Interview: Nicholas Britell, Composer for “Moonlight”

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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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