The Interview: Nicholas Britell (Moonlight) / by Charlie Brigden

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By Charlie Brigden

Nicholas Britell is about to hit the big time through his Oscar-nominated score to Barry Jenkins' Moonlight. With the film out soon in the UK, we sat down with the composer to discuss awards, swimming, and chopping and screwing.

CB: Hey Nicholas, how are you?

NB: I’m good, I’m good. I’m, you know, watching this huge snowstorm! [laughter]

CB: First of all, congratulations on the Oscar nomination.

NB: Thank you. Thank you so much.

CB: How did it feel when you found out?

NB: Oh, my. It was really surreal. It was…it has been an unbelievable experience. I think, you know, you can never even dream of something like that happening and, when it did, it felt pretty incredible. [laughs]

CB: Okay. So, with Chiron being such a reserved and almost silent character, was it something you were kind of tasked to do with using the score to provide the facets of the character that he wasn’t able to use through dialogue?

NB: Oh, that’s a really great question. And actually, that was something that I definitely focused on quite a bit. I think, you know, one of the amazing things that music can do, it can bring you into the emotional landscape of characters. And one thought that I did have early on was imagining what is the world like from Chiron’s point of view? You know. Because he’s a profound individual. And he obviously has a huge range of feelings, and thoughts on the world that he doesn’t necessarily express to others. So for me I felt the music could, in a small way, bring us into some of that.

And along those lines, when I first read the screenplay actually, the feeling that I had from the screenplay was this incredible feeling of poetry. It was such a beautiful, intimate, tender, sensitive screenplay. And Barry, in creating the film, he brought all of those feelings to life. So there was a question that I had of “what is the musical analogue of poetry? What is the sound of that?” And exploring musical ideas that felt like that.

Because so much of what I do really is, you know, as a film composer, is trying to translate my feelings into sounds. And then explore how they interact with the picture. So, you know, starting from that basis of exploring the poetry of Moonlight. That was how is started with some of the music ideas and I actually wrote a piece which I sent to Barry called Piano and Violin Poem. That was really channelling the idea of poetry. And Barry loved it, and that actually became Little’s Theme. That is Little’s Theme. So that feeling of poetry, that feeling of getting inside Chiron’s point of view, it was all very linked together for me.

CB: So as you mentioned, the film composer’s usual job is to kind of emphasise the emotions and kind of say what can’t be said almost sub-textually. So was it difficult because even with… Chiron is still, even with his body language, is still so reserved, so trying to draw that character out through the music?

NB: It’s interesting. One of the things musically we really tried to explore a wide range of musical possibilities, because there are certain scenes where there is that feeling of subtlety. This feeling of quiet. Scenes where it’s Chiron by himself, just thinking. And walking and we’re imagining his internal thoughts, his internal emotional landscape. And then there are themes where the music actually really soars. For example in the scene where Juan is teaching Little to swim. That’s a place where Barry, you know, as opposed to the parts of the film where the music was of a more tender character. The swimming sequence where I wrote a piece called 'The Middle of the World' is a place where the music really soared. So actually, in some ways, it felt…I know Barry was trying to have that scene almost feel like a spiritual baptism in a way. Almost like the beginning of the rest of Little’s life. Sort of really speaking to the profundity of, and depth of feeling that is inherent really in all of our lives at certain moments. And I think Barry definitely was so open to exploring the wide range of emotions. So the music was able also to have a wide range of possibilities in that respect too.

CB: So, you said about being very much from Chiron’s point of view, the swimming scene is obviously such an impactful scene. So to me that almost brings up, kind of almost a translation of what Chiron is hearing. And the feelings coming from that, is that what you’re going for?

NB: Yeah, you’re saying almost in a sense of, this music is almost a reflection of what he’s feeling and hearing at that moment internally. I think that, in the swimming scene, because I think we were moving even beyond what I think Chiron knows at that moment. And for me and Barry, I think that sequence was really about the whole world of Chiron at that moment in time. And a way of expressing kind of a depth of feeling, both the relationship that he has with Juan and I think the sense of what is to come, actually.

Because on its own, when I first looked at the sequence, I remember thinking to myself, “oh, this is a sort of touching moment between Juan and Little, he’s learning to swim. There’s Juan there”. But what was really fascinating was to hear Barry’s perspective on it. That actually, he felt that it was this really profound baptism kind of a moment. Where we’re actually looking forward, through the rest of the chapters. It’s almost a prelude to what is to come. And music in that sense is speaking to more than what either Juan or Little I think knows at that moment.

And that scene, I wrote for that piece almost like a violent concerto kind of cadenza, very virtuosic, arpeggios, that Tim Fain, a dear friend of mine, he’s an incredible violinist. He performed those in the film. And that same musical idea comes back in a few moments, in particular in relation to Paula, Little’s mother. So we first hear it with Juan in the sea there, and we hear it again in a different sort of morphed form in the hallway sequence with Paula. And we hear it later in the film as well. So there’s an element I think of that musical idea, which actually relates to Little and his life’s journey. And his relationships with these parental figures, actually.

CB: Yeah. It certainly comes, just from the nature of the scene and the music, a euphoric almost kind of awakening.

NB: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

CB: And certainly where that relates to the two scenes of Paula where that’s played. First of all when you don’t hear her, and then when you do hear her…

NB: Exactly.

CB: …it’s when he wakes up and he’s an adult. Yeah. So the way that works is amazing.

NB: Exactly. And I was just going to say, one of the things that we really tried to do as well, that Barry and I spent a lot of time on, is this question of across the chapters in Moonlight, finding cohesion across the chapters. While also allowing for a transformation. Both, you know, obviously Chiron is going through his life’s journey, but also for the music to in some ways parallel that. And it was interesting though.

