Keeping Score – A Conversation in Two Parts with Academy Award Nominee Nicholas Britell

Feb 12, 2019 By Charles Steinberg Photography by Dominic Nicholls
Bookmark and Share


I first heard the term “A-Alikes” on a hip-hop track. A little background research tells me that MC Shan used it on one of his verses in 1988, but I encountered it listening to Wu-Tang Clan during the mid-‘90s. “Build with my a-alikes,” rapped Ghost Face on Raekwon’s infectiously moody “Rainy Dayz”. After that, you started to hear it everywhere. I subsequently found out that people are a-alikes when they can recognize the same driving force and substance in one another. “Mind detect mind”, a similar expression, gets at the same idea. When thinking about how to characterize the artistic connection between Director Barry Jenkins and Composer Nicholas Britell, these terms seem fitting.

While prodigious at classical piano from a young age, Britell would likely recognize this lyrical nomenclature. Like me, he grew up in Manhattan during a time when hip-hop began its reign over popular culture. You can hear that influence in the music he writes today [look no further than his decadent opening theme for Adam McKay’s terrific HBO series Succession] but hip-hop was just one shove in the direction of his musical lean. For the average open-minded adolescent with an ear for music, the breadth of genre exposure in New York between 1985-1995 is unmatched. From this rich soil, and cultivation through studies of the highest echelon, Britell can draw from a variegated lexicon, making him the most adroit young composer in film today. When listening to pieces that Britell wrote for Barry Jenkins’ latest work of art If Beale St. Could Talk–pieces like “Encomium” and “Harlem Aria” for instance–you immediately feel his innate sense of what New York City sounds like. As with other composers before him who possessed that instinct, like Gershwin, and Spike Lee’s dad Bill, Britell’s arrangements can conjure images of sitting on a fire escape in spring, or walking through Central Park in fall. As Britell will tell you, it’s hard to know exactly where this sense comes from. Maybe you just have to be from here.

Wherever it comes from, this instinct is at work on the music Britell wrote for If Beale St. Could Talk, Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin novel set in 1970’s Harlem. Jenkins and Britell have been aligned from the very beginning of their relationship that began on the 2017 best picture Moonlight. They now seem indivisible and the deepened connection has energized their collaboration on the sonic universe of Beale St. In this story, the musical themes inhabit and emote a world of young love beset by circumstances out of one’s control. It’s in the esoteric treatment of that struggle where Britell’s mastery is observed. The breathing patterns of brass and strings and the keys of celesta and piano all hover in the ambient spaces surrounding the characters, animating their eyes, coaxing the drama. 

What distinguishes Britell is an ability to translate the emotional complexity of stories like this with a sleight of hand. The pressures placed on the instruments of choice intuit an understanding that right beside happiness lurks sadness, and that sadness informs and unlocks joy. This duality courses through so much of the music for Beale St., complimenting what the story explores at its core: On one hand, euphoria surfaces from a lifelong companionship between the central characters that has blossomed. On the other, there is an awareness that the light emanating from this union is in continuous danger of being snuffed out by the unjust realities of their world and times.

Thus, the music of Beale St. acknowledges a negligible distance between opposite emotive wavelengths. Between that distance, there is an intimate dance, with moves mirrored, and Britell is the choreographer. By manipulating a part of a score piece that originally inspires warmth, joy, and hope, he can turn a theme upside down into fear, despair, and terror. It’s what Jenkins calls “breaking” the emotional tenor and with this, Britell has a profound handle. For Moonlight, the distortion of native instrumentation through a “chopped and screwed” effect borrowed from slowed down southern hip-hop, accented the poetry of that cinema. For Beale St., the disturbance of long bending reverb placed on uplifting musical elements, enhances the prose. Scenes turn like pages, with Britell’s accompaniment serving as the street and candlelit ambiance.

In speaking with Nicholas Britell, once over the phone and then again over coffee in New York during the whirlwind days following his best score Oscar nomination for Beale St., I quickly grasped why directors like Jenkins and Adam Mckay find his contribution irreplaceable [Britell also composed the soundtracks to inevitable calamity in Mckay’s films The Big Short and Vice]. Not only is he unusually versatile in his ability to manipulate music of any genre, but he also possesses a willingness to try things out he may not know, to follow ideas with innumerable interpretations until landing on one that inspires. The possibilities don’t always present themselves right away, but Britell’s attitude is always positive, which is inspiring in itself. He sees his craft as the dialogue between collaborators on line to revelation. He would agree, the best filmmaking rests on the discovery of a unified vision formed from cooperative perspectives. But also...maybe it’s just that he’s a New Yorker.

