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The "mystery" of composing movie music

September-October 2016

Composer Nicholas Britell has written scores for films including MoonlightA Tale of Love and Darkness, and The Seventh Fire. He is also a pianist and producer (most recently of Whiplash, by Damien Chazelle ’07).

Courtesy of Nicholas Britell


Composer Nicholas Britell has written scores for films including MoonlightA Tale of Love and Darkness, and The Seventh Fire. He is also a pianist and producer (most recently of Whiplash, by Damien Chazelle ’07).

Courtesy of Nicholas Britell

Nicholas Britell ’03 fell in love with music through the movies. Chariots of Fire made him want to study classical piano, and as a 12-year-old, he took obsessive notes on James Horner’s score for the 1992 hacker film Sneakers. If, like Horner’s shimmer of flutes and choir, his own work as a film composer doesn’t immediately jump out at the average viewer, it’s because Britell considers his role a supportive one, aimed at realizing another artist’s vision.

Understatement can be especially key with documentary scores, he says. Overly explicit music can hinder the narrative: “You have to be very careful, because it can be very easy to veer into melodrama.” Recruited to work on The Seventh Fire, a documentary on Native American gang life by friend and collaborator Jack Riccobono ’03, Britell began composing well before many of the shoots took place, using Neil Young’s score for Jim Jarmusch’s Western, Dead Man, as a reference point. Later, though, he came to feel that “A lot of music that I wrote no longer felt right for the movie. It felt straightforward, almost. It was very clear music. It sounded like a quiet rock song.” After changing tack, “we wound up with these synthesizer tone poems.” Britell’s quiet, amorphous sonic landscape mapped to the unfamiliar topography of the White Earth Reservation, in Minnesota. Instead of handholding the audience through the narrative, the score was an aural extension of the scenery, immersing them in the documentary’s setting. 

Brash and star-studded, The Big Short might seem the polar opposite of an art-house documentary. But however shellacked with Hollywood handsomeness, that movie was also a nonfiction adaptation, Britell points out—and openly didactic. There too, his job was to support the delivery of sophisticated ideas, as the film strove to educate (and enrage) audiences about the financial crisis. For a sequence offering a brief history of banking, Britell supplied exuberant brass; when another scene explained the stupendously elaborate fraud inflating the 2008 mortgage bubble, jittery broken chords rippled beneath the dialogue. “The audience had to feel it,” Britell says. “What was at stake, the complexity.”

Specifications for other projects have varied widely. Commissioning new intro music for their podcast, the hosts of the Slate Culture Gabfest gave Britell verbal prompts ranging from “Kierkegaard” to “gamelan,” and made a tongue-in-cheek request for “something that will challenge people, but doesn’t trouble the conscience.” His work composing the on-screen music in 12 Years a Slave had almost the opposite imperative. As National Public Radio critic Ann Powers pointed out, the movie, about a violinist sold into slavery, also examined “how hate and fear gave vibration to music, how music turned those emotions into more without losing their sting”—and he had to write with a dual purpose: “It had to be plausible, but it also had to work dramatically.” Reconstructing period-appropriate fiddle tunes, field songs, and spirituals, he says, was “an almost archaeological process.” (He found that collections of such music published in the 1860s lamented the inadequacy of Western musical notation; the books’ prefaces even called the textual result a mere “shadow” of the real thing.)

With his music, Britell aims to create atmosphere or add texture, and to lend films a sense of intimacy. He tends not to write soaring, hummable melodies in a sweeping orchestral style. His score for the historical epic The Free State of Jones features an 11-note melody for the hero, first heard on a distant-seeming horn, then darkly returning in a crucial scene, on cello; for The Seventh Fire, he composed a motif associated with the central subject’s young daughter. But, he says, “I think more often than not, themes work for relationships, more than for individual characters. It’s less like the sort of Wagner leitmotif” (or, to use a pop reference, the “Imperial March” announcing Darth Vader). “Themes are more about interconnections, sometimes. That’s something I’m continuing to discover in film projects.”

Other recent collaborations include scores for the sophomore films of two up-and-coming indie talents—Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and Adam Leon’s Tramps—as well as music for classmate Natalie Portman’s feature directorial debut. For that project, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, Britell was encouraged to compose independent of the footage. He ended up with a “dreamlike sound”: Western classical forms, but with extreme reverbs and bells. What fascinates him about his craft is the unpredictable alchemy between image and sound. “How they interact,” Britell says, “is the biggest mystery.”

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