From hip-hop to grand classical sounds, Nicholas Britell captures the sound of obscene wealth in Succession’s score.
What is the sound of someone going to work in a helicopter? What’s the sound of someone tearing up a one-million dollar check? A family wedding in Scotland while a hostile takeover is being plotted? The characters in HBO’s Succession are extremely wealthy, representing a new wealth, a new power. At the same time, there’s a lot of absurdity that Jesse Armstrong and Adam McKay weave into the characters so we don’t feel utter contempt for them. Succession is one of the best shows of last Summer and season two is upon us.
I caught up with Nicholas Britell to talk about how he mixed hip-hop beats with classical music for the sounds of Succession.
Last weekend, someone posted about the Succession rerun. It’s so much fun to sit back and see people just only discover the show.
It’s so awesome and so exciting. We’re working on season two. That’s one of the things that I think is really wonderful about television. If a show has a life of its own in this way, it can continue over a long period of time. I think there are many interesting differences between film and TV, but I think of the dreams of this creative project is that you get to keep living with them and working with them and watching them evolve.
You’ve worked on The Big Short and dealt with the sound of money before, but with Succession, it’s obscene wealth. How do you begin to create the sound of that wealth? What does it mean to you?
I think a lot of stuff for me when I’m starting on a new project and if I get the opportunity to work on something from a very early stage- and I did for Succession. I started talking to McKay about Succession well before they shot the pilot. I was able to go to the set and see the shooting of the pilot. I talked to Jesse and met super early. Part of that process is absorbing the feelings of the project. It’s almost less intellectual and more emotional and getting a vibe. You’re feeling, “What might this show feel like?” Early on, you haven’t seen the footage. You might have read a script or seen a few things live, but those things are different from watching actual cut footage.
For me, it was thinking about those characters and that world. I think early on, in talking to Jesse and Adam, the show is really based on a true phenomenon which is the fact that there is this ever-increasing concentration of power and money in fewer and fewer people. It’s just a fact of the world. So, what is the sound of that power and money? For me, a lot of it was then getting into the character’s mindset of what would they think that sounds like? In a sense, one of my starting points was what was the music that these characters imagine for themselves. I think, for me; it was this combination of having this grand gravitas, dark, courtly music. Right away, at the beginning of the pilot, you see Kendall rapping to himself because he’s a hip-hop fan. So, there’s this imagining of themselves as powerful people but it’s also thinking – well, Kendall thinks he’s cool in some ways. There’s this idea of what would putting all those things together and what would that sound like?
It was combining different elements and having proportions of those elements sound long. So, if I’m mixing, I could have some of the hip-hop beats sound way too big and it doesn’t make any sense. Classical music is so serious sometimes. When I say classical, I’m writing in this late 1700s style in a way. I think it was about those sounds and the relationship of them.
Even in the main title theme, I remember thinking if the beat was too big, but then it was so right for this because it should be a little bit off.
Having Kendall into hip-hop must have been right up your street, that must have been really exciting.
I was excited about this right away. When Adam and Jesse were telling me, I was excited right away. Even in the first meeting that I had with Jesse, he came over to my studio in New York and we made a lot of progress right away. Some of these ideas for the strings was something Jesse was drawn to right away. It was fun.
I was also in a hip-hop band and the idea of having some of that there was fun to produce some beats and I got to mix it with my interest in classical music.
How did Adam’s style of letting the viewer discover the emotion first rather than letting the music cue your feeling work for you in terms of composing the score?
We approached it in the way we approach everything and that’s always this close collaboration. From the first meetings with Adam and Jesse of having a framework for the sounds. I scored the pilot. I met with Adam and there was a big session and I think it was there that I wrote a lot of the main pieces. There’s a piece at the end of the first episode where I feel it’s a culmination, and it grows and grows and it’s an extension of the main theme – and that just grows into the end of the episode.
There’s also the episode – the regal theme and it’s very grand. It’s a piece you hear on the piano when there’s a closeup of the Forbes magazine cover when you see The Heir With The Flair title. I remember doing that with Adam, and we just talk and riff on these ideas. I’ll play stuff for Adam right there and get immediate feedback. In 45 minutes, we’ll make so much progress. It’s no exaggeration to also say that we can sit for five hours and that happens a lot for us too.
One of the most interesting things we worked on was the tone of the show. It was something I talked to with Jesse a lot and worked very closely with him on it too. I found it fascinating that this show has a very serious feeling which is based on this real world phenomena which is this sense of gravitas. Yet at the same time, the show is completely absurd and that’s what I spent the most time thinking about. What does the music do in those different tonal worlds? I want to enhance the show. I don’t want to take away from anything. I didn’t want the music to make something that wasn’t funny, funny, and that was one of my hesitations.
If I wanted things to feel serious, the music could feel serious and that felt almost straightforward. If I wanted things to feel funny in the show, the way I did that would be to make the music even more serious. That was funny. Making the music feel funny, made it less funny in a way. It’s almost the discrepancy between how serious the music is and the absurdity is where that humor lies.
Talking about absurdity, I think Roman is the most absurd of all. Did you have specific sounds for each character?
I wrote certain pieces that were inspired more by the relationships or the types of feeling I was going for. There isn’t a Kendall theme. There is some music that tends to occur around Greg for instance. I think It’s more the type of action or the type of story or the type of focus. I think I feel that in Television now, but certainly in film, I usually feel that music is really about the relationship between characters. I don’t often think of music being really about a character. The dynamic of storytelling is about storytelling and the evolution of these relationships and what is happening. A lot of the music is about a character but in relation to another character or all the characters in relation to each other. I guess it’s more about the linking of relationships than about individual id
The wedding presented a great opportunity for an even heightened take on a lot of music that the whole show has had. It really is the climax of the season. Some of the music you hear in episode nine, you’re hearing this large orchestral sound. It’s woodwinds and strings and it’s getting very lush and increasing with the fact that they are at a castle. We’re very overtly symbolically linking things with royalty and things like that.
Big feeling doesn’t necessarily come from big sound. The most powerful feelings are one note. There’s definitely coming back to some of the early thematic moments in the show at the end, and it’s on solo piano. The sadness we feel for example for Kendall, given all the horrific things that are happening. There’s still the personal family sadness and cruelties and pain. The moment after the car crash, there are strings and different textures, but really it’s this pano driving the almost stubbornly persistent note. I think it’s a reality check for him and clearly, Kendall is feeling this existential crisis of what is his life? That’s what you come to at the end of the season and that episode. One of the fun things for working on television was being able to think about what at the end of this very long stretch of story real estate. In film, if I feel ideas in the first ten minutes, ideas can come back and they evolve and you conclude in 90 minutes. In this case, the ideas that I’ve put in episode one can come back nine hours later. So, it’s a different mental perspective. I tried to think about that a lot and how the audience would internalize musical ideas over that long stretch of time. It’s something I’m still interested in exploring more and more because the way people consume shows like this, it’s not necessarily week to week. I think a lot of people watch these shows in one big stretch. I’m curious myself, what is the nature of music when you watch it all at once. How does that feel versus the individual? I don’t have the answers, but I’m very conscious of those things when I’m working on it.