PART ONE

Nicholas Britell: Growing up, I was always a classical pianist and in high school, I started playing jazz. I was also playing lounges and hotels in college [Harvard]. It was when I joined this hip-hop band with a group of really close college friends that I started writing a huge amount of music. I had always written music since I was young and I would always play but never thought of myself as a [real] composer until the hip-hop band. I wrote hundreds of tracks. It was in that window of the daily habit of writing music and performing all the time that a very dear friend Nick Louvel–he was a director and was tragically killed in a car accident a few years ago–he asked me to score a movie he was making–his first feature. So it was a beautiful coming together of all these things I was doing. I had always loved music and movies but you can’t become a film composer without a film, so having that opportunity is what got me going.

Charles Steinberg [Under the Radar - Keeping Score]: So you got confidence and started to see yourself in that role? Like, “I can do this.”

Exactly. I think part of it too was...like in high school I had written music and I had taken a composition class in Juilliard and I was always giving concerts but I wouldn’t necessarily be performing my [own] pieces. So much of the joy that I take in writing music is in sharing it. Knowing that your feelings and emotions are connecting with other people is such a powerful thing. So especially with being in a live band, the feeling of the connection from that is what really inspired me and it was also an affirmation that maybe this music I’m writing is ok.

What was the style of music that you composed for Nick in that first opportunity to score?

It was a combination of some classical music that I was writing and at the same time, I was writing hip-hop beats. There were also some jazz tracks and some sort of soundscape things. You know, as a composer there are certain things you love, certain types of melodies and harmonies so in that first project it was a combination of all the things [I loved]. A lot of the projects I’ve been drawn towards since are ones where I can [touch on a wide range]. Something I think of for every movie is that I am drawn to having each one sound a different way. I believe in that very strongly. The beauty of the film music world is that anything is possible, so there’s this excitement in new projects where I can find new sounds and discover new connections.

It seems like that connection of a shared affinity of things and friendship has carried forward to your relationship with Barry Jenkins...Like that kind of comfort level is an auspicious platform to start from.

Absolutely. For me, it’s integral to the process in a way. Especially because the process of film composing, at least the way I understand it, is this very intimate collaboration between the director and the composer. You’re both trying to find feelings through this incredibly abstract art form of music. You’re trying to discern feelings through words and images and sound. In our modern culture, it seems second nature to be like, “Of course music and film are linked together.” [so much so] that I think we don’t stop and think about how mysterious and abstract the connection really is. With Barry on Beale St. for example, the opening of the film when you see Tish and Fonny [played by Stephan James and Kiki Layne] walking together with that beautiful crane shot, you ask yourself, “What do you want to feel here?” and Barry said, “You want to feel joy, this love and connection between the two of them.” But there are infinite ways you could go ["Eden (Harlem)"]. So, I think what each composer does is say that there’s this word or feeling and we’re trying to somehow put the notes together to convey that. That’s the beautiful challenge. With each new project you’re trying to find that process and for me it [begins] with that close collaboration [with the director]. Only in this very connected way where you’re sitting and talking and sharing that experience together is where I think you can hone in on what does that.

That’s great. First of all, I was stunned by that opening sequence in Beale St. because it really does convey the feeling you and Barry wanted immediately. It’s almost as though your cue for it was a third character. You see the two of them walking down the steps and the music is introduced almost as another entity.

Thank you. I felt very strongly right away when I saw that first sequence. You see them walking together and not talking in that world and I had the instinct of how it could be scored right away. We could immediately say, “We are going to fully feel what they are feeling.”

It was penetrating. And thinking about how Moonlight introduced the characters in comparison...Both scores coordinate so well with character expression but the score for Moonlight was subtler. In Beale St. it took on more of an emotive swell. Was that enhancement of score something that was explicit between you and Barry?

It’s a good question and I think that you’re right. It was definitely a different aesthetic. One of the really beautiful things about working with Barry is that because we’re both operating from the perspective of feelings, we never overtly said that to each other. There is a different wavelength of the emotional world of Moonlight. In some ways, it’s a quieter film and there is less score. There is a different stylistic approach and I think what you are hitting on is that Beale St. to me, when I started seeing the footage cut together, is so rich. The colors are so bold and the costumes and the story is so powerful and in a different way from Moonlight. I responded to the fullness of the aesthetic textures and so musically the approach was more forceful. And there’s more music in Beale St.