There were a few different ways that we actually approached that, where for example ideas that start, for example in the swimming sequence we were talking about, recur across the chapters. But each time they’ve evolved and changed in a way. And in some ways, at some times it’s a question of changing the orchestration. But in some places too, it’s a question of actually applying…there’s a hip-hop technique, in southern hip-hop where you call it chopping and screwing the music. Where chopping and screwing is a style of southern hip-hop where you take tracks and you actually slow them down. And when you slow the music down, the pitch goes down. And so you get this audio texture which is really deepened and enriched and you hear things that you didn’t hear before.

And early on in our process, Barry actually said to me how much he loved that type of music. And we had conversations where we actually said to ourselves, “what if we chopped and screwed the score?” “What if I actually wrote music, and fully recorded it, and then as the second part of the process I started experimenting with the audio of my recordings, and I started bending them and slowing them and experimenting?” And that’s what we did, actually.

So one of the means by which we evolved the musical ideas in Moonlight was by actually chopping and screwing some of the tracks, so in some cases you’re hearing instruments that literally sounded something that wouldn’t be physically playable, at register in real life. In chapter three with what we call Black’s Theme which is a new orchestration of Little’s Theme where it is played on an ensemble of cellos. That piece was actually recorded in D major. And then what you hear in the film is a version of it where it’s actually morphed and it’s pitched down into A major.  So you’re hearing what sounds sort of like cellos, but also sounds like basses. You’re not really sure. And there was something about the sort of interesting qualities of the audio and the morphing of it. It felt like it actually had like a symbolic kind of correspondence with the evolution of the characters in the film.

CB: It’s really nice, a) because you just answered one of my next questions without me having to ask it [laughter] which is fantastic. And it’s great because it’s almost like an evolution of kind of the pattern of film music with the normal thematic and almost the light motif and things like that. But instead of just having the recurring themes, being able to change it in that way is a really beautiful new way of having that effect, I think.

NB: Well thank you. We were really excited by it because, what’s so interesting with film music is that you never really know, until you try something out, if it’s going to work with the picture. There are lots of really interesting music ideas that, as music, can be fascinating. But when you put them up against the picture, they may not work, or they may not feel like they’re part of the movie. And why that is is I think one of the great artistic mysteries of film composing. But what was so exciting for Barry and me was that when we attempted to evolve the musical ideas with this chopping and screwing technique and we experimented and we put it up against the picture, it just felt like it was part of the movie. It felt totally natural to the movie. And it worked. And it felt emotional.

And so that was so exciting, that it both felt exciting on a musical level, but it also felt really functional and potent on a film level. And that was what was so important to us. And as a composer, it really did open up a whole new kind of dimension of exploration for me. Because it think historically when you write music, you’re writing notes, you’re writing tones, writing sounds, that then get recorded. And what’s interesting about this is that recording isn’t the end of the process, when you’re doing something like this. The recording is actually the middle of the process. And then you add this other dimension, where you’re actually exploring the recording itself. And you’re taking that recording and you’re experimenting with it. So, for me just on an artistic level it was really exciting.

CB: Yeah. It actually reminds me of the stuff Jerry Goldsmith used to do with the echoplex machine.

NB: Well, you know, I think in history there are lots of, there are moments when you find certain techniques that unlock new possibilities. And I think that what’s great about those moments is that if they excite and inspire, then they’re just really starting points for new things. Like I think that there are, I’m sure there are so many other techniques that no-one’s yet explored for discovering new sounds and thinking about music. And I think what was really cool about chopping and screwing for Moonlight was that it actually related, not only to Barry’s personal love of that kind of music, but this was music that for example in the film, Black is listening to chopped and screwed hip-hop. There is this kind of correspondence between the technique. The score itself doesn’t actually have hip-hop beats or styles in it per se. But what’s interesting is that the score is crafted with the techniques that southern chopped and screwed hip-hop is made with as well. So that’s kind of interesting. It’s almost like they share a process, in a way.

CB: Was there any score you composed that didn’t make it in for any reason?

NB: Well you know, it’s interesting. There are always ideas in every film that don’t make it in. I think with Moonlight, I think there were certain, interestingly there were certain experiments that we did on some of the chopping and screwing that were very extreme [laughs] and that we didn’t put in the movie. There’s a version for example of Black’s Theme. The version in the film is a perfect fourth lower than the recording. I did a version of that that was much further than that. And it was really interesting but it didn’t feel right for that moment.

There’s a certain point at which, when you’re evolving the audio, where it really starts to change the characteristics and the tone. And actually one cue that does that in the film is the schoolyard fight sequence, there’s a track that we call 'Knock Down, Stay Down'. And that track is an ultra-screwed version of Little’s Theme, at the very opening. It’s a track where it almost just sounds like rumbling. And occasionally you hear something that sounds like a bell and you hear something that sounds like a bass. And what’s interesting is that cue the thing that sounds like a bell is actually the piano from Little’s Theme. The thing that sounds like a bass is actually a violin. So you’re hearing this completely morphed soundscape in that cue.

And that worked really well there because I think in the fight sequence, you needed to feel this complete, you know, the world’s upside-down almost, for Chiron at that moment. So the musical landscape reflects that. And so it worked there in the film. But when I did some other extreme experiments like that later, it actually felt a lot better inside the film for Black’s Theme to be a perfect fourth away from the original recording as opposed to further.

CB: Well. If you ever want to do another soundtrack album you could do Sketches from Moonlight, and include all your new stuff.

NB: {laughs] Yes, you hear all of our experiments, yeah.

CB: Yes, that would be fascinating.

NB: Awesome, well, thank you. These are great questions, I really appreciate you discussing them.

CB: Thank you, and thank you very much for your time.

NB: Of course. All right. Take care.

Moonlight is released in the UK on February 17th - the soundtrack album is available now