Battle of the Sexes Composer Nicholas Britell

Posted on September 23, 2017 at 8:00 am

My interview with “Battle of the Sexes” composer Nicholas Britell is on the Huffington Post. Here’s an excerpt:

Musically it was a wonderful experience to work so closely with John and Valerie. We spent months together while they were editing the movie. I came up with a series of musical theme ideas and we mapped it out over the course of the film. There is a Bobby Riggs personal theme which is scored for a small jazz group with an upright piano and a double bass and a drum kit and then there are a few woodwinds here and there. And then there is a Billie Jean personal theme that reflects the changes she experiences. The colors of that theme change over the course of the film, so in the beginning it is more of an ambient soundscape and by the end it’s actually a full 79-piece orchestra. Her theme evolves until it finally reaches its full scope where there is a big cello in the match with her theme and then at the moment of her victory, there is a full orchestra taking it over. So it was exciting to see the way in which the geography of the musical ideas could live in parallel to the story.

And one of the things we really utilized throughout the film was the evolution of instrumentation. We thought a lot about the musical colors themselves. One of the first things we talked about was how this is a big story set in 1973, so what should the music actually sound like? We used some old-style equipment to try to have the music feel like it might have been recorded in the 1970s. One of our first ideas was: what if I were to write classical style music but written for 1970’s rock band instrumentation, electric guitars and electric bass and drums and an electric rock organ that is woven in through the whole movie. In the beginning, it’s very quiet in the background and in the tennis match you really hear it and it gets focused on. We started with the 70’s band instrumentation and as we explored the film and worked on it together, we started saying, “What if we had woodwinds here?” and “What if we have strings?” The movie responded so immediately to those experiments. The movie wanted the largest scope as the story unfolded.

My review of Battle of the Sexes.

My interview with Nicholas Britell about his score for “Moonlight

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Interview: Nicholas Britell, Composer for “Moonlight”

Posted on November 4, 2016 at 8:00 am

It is always a pleasure to catch up with composer Nicholas Britell, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him about his gorgeous score for one of the best films of the year, “Moonlight.”

The movie includes three very different time periods with different moods and locations as the main character — played by three different actors — goes from child to teen to adult. How do you keep the score distinct, locate the audience in the time and place, and still keep the consistent context?

That’s a great question. It was very important that there be a real cohesion across the chapters in the film. Yet, at the same time, Barry and I wanted to make sure that there was a musical transformation taking place as Chiron’s life unfolds. Early on in our conversations, Barry told me about his passion for “Chopped & Screwed” music. This is a style of Southern hip-hop where you take tracks and slow them way down; in the process of doing this, the pitch goes down and you get this real deepening and enriching of the musical texture and the sound quality. This style of music is really woven into the film’s landscape, and we then had an interesting idea of how to bring it into the score. At one point in our discussions, Barry and I wondered: “What if we chopped and screwed my classical score to the film?” In other words, what if I wrote and recorded instrumental and orchestral music and then we chopped and screwed it? We both got really excited by the possibilities that this aesthetic approach presented. We thus started a two-part process of scoring the film. First, I would write music inspired by the film and record it with live instruments. Then, I would take those recordings and chop and screw then, bending them, slowing things down, morphing the whole audio of the pieces.

The results of that process were fascinating: slowed-down violins started to sound like cellos, cellos started to sound like basses, piano notes started to sound almost like weird bells – the possibilities were just huge.

So, over the course of the film, one element of the score’s evolution is that the recordings are chopped and screwed and transformed. In the beginning, we hear Little’s Theme, which is a piano and violin piece. This comes back in chapter two, as Chiron’s Theme, where it is modulated down, a bit lower and deeper. Then, for the scene inside the schoolyard, Chiron’s Theme is totally chopped and screwed; I slowed it way down and it is pitched about three octaves down. Then I layered the track on top of itself and ran it through a vinyl filter. It comes out almost unrecognizable, and yet you feel it rumbling in the subwoofers of the theater. The result is this total transformation of the piece – at times you might just barely be able to make out Little’s Theme from the beginning of the film within it, but you feel it. So those ideas of continuity and transformation across the chapters of the film were really at the front and center of our collaboration.

The beach and ocean play an important part in the film. How did that influence your score?

That’s an interesting question. Actually, I was very moved by the soundscape of the film when I first saw an early cut. Barry and I spoke at that time about the sound of the ocean. I was very into the idea that there is this symmetry that happens where the movie could start right from the beginning with the sound of the ocean, as you are sitting in the theater, and then at the end of the film you come back to this sound.