It’s more lush.

Yes. Even the way I wrote out the orchestrations for the strings. In Moonlight the strings aren’t divided in as many ways in their chords. Many of the harmonies in Beale St. are jazz harmonies that I was exploring and writing out in a more classical way. Jazz harmonies, generally speaking, have more potential upper structure in their voicing. Historically, 19th-century classical music might use triads and seventh chords and of course, it was a rich world of harmony that was explored but jazz chords start out with the assumption that you’re using seventh chords already. Jazz is based on that idea and then you’re moving even further, so the chords in Beale St. had more complex voicings than anything I utilized in Moonlight. That leads to a richer set of potential harmonies and distances.

Correct me if I’m wrong but Barry said that you had begun writing the music for Moonlight just based on the script and before you saw any footage. Did you read the book before composing for Beale St.?

Yes, so I did a similar thing. I read the book and the script first. On both films, I had the chance to talk to Barry about the music before he had even shot. What’s fascinating was having these early conversations about what I was feeling and thinking and then I would go write something. But you just don’t know what’s going to work until you try it up against the picture. There’s always that moment of truth. In Moonlight, for example, that was the most beautiful script I had ever read. It felt like a work of poetry and Barry did bring that same sense of poetry into the movie. So my first musical approach for Moonlight was “What is a musical poem?” What if I wrote a piece that felt like a poem of notes? So I wrote a piece for violin and piano and made a demo recording of it and sent it to Barry. That’s “Little’s Theme”. Even the demo recording is what’s in the movie.

That’s amazing because that piece really captures the sprouting relationship between Little [Alex Hibbert] and Juan [Mahershala Ali] and you wrote that before you even saw any footage.

Well, thank you. There are times when reading a script and talking with the director and imagining things takes you to a [great] place. Once we knew that worked it opened up many more doors. What’s interesting by contrast is that with Beale St., the first idea that Barry presented me with was imagining that the score would have brass and horns. I was then imagining the film based off of the book, the script, and my conversation with Barry and I wrote a few pieces of music focusing on brass. So I wrote a piece for trumpet and flugelhorn and clarinet and french horn. There was a set of chords and a melody and I played it for Barry and musically he loved it. He loved listening to it but when we put it up against the picture it wasn’t quite right. It was missing something but he loved the music enough that we realized there was something there. What was missing were strings. So I started bringing in this world of cellos…

My favorite instrument.

It’s my favorite and also my wife is a cellist. So there’s this richness in the sound of multiple cellos playing that for me is incomparable. Years ago my wife was playing with a cello quartet and giving concerts with arrangements for pieces with four cellos. I remember being at these concerts and it was such a stunning sound. So for Beale St. I had this feeling, “Well, what if the string sound is an ensemble of cellos playing?” and mixing that with the brass was the answer for us. The brass piece that didn’t make it into the movie, but the harmonies and melody are in the movie, was on the soundtrack. It’s a track called “Harlem Aria” and we included it as a bonus track. That’s the first thing I played for Barry.

Yeah, it floors you. One of the first examples of that for me, and I’m sure there were others when I was young, was Yo-Yo Ma’s “Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1” in You Can Count on Me. Also those poignant cello arrangements by Lesley Barber. Did you see that?

Yeah, I did! But it’s been a while.

It’s such a beautiful film and the beginning of Mark Ruffalo in film, when everyone was like, “That’s the next Marlon Brando.”

Right!

Well, those cello pieces really knocked me on my ass and set the tone for the film.

Yeah, I know that feeling. Growing up, for anyone who loves film and loves film music, there are those moments where something kind of just jumps out at you in a way, and what I’m always searching for, for myself, is this feeling that I get when I’m writing. This (emotional) thing I’m looking for. It’s certainly not with everything where that happens, but you’re always looking for [a way to] unlock something in the movie at a certain moment. It feels like both the movie and the music benefit. It’s not a one-way thing. Some of my favorite music is music that I like even better when it’s in a movie. There’s something so powerful about being in a theater and hearing a piece of music connected to a story. It’s an eternal search for those kinds of feelings [you get]. When you’re in an artistic journey you find those moments where you feel it, that’s the test. When Barry and I are working together the test is, “Do we feel that physical sensation?” It’s almost like a shiver in your spine. When you feel that, it’s like, “Ok [We’ve got it.]”

