For my money, there is no composer working today that can evoke emotion through his music, quite like Nicholas Britell. It’s no wonder that The New York Times recently called him the “The Composer at the Frontier of Movie Music.” The announcement of a new Nicholas Britell score feels just as exciting as the film it accompanies. There’s no guarantee that a given film will be any good, but with Britell in charge of the music, you know you’re in for an utterly unique artistic experience—the haunting strings of Moonlight, the romance of Beale Street, the foreboding mystery of Cruella, the Emmy-winning Succession theme so good you can’t bring yourself to skip the intro, Britell is behind it all.
Britell’s brilliance is that every piece of music he creates has a purpose. Each of his musical constructions are deliberate and evocative—drawing his inspiration from unsuspecting places. For The Underground Railroad, it was the sound of a drill, the cicadas in the air, and his close friendship with director Barry Jenkins that ignited his creative process. And of course, the story itself. Britell scores Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) escape from enslavement with a raw urgency. Each piece of methodically chosen music mirrors Cora’s physical and mental state as she moves through her treacherous journey.
It is difficult to articulate the magnitude of Britell’s genius. He details his creative process in our interview below. But I do know that we, as audiences, are very, very lucky to live in the age of Nicholas Britell’s music. And that perhaps, the best is yet to come.
Awards Daily: The Underground Railroad has so much heavy imagery and themes within the show. Barry Jenkins has said that he wanted to allow the audience the opportunity to pause, to walk away, and to self-pace as they watch the show. Was this something you took into consideration while making the score?
Nicholas Britell: Well, we worked on this for such a long period of time, I think for ourselves, too, it was quite an unforgettable experience, and quite an intense experience to work on it. In many ways, we viewed this as just a very, very large-scale work. Personally, I always assumed that people would take their time with it. I think it really requires that. I fully agree with Barry. Each episode is its own world in a sense. With the structure of how the episodes themselves sit, they do sit on their own in a way that can allow for this self-constrained thoughtfulness with each experience. One thing we worked very hard on was thinking about that long-form continuity, the connective tissue of how things do architecturally link together. In the case of The Underground Railroad, that was a huge amount of focus for us because it was so vast in its scope. I do agree with Barry; on a purely psychological level, I think that the episodes themselves are intense. For us too, I would have to take time to work on certain scenes because they were very, very intense.
AD: Let’s talk about that connective tissue. What are some themes, some instrumentations that we hear throughout The Underground Railroad? How did you musically connect the ten episodes?
NB: It really starts from the very beginning, I would say. From the very start, personally, the most fascinating part of the process for me is those very early instincts Barry has because we always talk about how we don’t know where things will wind up. I think there is a real sense of experimenting and discovery that is really latent in our process. It is those early instincts that Barry has that I find so much inspiration from. In the case of Underground Railroad, there was an audio recording that he sent me while he was on set early on while he was shooting. He doesn’t often send me audio text messages, really. It just sounded like a construction site and some drilling. I was kind of confused. Then a couple of hours later, I got a text from Barry, and he just wrote, ‘Do you know what I sent?’ [laughs]. Immediately, I knew what he was talking about. There was this drilling sound. I started experimenting with, literally, the audio file.
There was this rhythm to it that I know Barry was in to. There was this interesting tone of up and down, this undulating tone. That was really the beginning of this set of experiencing with elemental forces, the digging, to us, symbolically represented earth, and going downward, going underground, seeing what the possibilities are, sonically, with that as an idea. That lead us to concepts like, “Ok, there is earth. What about air? What is in the air?” It is the cicadas and insects, so experimenting with the sounds of insects, specifically cicadas. Onnalee [Blank], our amazing sound supervisor, would send us these field recordings she was making, so I would experiment with those. Then, fire another elemental force. Early on, that was a very experimental phase for us, sonically. What I found fascinating, on a sonic level, those concepts did literally weave into the score. Those elements like the cicadas are inside the score in certain places; the fire is there. At the same time, those were starting points as well where I experimented with this idea of going downward after we played the sonics of that. I started playing with this idea of, musically, what would it mean to go downward? There is a 4-note motif. E-flat, D, D-flat, C that you hear that’s descending, that’s going down. I started experimenting with that. I remember it was January 2020, before the pandemic, and Barry and I were in L.A. together, and I started playing with that sound and putting these chords around it. I can always tell if Barry is into something I am doing because he will say, ‘Don’t stop.’ Early on, we called that piece ‘Pillars’ because I put these chords around this motif, and it felt like the pillars in the earth. That piece, through months and months of further work and experimenting, this descending motif coupled with these chords, which were then played with strings, and then I played them with these very harsh, raw strings—this sort of shaking sound. We recorded that remotely with a 50-piece orchestra at Air Studios in London. That’s how the very opening piece you hear in the series came about. It is the first musical statement, which means a lot of things to us, but very specifically, the kernel of that going downward is very buried within that.
