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Creating A Musical Poem: Composer Nicholas Britell On Scoring “Moonlight”

One evening while dining with composer Nicholas Britell, Jeremy Kleiner, co-president of Plan B Entertainment, described a project his company had acquired and suggested the composer read the script. Having worked on the company’s previous films “The Big Short” as composer and “12 Years a Slave” providing additional music, Britell enthusiastically agreed to review it. With every page he read, he became increasingly blown away.

“I was completely overwhelmed; ‘Moonlight’ was so incredibly beautiful,” said Britell.

Within a few months he had secured a meeting with “Moonlight” writer/director Barry Jenkins. The two spent hours discussing film, music and life. With some ideas in mind for the score, Britell began the process by sending Jenkins a playlist of music ranging from the Isley Brothers to Mozart. The eclectic playlist was intended to highlight Britell’s first take-away from the script.

“It felt like poetry,” said Britell. “I began thinking, ‘What is the sound of poetry, how would you evoke that musically?’”

As Britell contemplated the score, his diverse musical training greatly assisted him. As a five year old lad he recalled hearing the score to “The Chariots of Fire” and became inspired to study music. While he had experience with writing music during his youth, the concept of becoming a professional composer seemed “unimaginable.” Poised to become a classical pianist, Britell’s involvement in a hip hop group during college tweaked his future aspirations.

“I wrote a lot of music. I was making beats and new tracks and it became a habit. One day I realized, ‘I guess I write music’. The activity helped prove it to me,” said Britell.

As Britell cut his teeth composing scores for friends’ films, he obtained his degree in psychology. He spent years reading about and researching the topic of preconception, particularly how the brain understands music. As he took on more composing projects, he loved the aspect of reviewing each individual story to discover how elements such as sounds, rhythms, textures, colors, palettes and styles could enhance the overall vision.

Working on the score for “Moonlight”, Britell gravitated towards the tender nature of two specific instruments: piano and violin. During the recording of the score, Britell performed the piano segments accompanied by violinist Tim Fain, whom he collaborated with on “12 Years a Slave.”  The two experimented with techniques to capture delicate, softer sounds, often playing very close to the mike to capture the desired quality. Noting the script’s Florida setting and Jenkin’s love of Southern hip hop, Britell found a unique means of incorporating the genre into the classical sounds. For certain sections of the score he utilized a technique called “chopped and screwed” – slowing the tempo between 60-70 quarter-note beats that, when repeated in a measure, creates a “choppy” effect. Britell took his recordings, manipulated them with music software effects such as vinyl and subwoofers, played with octaves and tone and then layered the revisions to achieve the chopped and screwed effect.

Alternating between minimal instrumentation and a full chamber orchestra, the score came together. Jenkins made periodic visits to Britell’s studio during the process, sitting with the composer and reacting to the score’s emotional impact. Britell notes the sense of collaboration he had with Jenkins was inspiriting and helped the piece evolve.

“It was a fun process,” said Britell. “Barry was so open to experimenting with a wide range of musical possibilities.”