It goes back to that initial connection that you have with the person you’re creating with. Like you just look each other in the eye and go, “Ok, we are here.”

Exactly. That’s a great way to put it. It starts with that personal connection where you’re on this artistic journey together and you find that and you’re exactly right. That’s why that connection is so important because it is such a personal experience. These movies and the emotions we’re hoping to explore and create is such a personal thing. Emotions are literally the most personal thing we have.

And when you find that with another person and you speak the same language, there’s so much potential in that. It’s amazing too that Barry mentioned that he hadn’t even heard your music before hiring you for Moonlight.

That was so crazy to me. I was like, “What are you talking about?!” [mutual laughter] I could not believe that.

Was that the first time you heard that? In the podcast you were on together?

It was either there or a few days before that. I never knew that!  It was that exact week, during a Q&A or something where he was like, “You know, I had never heard your music before I hired you.” And I was just like, “What are you talking about?! Didn’t Jeremy send you the music?” and he was like, “No, Nah. I just liked talking to you.” I was blown away by that but in a way, it’s exactly what you’re saying. From his perspective, we were just kind of on the same page in a lot of ways. From what he said to me, he felt that connection and for him, that was the most important thing.

That leap of faith is a beautiful thing.

Well, he’s remarkable. He’s truly remarkable.

I can tell.

Not only is he an incredible artist, but he’s also just an amazing human being. He’s a profound, profound human being.

It comes across, it really does. The first time I heard him was on Sean Fennessey’s podcast The Big Picture, talking about Beale. St.. It comes across right away. You could just tell, this guy is a special person.

And special to be around.

And it comes across in his work.

Oh my god, yes. His work is an extension and an expression of who he is as a person. It’s like it’s clear that it’s Barry who makes these things because he feels these things and thinks these things and he has such beautiful and deep things to say. I mean this: When I do Q&A’s with him, I learn something new every single time and everyone says the same thing. I actually saw recently, I think Regina King was saying this, she was saying that she learns something new every time she talks to Barry. I feel the same way.

Incredible. It was a really beautiful moment last night at The Golden Globes when she was accepting her award and the camera goes to Barry and he’s choked-up.

Yes!

Something that you were mentioning in that podcast you were on together was that there’s a poetic feeling that spoke to you in Barry’s filmmaking. And that even if things don’t register consciously, there is a subconscious layer in all of us where we connect things we don’t even realize. This made me think of a connection that I wonder if you see. I know Barry had told you to stay away from being influenced by anything and have it be more instinctual, but there were a couple of cues in Beale St. that made me think of a possible influence. “Encomium” & “Eden” and the “Harlem Aria” piece you mentioned, all really struck of Do the Right Thing.

Oh, that’s interesting.

Have you heard of The Natural Spiritual Orchestra?

I’m not sure. Maybe I have.

They performed the score music in Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee's father Bill Lee wrote the music.

Yes, of course. Oh wow. Yeah, I’ve heard of The Natural Spiritual Orchestra but didn’t know it was them.

The juxtaposition of their music with that whole world of Bed-Stuy we were introduced to. The streets and the people. There was a beauty but also a sorrow in it.

Well, that’s certainly something that I think I’m always drawn to in a way. I feel that in the greatest joy there is sadness. And in sadness, there can be a beauty too. There’s a beautiful realization about these things. I guess it’s the feeling that emotions are always complex. They’re not one thing. I think as humans we just know [that]. In moments of great joy, I think there’s a realization of knowing that life is constantly changing and moving, so moments of great joy are just that – moments, you know? We hope things can last but nothing lasts forever and every moment has a complexity to it. And music is the same thing in a lot of ways. To me, there’s no such thing as a happy chord or a sad chord. All chords mean lots of things. There is always the context to those chords and the way those chords link together that has the meaning. Of course, certain chords initially may remind us of some things quicker than others. Like a C-minor chord initially might seem like a sad chord but actually maybe could feel like perseverance and strength in the right context, you know?. And a major chord might feel happy at first, but in a proper context maybe a major chord feels tragic because it will feel like the loss of happiness.

