickly segues through a tremolo section with faster bowing movements in the higher strings until reaching some sort of recapitulation and recombination of the ideas presented in the first passage.
The cue “Dignity” hones back in on the Catholic Church vibe via the use of the Church organ.
It opens with a haunting harmonic oscillation between two watery, reverb-soaked chords and continues in this fashion, slowly building up the voices, for nearly two minutes. At this point, the harmonies break, like a slow wave breaking over the shore, and a short cadential harmonic progression ends the passage.
The second passage of the cue opens with a similar sort of oscillating two-chord progression, this time presented in a lower register of the organ and with a greater degree of dynamic swell and rhythmic freedom.
After a handful of repetitions, a brighter, higher-register organ sound is layered on top, like a beam of light shining through the clouds.
Like the first passage, the chords eventually break and move into a sort of cadential progression, this time with the inclusion of an even lower register organ sound, which finally completely fills out the sound of the organ.
The cue is a deep and beautiful example of the church organ in contemporary film music.
“Hurt” is a prime example of The Newton Brothers' string writing skills.
The cue is deep, dark, and elegantly resonant. A lofty, higher register string pad opens the cue, as a mournful cello melody emerges underneath.
The texture develops in this direction, repeating twice before a sudden explosion in orchestral density sends the cue down a Danny Elfman-esque rabbit hole.
The second passage of the cue includes a wider range of instruments including guitar and glockenspiel and moves through a classic harmonic progression that is something of a horror cliche. After reaching a climax with the addition of choir, the cue quickly fades with a slight string pad.
NEWTON BROTHERS? MORE LIKE DYNAMIC DUO
The Newton Brothers score for Midnight Mass blends repurposed Church hymns and organ music with experimental treatments of acoustic and electric instruments into a subtle, haunting, and compelling soundtrack.
The duo are well-versed in the world of horror music, having collaborated with director/producer Mike Flanagan on all his horror projects since 2013’s breakout work Oculus.
Stay tuned for their further collaborations and projects.
Cover Credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX
Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.