Composer Hesham Nazih joins Awards Daily for an in-depth conversation about his work on the Oscar Issac-starring Disney+ series Moon Knight. Nazih cleverly combined traditional Egyptian instruments with orchestral compostions and modern sonic elements to create a sweeping score—serving as a unique ode to Nazih’s heritage and a testament to his talent and originality as a composer.
Read on as Nazih details his work on the series and his experience joining the Marvel universe:
Awards Daily: I wanted to start with something that is around in a lot of your work, which is your blend of melodies with more of a traditional score. Tell me about that, and about your style and how it related to Moon Knight.
Hesham Nazih: I’ll make a judgment, depending on the nature of the project, depending on the nature of the picture, if the picture needs a score that is thematic or melodic. Because not all pictures do [need a melody and theme]. [When it does need to be] melodic and thematic, I have to find the melody and the theme that suits the picture, and combine that with textural musical movements and moves; and so on. But sometimes the picture doesn’t [need that], and sometimes a movie or a TV series does not really require a thematic score. And this allows me a chance to use broader musical ideas for delivering the right textures and moods, with a minimal use of melodies and things, and perhaps some motifs here and there.
Moon Knight I realized right from the very beginning, had to be thematic in all senses, and [had] to be melodic all the way. Apart from the main themes for each and every character, the music was always melodic, all the way, melodic; All the orchestral lines [were] almost playing in melodic maneuvers, if I may put it this way, because that’s the nature of the narrative, really, and the nature of the story itself. I think it required that. That’s what I had, what I did for Moon Knight.
AD: One thing that I really liked about the score is that it sort of reminded me of like old-fashioned, adventure movies that I used to watch when I was a kid. But then it was also blended with a really modern sort of aesthetic as well. So how did you blend those two things together?
HN: Yes. You know, while working on Moon Knight, I found the character of the music along the way. I found the right tone along the way. I found the right tonal character of the music along the way. By ‘along the way’, I [don’t] mean in the third episode; but along the way; while working, while writing. The reason why you felt that is because, when I use an orchestra, full orchestra—strings, brass, and winds – and make all the orchestral lines, I write melodic lines for all these lines and express most of the situations and the emotions melodically. This is the old-fashioned way of expressing, and using music. When you combine those [with] the newer elements, like the S.I.M.P. [string in multiple pitches] and other musical sonic elements, and then put those in a kind of unexpected context, you might end up feeling that this is a modern way of using music that might sound [a bit] classic. So yeah, you are right. This is a conjunction of this and that.
AD: And how did you bring in Egyptian elements, or just elements of your heritage? And was there anything that you wanted to stay away from, where you were like, ‘This is what people are expecting of me, but I’m going to do this type of a thing instead.’
HN: Yeah, there are two ways. The first thing that comes to mind while starting a new project is, ‘Okay, I want to find a new sound. I want to find new ways of expressing these situations. And I want to find new melodies and new scales and everything new, new…and everything fresh. But then, there’s another way, that’s ‘I want to go straight, the shortest way to reach a certain emotion.’ Because sometimes [for] what you need to deliver, you’re only allowed like four seconds or two seconds on the picture. And sometimes, the clearest of ideas are the most effective ones. So, writing for the orchestra, choir, chorals, all of these, was not in my mind when I first started the project. But I found that this was the right thing, and this was the most expressive and the most emotionally-efficient in Moon Knight, in this story, and in [these] kind[s] of pictures.
So, in regards to the Egyptian elements…I said, ‘You know, if you want me to sound authentically Egyptian, I am Egyptian.’ So it’s as if you want me to…it’s like, ‘Hey, I want you to look Egyptian.’ Alright. [Laughter]. It was the clearest form of ideas I would have. ‘Okay, alright I’ll be Egyptian.’ It’s just that I use these elements sometimes in a bold way, sometimes bluntly, sometimes subliminally. Sometimes I was hidden behind the orchestra. And because, amazingly enough, those musical Egyptian instruments I used, sit perfectly well with the classical orchestra, I had the liberty to sometimes inject them and put them within passages that [were not really supposed to] sound Egyptian. And it added [a] kind of really sweet flavor to the scenes.
AD: And you’ve mentioned that as you were doing your pre-production work, you sort of found the tone and everything. Can you tell me a little bit about maybe where you started and how those ideas evolved further as you began to work?