At this point, Nicholas and I have gone over our allotted time–mainly due to sharing too many stories about the old neighborhood–and we had to wrap things up.

Charles: Oh no! I had so many more questions about Beale St. itself!

Well you know what, Charles. We can make this next question the last but if you want when I’m back in New York, we can get a coffee at some point. I’d love to keep chatting.

Ok! Ok, yeah! So just to finish up for now with what I was mentioning about the music for Do the Right Thing. There’s this one particular moment toward the end of the film and the cue for it is titled “Wake Up Finale”. It was just in the aftermath of when all of the chaos and tragedy had taken place. It really resonated with that duality of feeling that we’re speaking of. The strings, the cello. There’s this moment when Samuel L Jackson’s character is addressing what had happened on his radio show, addressing everyone listening, essentially saying that we need to figure this stuff out. With “Encomium” and “Eden” I could almost picture Langston Hughes reciting his poetry over those pieces in a similar way.

Oh Wow.

It really nails New York. It captures that overarching feeling of New York. This flow of all emotions at once, with one following another. I guess I wonder if there were possibly some things that you may have picked up on from other composers in your past that filtered their way in. Another example of that was in “The Tombs”, which reminded me of the beginning of Sicario with that Jóhann Jóhannsson’s piece ["Armoured Vehicle"]. That heart pumping, low-end rumble and the drama embedded in that. Do you think there may be subconscious osmosis from the works of other composers or it it just this instinctual capacity you’ve developed over the years?

With the “The Tombs”, that soundscape for me was really an evolution of what I had been doing on Moonlight. In that film, we had explored “chopped and screwed” music. That style of southern hip-hop where you slow things down and the pitch goes down and enriches. I was writing classical music that I would record and then apply that chopped and screwed technique. Over the course of the film that was used as a method of evolving things. In Beale St. I took that to the nth degree in a way, where I actually went very extreme. So for example, all of those droney, bended, distorted sounds in Beale St. are actually the instruments from all of the moments of joy and love that are just distorted. Everything you’re hearing in those sequences is a warped, dark doppelganger version of the joyful music in the other scenes. It literally is the same audio that I’ve just warped. The beautiful thing with all music, all art, all visual art, every form I think, is that everything is in dialogue with everything else in a lot of ways. With my music, there definitely were no overt references for the scoring. Very consciously, because I think that for both Barry and for me, we don’t even know what the right sound is, so we are consciously trying to find a sound that’s our own and test it with the movie. That’s really our process. What I was trying to explore with something like “Encomium” was almost trying to write what I felt was more modern string-chamber music, you know? Almost classical chamber music but with twentieth-century New York jazz chords. That was really the idea of that piece. Like, what if I wrote something that was, let’s say, a classical string quartet, but instead of a string quartet it’s like a cello octet. And instead of nineteenth-century western classical chords, they’re actually twentieth-century jazz chords. That was kind of my intellectual approach.

And then it just goes back to the beginning where you were exposed to all these things growing up that somehow make their way in.

New York! Exactly! Same for you, being a New Yorker. Barry talked to me about that. He was like, “You’re from New York [use that].” I think that growing up in New York, there is a feeling of this place that I think we all have. Right? I don’t even know. It’s like what we were saying before. New York isn’t one thing, it’s a lot of things, but there’s a set of things that it is, and I think that maybe it isn’t. I think I was trying to meditate on that. Like what is a New York sound?

Well that really comes through and I identified with it. Again like with Do the Right Thing, Beale St. felt in some ways like how I was feeling when I first saw that film.

Yes. A New York story.


PART TWO

@ Indie Food & Wine Cafe – The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Charles Steinberg: This iPhone Voice Memos app is actually a good mic to record in public spaces.

Nicholas Britell: It must be a specific kind of mic that picks up voices well.

I think it is. Rafiq Bhatia of Son Lux put me onto that when I interviewed him.

Oh yeah, I know Son Lux (music). I’ve used it for things, for fun, if I’m working on something with a friend as a demo or something. It actually has a cool vibe on the recording. It sounds good and also just bad enough that it’s a good bad. Do you know what I mean?

Like how?

I never like recordings sounding too perfect. It has a little bit of a character to it.

Yeah. You were mentioning in your interview with Terry Gross [Fresh Air] that you liked hearing the tactile elements of the instrument in a recording, like the hairs on a violin bow. That’s a beautiful thing. Do you know of the piano player/composer Nils Frahm?

