Composer Terence Blanchard is talking about the challenges of composing the Harriet score. It’s 2019 and we’re finally presented with the first feature-length film about Harriet Tubman. Kasi Lemmons reunites with Blanchard after having worked with him on two other projects.
How did Blanchard create the score for Harriet? What was in his tool box? I caught up with the composer to learn more and discuss working with Lemmons on their third collaboration together.
What inspired your start in music?
It was in my house. My mother’s sister taught piano and voice. My dad sang, he was in amateur opera and he sang in church every Sunday. My grandfather played guitar, so we were always going to recitals and performances. From the time I was five years old, I’d go to my grandmother’s house and I’d bang on the piano. They kept saying, “Let’s get the boy some lessons.” That’s when I started playing piano, but I stuck with it. I even quit a few times. My first piano teacher was Martha Francis. My second piano teacher was Ms. Louise Winchester. She was amazing. I started learning with her when I was twelve years old, and she taught me theory. She’d give us listening exams. We’d have to sit down, listen to chords and we’d have to tell her what chords they were.
I didn’t think there was anything abnormal about that. I thought everyone was doing it. I started studying with Robert Dickinson who taught me composition from the age of 15.
When did you get into the trumpet playing?
I was in fourth grade. A guy came to my school, Alvin Alcorn. He came with a jazz band, and the trumpet just spoke to me. He kept playing with vibrato, and I thought the piano just could not do that. I went home and told my dad I wanted to play the trumpet. He was pissed off because he’d just rented a piano for me to have in the house.
When you’re composing a film score, there are no words to it, it’s all in the emotion, how does that translate when you’re composing a score.
It’s one of those things where you have to put your ego aside. When you’re trying to get a job with a director, you really can’t get into it until you get into it. Sometimes, people don’t have answers right away. I’m working on Spike’s new movie right now and you think it’s going to be this, but it turns out to be this.
It’s different. When you watch the film and you look at the story, it tells you whether the music needs to ascend or descend. If it needs to be big or small. If it needs to be fast or slow. All of those things then come together to create a score. It’s not one particular element. Combine all that with great performances of people who can add that other human element that you can’t do by yourself, it becomes bigger.
You’ve worked with Kasi before on Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me and now this. What did you and Kasi talk about for Harriet as she goes from being Harriet to Minty to this superhero?
That was the conversation. We talked about those family separation moments. There were moments in the score where we referred to that. The superhero element was very obvious when she came in and puts the shoes down, she’s not Minty anymore, she’s Moses.
The hardest thing for me and Harriet – and I’m trying not to be sexist – I wanted the music to be strong. I didn’t want it to be too macho. There had to be a level of compassion to it. There had to be an element that had the conviction of her faith. I tried to find a balance between all of those things for the score.
I’m saying that because I’m working on Spike’s movie. It’s about 5 guys who go back to Vietnam. I didn’t have a big orchestra for Harriet as I had for that.
What was your sound for Harriet?
It’s a combination of the harmonica, the dynamic level that I needed them to play. For some of the forceful stuff, if you play triple forte, it really is that brassy sound. If you play double fortissimo, it will still be loud, but it wouldn’t have the edge. That’s what I needed to find the balance for. Harriet is a strong-willed woman. When she pulls the gun out. They don’t show it much, but some people were apprehensive when she was trying to get them to move. She had to get the gun out to get them to move, otherwise, they’d be captured.
There’s so much power in the Delaware crossing, how did you place the music there?
That’s interesting because you needed to have hope. It’s still not the moment yet. I had to give her room for the prayer. When she says that, it’s time for the heroics to swirl.
We had a screening in New Orleans after she starts moving, the music swells and you see the others get into the water, the audience cheered.
That is how it played in Middleburg.
What was the toughest part of scoring the movie?
The balance. It was interesting because I thought I was bringing a male sensibility to it and it wasn’t working, but I was doing what was best for the film. Sometimes in film, we don’t see some of the things we saw in Harriet.
We don’t have an idea of how strong this woman is. She is a woman who is giddy beyond belief at the notion of being free. If she walks just 25 miles in that direction, she will be a free lady. You see the exuberance on her face. Then to go from that to being this very stern figure who is carrying people across the border and later chastises all her conductors saying, “You’re not going to give up, some of you were born free.” That’s a hell of a transition, and Cynthia was just something else.
She was great. I can’t believe we had to wait until 2019 for it.
I know and that’s why this film is so important. She’s a woman. She’s an African- American who saved a ton of lives.
Harriet is on general release.