Interview: Nicholas Britell, Composer of “12 Years a Slave”

Posted on December 23, 2013 at 8:00 am

One of the most powerful moments in the extraordinary film 12 Years a Slave has its main character, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) joining with the other slaves to sing a spiritual.  It was a great pleasure to speak with the talented young composer, Nicholas Britell, who wrote “My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)” and “Roll Jordan Roll” as well as three traditional fiddle tunes on the soundtrack.  He painstakingly researched this lost form of music, which was never recorded and in many cases never written out, in an effort to bring the most accurate musical representation and help to tell this story.

Tell me a little bit about the research that you did to create music of this period.

It was a really unique challenge because the main character is a violinist and the movie itself, we knew, was going to have so much music in it, literally onscreen in the world of the characters.  And it’s interesting because the 1840s is such a long time ago that we don’t have recordings, obviously until 50 to 60, 70 years later.  And then on top of that, the spirituals themselves in the 1840s, there was really no music notation that was ever done of those songs.  We only started getting people attempting to notate the songs of the slaves around the Civil War time.  And even then, all the notes that they tried to write down, they all talked about how difficult it was, and how Western notation wasn’t really able to notate the sounds that they were hearing, people singing in the fields.  Today, we can imagine that it was because of the unique rhythms, the syncopations, the African rhythms, all of the different cultural influences of those people who were there in the field.  On the one hand, there is much as possible about whatever there was to be known but then we had to attempt to, essentially, recreate and re-imagine the sound because we’ll never really know what it actually sounded like in the 1840s.  So I went to the library, I read everything I could, I looked at primary source texts.  And there were two angles of the research: one was figuring out what was the music that Solomon would have played, and then what the slaves’ music would be.   So the first question is really “What would an African-American violinist have played in New York in 1841?”  Very interesting,  very specific question.

What I discovered was there is much more research on the string music traditions certainly that goes back many hundred years so I was able to ascertain pretty well that the music that he probably would have been settling was very influenced by Scottish and Irish folk tunes.  He wasn’t playing Beethoven but, interestingly, by way of re-imagining that world because it was so close to that era, this was within 12 years of Schubert’s death, essentially.  That’s where we’re talking.  Mendelssohn was still alive in Europe.  Schumann was composing in Europe so some of the music that might have been coming over was some of this classical music and I imagined Solomon was a very accomplished violinist.

That was the starting point of mine.  And because of that, I imagined that he might have had knowledge of a lot of different music potentially.  So, on the one hand, while he was playing some of his Irish and Scottish folk tunes, I actually worked very hard with the violinist Tim Fain, an amazing violinist.  We worked very hard to sort of imagine a unique sound for the violin that actually had elements of almost classical technique but not really.  We wanted it to have a different feel than what we imagined fiddling sounds like today just to really kind of re-imagine that sound and give it a unique quality so we even did things like, there’s research that indicate the fiddlers would have held the violin more low-slung on their shoulder, the tuning would have been different.  So we really tried to incorporate all of these thoughts into the way that, not only, the music was arranged and written because some of those are actually totally new songs that I wrote, some are arrangements of traditional songs that the research indicated might very well been played by Solomon.

But then the big thing was the sound.  We really wanted to make sure that it had a very interesting quality to it.

Where is this research?  Where do you go to look that stuff up?

I went to the library, I went on the internet, I spoke with people.  We spoke with many on the violin side.  I worked with Tim, the violinist, very closely.  We know a lot of people in the string music world so there were many different angles on the question but, frankly, a lot of it is just going back to very old books and history books.  It’s interesting because, actually, not that much was written on the music of the 1840s specifically.  There’s a lot more music history written, it seems, on the Colonial Era.  And then on the Civil War Era.

But the 1840s was an interesting period where, certainly, there was a lot of music going on in America.  This was a world in America where every town had its own sort of like brass band.  It was a very unique and fascinating musical world but, again, there just wasn’t much specifically on that decade so it was interesting.  The more challenging side was really with the spirituals because the spirituals themselves and the work songs are something that, just by their nature, weren’t being notated.  I think one thing I tried to be very conscious of was how much music changes in very short periods of time.  Even 20 to 30 years can be a long time stylistically in music.  It’s basically 20, 30 years between what the classical era of music and the romantic era of music.  It’s 30 years between the height of Jazz and then Rock ‘n’ Roll really.   So if you then imagine how different music would be a hundred years apart that I try to be very conscious of the responsibility of it.   I tried to balance and really come up with very strong rationale for why I was thinking in a certain way but interestingly, there is a lot that you can find.

There’s a lot of research on the lyrics.  It’s a lot easier to find information on the lyrics than the music itself.  So lyrically, certain things are true that there was definitely quite a bit of Biblical influence and also, lyrically, every culture has work songs going back to the dawn of time where these were songs that were sung to get through the day and actually to functionally sort of help you do your work.  So the work songs in the fields are like the song I wrote “My Lord Sunshine.” I spent a lot of time, not only lyrically trying to get it right and musically imagining it but rhythmically to figure out even just the tempo of it so it matched the swinging of the cane chopping which was another sort of variable to think about.  There were a lot of different sort of variables to get right and that song lyrics really were there’s Biblical influence.  And while I was writing, I felt like I tried to put myself in the mind of if you were working 10, 11 hours a day under the hot sun, what would you have been singing to get through that day.  I think that I imagined the Biblical influence of “my Lord.”  But also the sunshine is such an omnipresent element to that so the lyrics, things like “it’s late, it’s hot, my Lord Sunshine” things like that so it all felt very true to life to what might have been like.


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