Yes, of course. He does that a lot where you really hear the hammers on the strings.

And the creaking of the wood and the pedals being pressed.

It’s great. I think it makes it feel more like a story in a way. The reason we listen to music isn’t just for the literal notes, you know? Like if you go to a concert, often times you’re not hearing the instrument so much as the reflections of the instrument. So it makes sense that you want to hear [surrounding] elements too.

This actually cues up one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. I was really fascinated by the incorporation of ambient sound in the films that you’ve worked on. In Moonlight with the waves and the coastline winds for instance. That was a constant in that film.

It was a recurring motif, sure.

It really brought another dimension to it. I was wondering if there was something like that in your mind in Beale St. Like during the lovemaking scene between Tish and Fonny. The sound of the rainfall stuck out to me in that way.

Oh yes, the sound of the rain with the score.

And how that also mingled with the jazz ballad that was playing on the record player.

John Coltrane’s “I Wish I Knew” from the album Ballads. There you go. We’re putting that on the vinyl release, which is coming out in a month, hopefully.

Oh, amazing!

We’re putting on the John Coltrane, the Nina Simone, the Miles Davis. All of it.

So the Brian Tyree Henry scene with Miles Davis in the background was the same kind of feel as what I’m talking about.

See that was a very specific one, where you’re hearing “Blue in Green” on the record player. That was an interesting scene and I don’t know if we had talked about it last time. When I first saw that scene, it was just the Miles Davis that Barry had on the record player and there was no score at all. When we had worked on the music up until that point, we had only worked on the sound of love and joy, the type of music that you hear in the beginning or the type you hear when Tish and Fonny are making love. There was this moment when I was working on this scene and we were together in my studio. I remember saying, “I’m wondering if there is something [different] we can do with the score here.” because I wanted to feel the horror of Daniel’s [B.T. Henry] predicament more. I wanted to feel Fonny’s horrific realization as well. [What Britell is describing here is the droning, tunneled effect employed by bending and blending “Blue in Green” in with his score piece “PTSD”] Those are those types of things where you don’t know if it’s going to work but I was like, “Let’s just try something.” And Barry is so amazing. He’s always like, “Show it to me. Let’s do it.” So, I started by taking the cellos from the “Eros” piece of the lovemaking scene and I extremely distorted and bent them. The idea was to take what was beautiful and what represents beauty and try to break it. Barry would literally say, “How do we break the sound?” And so we took the distorted cellos and put them underneath that moment where Daniel starts to really go into the story of his unjust imprisonment. It felt like this hell. Immediately, Barry said, “What if we keep the Miles going?” So what I did was run the Miles piece through a really long-tail reverb, so that the piece itself starts to feel ethereal and you almost feel your sense of perception changing. Then you hear and feel the rumbling and hopefully it takes you to another place.

It totally does! And you see the camera lock in on Daniel’s face as all of this is happening. It’s almost a vignetting that takes place with the shot so you perceive it more strongly.

It’s one shot, one camera. Barry had originally shot that with multiple cameras. He had shot the entire scene for eight hours with multiple cameras but then he realized that he wanted it to be one camera that would go back and forth (between Fonny and Daniel) because it would keep you right in the moment. Everyone realized that was the way to go.

It tunnels you in and then suddenly draws back out.

Exactly. Tish comes in and is like “Heyyy!” and that’s the moment when there’s a hard out on the score and all the effects go off of the Miles and you’re just back in normal [perception].

That’s when the Nina Simone comes in, right?

You have a little bit of Miles left and then when they start eating the meal, the Nina comes in.

That was a moment in the film I was really curious about in terms of the choices made for the music itself and the technicality of how it was presented.

It’s interesting because Barry really loves music. In Moonlight he actually wrote some of those source pieces into the script, like the Barbara Lewis “Hello Stranger” in the diner. I think they had even played it while they were shooting the scene, which is dangerous because what if you don’t get the rights. But he was like, “We’re doing this.” In Beale St. he told me that there were certain pieces he wanted, ideally, to have. Davis’s “Blue in Green”, Coltrane’s “I Wish I knew”. But those weren’t in the script. When I started receiving early sequences of the film, I would just see ideas that he was having for the source. From my perspective, the source is a really powerful way of putting you in a time and place. In any movie, everything is a choice, so it’s also a way of Barry saying, “This is how I want you to feel.” I always think those are interesting things to grapple with, you know? What do we want to feel and it’s not often that you get the chance to have score and source in parallel interaction that way. That was a place where it felt like an exciting possibility.