AD: Let’s talk about charting Cora’s journey musically. The score changes in scope as she is leaving the south. How did you incorporate her journey, as well as African American history and Southern motifs into the music? How did you meld all of those themes together?
NB: That is a great question. Cora’s journey is the centerpiece of this series. The key element for us was this idea that she was going on a literal journey to different states, but also, she is going to different states of mind and consciousness as the journey unfolds. The most difficult and challenging element of this was that it really required us to create whole musical worlds for each of these places, literally and symbolically.
As an example, after she leaves Georgia, South Carolina is a completely different universe. Barry and I spent a long time thinking about how to musically capture this huge change and this different place in so many senses. I remember reading the book and reading about the skyscrapers in South Carolina and thinking to myself, ‘I don’t remember that there had been skyscrapers in the mid-1800s.’ Of course, there weren’t skyscrapers in the mid-1800s [laughs]. What that really signified was that historical anachronism, of magical realism. And thinking about, musically, how do we convey that kind of idea. Barry and I spend a lot of time thinking about this idea that are many ways, potentially infinite ways of musically expressing certain things. There are certain ways that are very overt, and, often, Barry and I aren’t in favor of those ideas. We are more in favor of trying to invoke the feelings of things as opposed to functionally pushing the audience in a certain way.
One of the things that we discovered, in South Carolina on this journey for Cora, was that by creating this incredibly lush, almost fantastically lush, orchestral sound—the juxtaposition of this sound with where she was, that was a way to put kind of a question mark over Cora’s journey there. For example, as opposed to say, one way to potentially imply that something was off in South Carolina would be by just playing a strange sound. But that wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to apply magical realism in an oblique way that hopefully created this feeling that when you hear this music and see Cora, you start questioning South Carolina.
Every single state required this kind of thoughtfulness from us. What was so amazing, and Barry is so brilliant, is that in his mind’s eye, and in his mind’s ear, he had a sense of each state and how he wanted each state to feel. There were certain pieces I would play that we could come up with, and he immediately knew what state he wanted something in. Barry also knew the textures and the kinds of feeling that he wanted for each of those states. For example, in the last episode, he didn’t want a lot of music; he really wanted it to be more immersed in the world—the sound of Mabel (Sheila Atim) and that world. Those were all instincts from Barry.
Specifically, you asked about African American musical traditions. We actually had a professor working with us, Eric Crawford, from Coastal Carolina University, who researched any of the music in the world of the characters for authenticity. Let’s say it was a particular song; those songs were researched and worked on by Eric Crawford. There were also places where we had music where Barry clearly wanted it to feel a different way. An interesting example is the social waltz in South Carolina. I remember asking Barry if he wanted actual mid-1800’s waltz music. He said he didn’t; he wanted something that sounded European or even central European. What is so fascinating about working with Barry is that he always has a clear idea and clear reason for choosing different things for different places. I feel very lucky to work with him. It is fascinating to see his instincts and to have him as a guide on this journey that we went on.
AD: A lot of your music is very lush and romantic, in a sense. When you are working on a project like Railroad, that is very raw, very different. How do you find that balance between sweeping orchestrations and yet still maintaining the core of the project?
NB: We recently released the three volumes of music from the series. And at certain places, the music, for very clear reasons, did have this kind of larger scale, orchestral sound. Interestingly, a good example of the total opposite of that is if you listen to volume 2 of the album as we go into North Carolina and Tennessee, the music is anything but romantic and lush. It is actually quite intense, quite raw. There are some really extreme sonic experimentations. I would parallel it where on previous projects with Barry, there was definitely a feeling Barry was looking for. For example, on Beale Street, there is a feeling of love, but there is also this feeling of injustice. Barry would often talk about how important it was for us to break this sound. In Beale Street, we would take the sound of love, and we would distort and harm it and bend it, and that became the sound of injustice for us. In Underground Railroad, there are many states that Cora journeys through where the music.…I wouldn’t call that music romantic at all.
AD: No, no [Laughs].
NB: It’s very intense. [Laughs].
AD: I have to tell you, my favorite piece of music you’ve ever done is ‘Eros,’ from Beale Street. What would you say is the Nicholas Britell signature sound?
NB: Oh, that’s difficult! [Laughs]. I appreciate you asking that question. I don’t know. On a very personal level, I think the thing that fascinates me most with being able to do this is that every project represents a new adventure, a new learning experience. So, in some ways, my goal is to keep trying to find new sounds and new ideas, in a sense. I don’t know if there is any one particular sound that I feel is the most me.
The Underground Railroad is available to watch via Amazon Prime Video.