'Beale Street' And 'Vice' Composer isn't afraid to play the 'wrong' notes

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February 05, 2019
Composer Nicholas Britell says cellos were central to the score he wrote for If Beale Street Could Talk (starring Stephan James and KiKi Layne, above): "The cellos really became for us this symbol of love, because the movie is about love and injustice."
Composer Nicholas Britell says cellos were central to the score he wrote for If Beale Street Could Talk (starring Stephan James and KiKi Layne, above): "The cellos really became for us this symbol of love, because the movie is about love and injustice."
Tatum Mangus /Annapurna Pictures

From the cello-laden soundtrack of If Beale Street Could Talk to the symphony of "wrong notes" he created for Vice, composer Nicholas Britell seeks out sounds that capture each film's essence. His process involves many discussions with a film's director before the film has even been shot — and a lot of experimenting.

For If Beale Street Could Talk, Britell and director Barry Jenkins initially thought the score would emphasize horns and brass. But then Britell played a few of his compositions alongside some of the early sequences of the film, and realized the tone was off.

"It just wasn't quite right," Britell says. "It was definitely missing something." So Britell took the music he'd created and began writing it for cello instead. Something clicked: "The cellos really became for us this symbol of love, because the movie is about love and injustice."

Britell is up for an Academy Award for his work on If Beale Street Could Talk and was also nominated for an Oscar in 2017 for his score for Moonlight. But he wasn't always a successful film composer. He once worked as a currency trader on Wall Street — and he also composed telephone hold music.

"I wrote this kind of almost, like, spa-like music and all my friends would call this restaurant and ask to be placed on hold," he says. "I loved it. I just loved writing music."

Interview highlights

On why the score for If Beale Street Could Talk isn't jazz, which is what the characters in the film listen to

I knew that Barry was interested in having on the record player [in the film], for example, Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" or John Coltrane, "I Wish I Knew." For me, I think there's always this question of, "Do you want to hear what you're seeing?" In some places, in certain films, the music score will enhance what you're seeing, but I often find that when you hear something that may be different than what you're seeing ... neurologically, you hear something that's different, and so your brain kind of creates a new association in a way. The way to put it is: You don't necessarily want to put a hat on a hat, you know? So sometimes you say, "What is this other sound world that we could create?" And Barry and I spend a lot of time experimenting.

On writing the opening theme for Vice

[Director Adam McKay's] instinct was: This story is so large, not only is Vice the story of Dick Cheney and this man's rise through Washington and the repercussions of his actions, it's also really the story of America over the past 50, 60 years — and thus it's clearly also the story of America's impact on the world over those years. So this is such a large story that Adam felt we need a symphonic scope. "Why don't you write a symphony for this movie?" That's an amazing opportunity, but it's also a question of, "What does that symphony sound like, were I to write a symphony?" ...

I think we have in our back of our minds a sense of: Is there an American symphonic sound? I think there are certain things that we may think of when someone says, "What's an American symphonic sound?" And I think there's also an idea we have of a hero's journey. What does a hero's journey sound like? Maybe it's a brass fanfare, or something like that, but I felt right away that this isn't that movie.

This is a movie that has dissonance to it. The dissonance has to be integral and woven into the nature of the notes themselves. So I actually started to experiment with ideas where I could take a melodic idea, let's say, and what if I inserted the "wrong notes." What if I said: Here's a heroic theme, but these notes are wrong, so we're constantly feeling a rub. There's a dissonance somewhere, and I actually use dissonance as a guiding principle where every piece in this score has a dissonance.

On writing "Little's Theme" for Moonlight

We put the violin very, very close to the mic and I asked [violinist] Tim [Fain] to basically play the notes as quietly as he possibly could while still having the confidence of the note, feeling, because you can play it so quietly that it loses some of its inner strength. So he found this pressure where it was just at the point where it felt confident and yet it was so quiet, and because it was close-mic you had the sound of the bow hair. ... I like hearing the sound of the instruments and hearing the noises and the textures that instruments make, hearing the air in the room. I think that makes it feel real and beautiful to me.

So then I took the violin that we'd recorded very closely and I ran it through some reverb, where there's actually a subtle amount of very long-tail reverb on it too, which just gives the violin this extra feeling of almost like a mist or something around the notes. There is that feeling of tenderness, hopefully. There's an intimacy that I wanted that to feel like. ... Once I knew "Little's Theme" connected with the picture, then it became the question of, "How do we evolve this over the course of the movie? Where do we go from there?" And that was when Barry and I really began more fully exploring this idea of chopped and screwed music.

On using a "chopped and screwed" technique on Moonlight

In these in these early conversations I had with Barry, he was telling me about how much he loves chopped and screwed music, which is a style of Southern hip-hop where you take a recording and you slow it down. And when you slow the recording down, the pitch goes down, and what it does to the audio texture is that it just deepens and enriches it. And Barry loves listening to music that's been chopped and screwed.

It's incredible when you hear music that's chopped and screwed. It's the same but it's different. ... In a way, by slowing things down and enriching it, it almost makes the music have an even deeper gravitas to it. And so we had this idea of: What if I were to write a score for Moonlight? What if I was going to write and record the music and then what would happen if I actually chopped and screwed my own recordings that I made? It sounds cool. It's an interesting idea, but ultimately the test is, does it work for the movie? Is it right for the picture? Does it tell us something latent within the movie? ... We discovered that it did work, and Barry got so excited about these possibilities, and so I started taking my themes in the music that I was writing and chopping and screwing them.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

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