It was a watercolor effect between the two, which really emphasized the spaciousness...

Of the room, exactly. I didn’t change one note of “Blue in Green”. I didn’t do one thing to the recording [other than] just this feeling of reverb.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that kind of interaction between the score, the source music and the ambient sound in a film before.

I think one of the things about that scene in particular [and why all of that stands out] is that it’s so focused. What’s happening is so direct about what it wanted you to feel. There are definitely films where there’s source and then score comes in. But the essence of that moment [is what we’re doing sonically]. It’s such a quiet moment between the two of them also, so maybe you notice it more because there are fewer variables.

It is also felt more in the way that Brian Tyree Henry is acting. His facial expression. Your stomach is like….

It’s amazing. I had the chance to meet Brian and I was like, “Man, that was unbelievable.” There’s an electricity there. That scene was so important to us because it really opened the door to all of the other moments in the film that deal with injustice. It’s always this question of where do you put music and score and what do you do [with it]. I think up until that moment we hadn’t scored any moments of injustice because you have to be very careful. You have to really know why you’re doing something because you never want to make it overt. You never want to push. Barry’s whole outlook on aesthetic is that we don’t want to tell you how to feel. The ideal that we’re going for–and Barry would always say this–is that we want you to actually feel what we think the characters are feeling. We want you to be in that state. It’s like, “No. Feel it, come with us” So that was the goal with those moments, realizing I could distort the score. For example, when you see Officer Bell later on, what you’re hearing is distorted elements of musical elements in other parts of the film.

Yes!

So, [in the Officer Bell sequence] there’s a saxophone sound that is actually a stretched saxophone note, so it now sounds like a siren or an alarm or something. It has this very abrasive sort of feeling and that’s what you’re hearing when you see Officer Bell. Another moment, for example, is when Tish is meeting with the lawyer, there are bended elements there. So there’s this distortion and morphing that is always happening to music that represents love and joy. It’s being distorted to represent injustice.

Right. So, like you were saying about the low-end bass in the lovely “Eros”. That was distorted and darkened for the haunting “PTSD”.

Yes exactly. It’s a bass and a cello. That’s exactly what it is. So if you take “Eros” and you take the stem of the cellos and distort it, lower it and bend it, that is “PTSD”

I had a feeling. Was “Hypertension” another example of that kind of alteration?

That’s another one, exactly. “Hypertension” was used for the Officer Bell scene. So you’re totally on it. Those are those moments where whenever you’re hearing the sound of hellishness and injustice, it’s actually the sound of love and joy that has been, like Barry said, broken.

We’re talking about emotion in film music. These stirring, romantic themes employed as well as troubling, foreboding ones. How do you get into the mindset for each? What do you do when faced with writing something for an emotion that you’re not tapped into at that time?

Music is so abstract. Throughout history, there’s been music that taps into the essence of some of these feelings and I think that’s maybe more what I tap into. You’re sort of shooting for that mysterious essence of what that feeling is.  Music is so weird. It’s more mysterious. I think that’s one of the reasons I like writing music is that I still have no idea why these things feel the way they do.

Hans Zimmer said that he has no idea where music comes from.

Quincy Jones says the same thing. I think he refers to it as the music flows through him, like it’s almost this spiritual, divine thing.

I thought it was funny too that Zimmer said he’s always afraid someone is going to turn the tap off.

It is this question for any creative enterprise, you know? Like what is it? What I think is that a lot of composition is having choices. If you’re in the zone working with an instrument and writing ideas down, you can come up with a hundred ideas. The question is which [one is going to work]? So I think a lot of it is being open to your own sensitivity of what you like and what you want. I could write five ideas for you right now. Whether I think any of them are any good is a totally different question. Mechanically I can go “Here’s music.” But it’s a choice of what do I actually want to say and over time you get a better sense of what that might be. The flip side of that is, the more you discover things that you like, the more you might try to avoid those things because you don’t want to always do the same thing. So there’s this balance of knowing the things that you like and searching for things that are new.

When you put it that way, the realization comes after the work is made, not prior to. It’s not like you’re tapping into something that directs the work necessarily.