HN: I started with kind of S.I.M.P. [string in multiple pitches] sounds: analog S.I.M.P.; and processed sounds, highly produced instruments like scratchy violins, and strings and unusual kinds of instruments. When it comes to percussion, I opted for percussion that you [cannot] identify, [that you don’t know] the sound of. But then I threw that all of that away [laughs]; because the more natural, and the more organic the sound, the more you feel for the characters, the more you get attached to the storyline. So, along the way, I decided to get rid of anything that is unidentified or unnatural or [which] you may not call [an] organic instrument, [which] might keep you away from relating to the characters and feeling for the story. So, that’s what happened to me. So bit by bit, I found myself more [prone] and inclined to the orchestral natural sound of music, like strings, brass, and all of that; with the support of the S.I.M.P. and other sounds, of course, when it require[d] and the journey of using the vocal elements, [like] the big choral, big choir and the, and the Egyptian chanters, and the soloists as well. Because I did not start driving the score with those in mind. [How it started was] I used bits of solo vocalists here and there, and then I added more, and did a little more, and then I added the choir…and I end up using them widely [laughs] halfway through. And I decided that whatever helps me to strike the right emotion at the right moment, I would use it without [thinking about it] too much. In other words, whatever was emotionally right, I [went] for it.
AD: Is there a particular composition from the show that you’d like to highlight – maybe one that you feel like sort of encompasses all of these elements that you’ve been talking about the best?
HN: Oh…yeah, in the second episode, there’s the fight, the ‘Moonlight Fight’. And this moment of transformation was really, really fun to score – the moment when Mark [tells] Steven ‘Give me the body, I can handle this.’ So Steven hand[s] him the body, and then he turn[s] to Moon Knight. For the first time we see him turning into Moon Knight. This was a big moment for me, because [I felt like], ‘This is the first time I have written a score for a superhero.’ Or, the first time I have scored a transformation of someone becoming a superhero. And yes, the fight afterwards was really cool to score. And there was another scene in the third episode, when Khuncho and Mr. Knight were shifting the stars from the [constellation]. It is called ‘Constellation’ in the album, if you had a chance to listen to the album.
HN: And also there is a few cultures here in the album. [It] combines key Egyptian, modern-time kinds of music [with] the orchestral, adventurous style of Moon Knight music. And in essence, I really enjoyed, to the core, driving and scoring the episode five. I did not want it to end, [laughs] really. It was fantastic to score, fantastic episode to write music for.
AD: And you mentioned some of the traditional Egyptian instruments that you’ve used. I was wondering if you could just tell me what they were?
HN: Yeah. I used the rababa, which is a fiddle instrument. And I used the mizmar, which is a reed instrument and the arghul, which is a double [pipe] instrument. The mizmar and the arghul are pretty much close to the zurna and the bagpipes, but very different in flavor. It’s just the sound is the same family. And what’s fantastic about those instruments, [is] that you[can] find them engraved on the walls of the temples that [are] 5,000 years old, and they’re still produced, manufactured, and played, and used in modern-time pop songs and music in Cairo nowadays. So yeah: the arghul, mizmar, and the rababa; and the ney which is a reed instrument as well, and the tabla [which is a] percussion instrument.
AD: And you mentioned earlier, finding the character of the score. And I’m just curious, how would you describe it? If you were going to describe the score as a character, how would you?
HN: You know, for me, that’s the toughest part: putting this in words. [Laughter]. Yeah, I will try to do that. It’s operatic in the sense of the scale and the magnitude of the sound in melodies and themes. It has a colorful score, and [it’s] big in magnitude, [in order] to match the story and the picture. That is what it is. [The picture] is big in everything; the story has everything in full—the emotions, the traumatic tension, the epicness, the drama, the tragedy sometimes, and the romance, and adventure and everything. I think I was trying to encompass all of that in one musical amalgamation that complements that and carries it musically. So, yeah, that’s the essence of the score.
AD: You know, you mentioned you’ve never worked on a superhero project before. And Marvel has such a passionate fan base. And it’s so exciting that so many people are getting to discover your work. I’m just curious how that element has been, and what kind of feedback you’ve received?
HN: Fantastic! You know, fantastic. It all felt like a beautiful dream, everything. Yeah, I remember the first session, the first time [I hit] the record button [for the] score. It was the first cue in the first episode, it was not a large cue – but [it was like] ‘Wow, this is something I need to remember, this moment,’ and [it was like that] all the way up until the last file I sent to the studio to be mixed and recorded. It was all…it felt like a dream, a beautiful dream. And it was just amazing. And I had the chance to work with the most amazing people in Marvel. I mean, they’re fantastic, fabulous people – everything they’ve done to help, the assistance, the guidance, the consultancy, the friendship, they were just incredible. The whole thing was just magical.
Moon Knight is streaming now on Disney+.