The ocean brought to me certain ideas about the sensitivity of the approach that we could take. There’s something so beautiful and hypnotic about that sound of the ocean. And the ocean is significant to Chiron, and is at the center of many important life moments for him.

When I read the screenplay to the film, and after watching an early cut, the first word which came to my mind was “poetry.” There is a true poetry to the way that Barry created this film: there is a feeling of beauty, of tenderness, of intimacy and sensitivity. When I started work on the film, I said to myself “What is the sound of this feeling of “poetry”? “What is the musical analogue to that?” Among the first pieces I sent to Barry was a piece I wrote called “Piano and Violin Poem”, which became Little’s Theme. In some ways, the beach and the sea, the natural world — all of those things were influential in my trying to evoke a feeling of beauty, and tenderness, and poetry.

Do you use any unusual instruments or sound effects?

Absolutely. This is something that I really explored in depth in “Moonlight.” In fact, one of the pieces that I wrote utilizes certain sounds from the world of the characters, not just typical instruments. For example, just before the scene where Chiron is going into school to fight back, we see him looking into a mirror over a sink. Many of the “musical” sounds that we hear in the music are actually sounds that I drew from earlier in his life. There’s this sort of rushing-air texture in the music, which is actually the sound of the water from Chiron’s bathtub from when he’s a little boy in chapter one; I took that sound and wove it into the piece of music that I was writing.

Another example is where there’s a percussive drum hi-hat-like sound that plays with an insistent rhythm throughout the sequence when Chiron is going back into the school. That sound isn’t actually a drum, it’s the sound of Chiron and Kevin high-fiving earlier in the film. I was imagining that he’s about to go forth into this very intense moment of his life, and his memories and his thought processes are so wound up with his relationship with Kevin, so he might almost be hearing certain symbolic sound memories like that in his mind. There were quite a few places throughout the film where would I would take sounds from one part of the film and weave them into the musical landscape of another part.

As for specific musical instruments, to some extent their sounds are linked with the idea of the Chopped and Screwed music, where we were taking real instruments and morphing their sounds into unique textures. There are musical sounds you might not hear anywhere else, because they’re sort of impossible to create in the real world. But, after recording a cello and bending the sound lower and deeper, you get some very fascinating textures.

This film’s main character is silent and isolated for much of the film. How does that affect the responsibility of the composer?

That’s a good question. I was cognizant of the fact that there are many places throughout the film where Chiron isn’t speaking, and the film really embraces the quietness of certain scenes. I think it’s a beautiful thing when characters don’t need to speak in order for the audience to understand them and feel their emotion. There are moments where, for example in the third chapter, Kevin and Black are looking at each other in silence. I find those moments incredibly poignant, and there aren’t any words being spoken. So if there is music in those places it might be able to express an idea of what the characters are feeling. The music can connect us with unspoken thoughts. From the very beginning of the film, I thought about how certain types of music might be able to get us into Little’s point of view.

Along the same lines, while choosing the places where music goes in a movie is important, in many cases, an equally important choice is where doesn’t music go. Where should there be silence? This was something that Barry and I spoke at length about as well.

I have to ask about the theme music you did for Slate’s Culture Gabfest. How did you combine all of their ideas in such a brief piece? Is that harder than creating a feature-length score?

For those who might not be familiar with that theme music: a few years ago, I was asked to write the theme music for the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast show. The specific assignment entailed combining many different “ideas” and creating a sonic identity for the show. It was certainly a fun challenge to try to combine so many ideas into a sonic one-minute “signature” for their show! I would say the main difficulty with combining the ideas into 1 minute is in finding a way for the ideas to “blend together” in an interesting way. This can be tricky, as you don’t want the ideas to just be a noisy jumble! Writing a sonic signature like that and scoring a film are thus really two very different activities. The biggest difference with writing a feature film score is that the approximately 90min-120min of a feature film give you so much space to explore the musical ideas. As opposed to “compressing” them into a short span of time (as in the Gabfest theme’s 1 minute length), with a film score one is able to focus on the architecture of the film and the geography of where the musical ideas go within that architecture. One of the most exciting parts of the process of film scoring is getting the chance to develop ideas over the length of a film. A lot of the joy of the process is in seeing how things evolve.

My previous interview with Nicholas Britell was about the beautiful song he wrote for “12 Years a Slave.”

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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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