Because you don’t know. But what I would do is understand the feeling that I can imagine and then you have a certain sense of what might create that feeling, so you’re already in a zone. So if I know I’m trying to create a feeling of joy or excitement or conversely of fear, there are certain focused things I’m going to do for each. But [also] everyone has had that experience where very quickly you find something you love, or there are times when something just comes to you where you’re in the shower and you’re like, “Whoa, I love that.”

That seems to happen in the shower a lot.[Mutual laughter]

But then there are times when it doesn’t come. My whole thing is, I think you have to have a set of habits that enable you to optimize your work. For example, there are times when stuff is flowing and you’ve got to keep pursuing it, but if it’s not, then stop. Don’t force it. If it’s not feeling good then it’s not going to happen. I think that’s a good rule. I mean everyone’s different. Maybe there are some people that can plow through that, but I can’t. I’ll just stop and go do something else and then come back to it feeling good.

There was one kind of piece really stood out from the rest in Beale St...the kind that used the gentle vibraphone sounds.

Oh, the celesta.

Oh, what is it?

It’s a bell-like keyboard. It’s an orchestral instrument.

I’ve discovered a new instrument! So the pieces that use the celesta kind of connote to me a passage of time, almost a transition from one sequence to the next, whereas the string and brass pieces seem to freeze time and accentuate the moment you’re in.

That’s interesting. I think you’re right that the celesta piece “Jezebel” for instance has a momentum. There’s a quicker pace, whereas the tempo of something like “Encomium” or “Agape” is slower. I love the celesta but you have to be careful with it. It can have a feeling of magic and mystery and it also has a texture of some mid-century jazz. It feels like a vibraphone a little bit. There’s also something innocent and delicate about it. There’s a simplicity to the celesta note and [it can represent] a memory. It felt really powerful. We were dealing very much with strings and brass and I’m always looking for sounds that are unexpected.

It was a counterweight to the strings and brass.

Exactly. It’s a very different universe. It’s a keyboard instrument and there’s really not a lot of piano in the score. The piano serves as bedrock underneath “Agape” for example and you hear it in “Requiem” but it’s not that featured, so the celesta is the only other keyboard instrument that you hear in the film.

I loved the use of it.

Awesome. I’m glad you liked that. That was something that wasn’t obvious at first and I remember when I first played it for Barry, I don’t think he was totally sure but then he came back and said: “I really like this.”

It does capture that era of jazz too. Or am I wrong?

I think it acknowledges it. I was very clearly never trying to say, “I’m writing music as if” That’s never our goal in any project. The idea is always to write something that feels like its own universe in counterpoint to. Of course, there’s an awareness of [the era] but it’s never saying this is what we’re getting at. Barry and I are so sensitive to never wanting people to feel like we are saying “A is A”.  I think the celesta was maybe a little bit of a sonic connection.

I know you have to run, but can you talk a little bit about the creative relationship you have with Adam Mckay [with The Big Short, Vice, Succession] compared to the one you have with Barry and how that drives your work for each one?

You know, what’s amazing is that the close collaboration that I have [with both] is very similar. Both Barry and Adam are the most collaborative, brilliant individuals. Each has a very unique and distinct lens and a unique set of ideas that they want to explore. In a lot of ways, I learned so much from Adam Mckay when I worked on The Big Short because it was really on that film for the first time I was totally brought into editorial. Hank Corwin, our incredible editor on Vice and The Big Short, and Adam, and myself would work together. I would be there writing music as they were editing. That experience really informed how I started working with Barry. I remember, among the first things Barry asked me was “How is this going to work? What’s the best way?” and I immediately said to him, “We have to be in the studio together.” Honestly, that was because when I was working on The Big Short, I said to myself, “This is amazing. I get to sit in the room and try things out.” I think there is a similarity in that closeness [between the two directors]. Now I don’t know how else you would do it. It’s actually so essential to me because I feel that the only way if I know if I’m getting near what the director wants is if I’m there in the room and I can say, “How do you feel about this?” My goal isn’t to write a piece of music and just go, “Here it is.” That’s the farthest thing from what I want to do. My goal is to say, “Here are some ideas. Is this in the right universe? What can I do?” It has to constantly be a two-way street or else I’m unhappy. It’s as much about me listening to and receiving from them as it is me giving something over.



Comments

Submit your comment

Commenting is not available in this content type entry.

There are no comments for this entry yet.