Song Exploder: 'Moonlight' Composer Describes Process Nicholas Britell, the composer for the Oscar-nominated score for Moonlight, describes the story behind his music.
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Song Exploder: 'Moonlight' Composer Describes Process

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Song Exploder: 'Moonlight' Composer Describes Process

Song Exploder: 'Moonlight' Composer Describes Process

Song Exploder: 'Moonlight' Composer Describes Process

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Nicholas Britell, the composer for the Oscar-nominated score for Moonlight, describes the story behind his music.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday. And along with best picture and best actor and actress, there's an award for best original score. One of the nominees this year is the movie "Moonlight."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SONG EXPLODER")

NICHOLAS BRITELL: My name's Nicholas Britell, and I'm the composer of "Moonlight."

SHAPIRO: This is the first Oscar nomination for Nicholas Britell. He spoke about composing the score for "Moonlight" on "Song Exploder," a podcast that explores how songs are created.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SONG EXPLODER")

BRITELL: There was just this incredible sensitivity and tenderness and intimacy in the screenplay. When I first read it, I was just overwhelmed by this feeling of beauty and poetry. The director of "Moonlight" is Barry Jenkins. And what was amazing to me when I first saw the early cuts of the film after it was shot was how well Barry had preserved that feeling of poetry in the movie. And I actually was saying to myself, you know, what is the musical analog of poetry? And among the first things I sent to Barry was a piece of music I wrote that I called "Piano And Violin Poem" because I was sort of trying to channel this idea, and that actually is "Little's Theme."

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "LITTLE'S THEME")

BRITELL: It's a piano with these alternating harmonies.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "LITTLE'S THEME")

BRITELL: It's going between the major one and the minor four chord. You're in a major key, so there's this sense of stability, but at the same time the alternation back and forth creates, I think, a feeling of introspection.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "LITTLE'S THEME")

BRITELL: I was imagining how to get inside Little's point of view. You know, he doesn't say much. He is quiet, but you know that there's a lot that he's thinking and that he's feeling. That idea of introspection and thinking internally felt right with these kinds of harmonies. And there's a violin that's doubling the melody on top.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "LITTLE'S THEME")

BRITELL: The sound of the violin in that piece was something that I thought about right away.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "LITTLE'S THEME")

BRITELL: I've collaborated extensively with a very dear friend of mine, Tim Fain, who's the violinist. And what I asked him to do was to play it as quietly as he possibly could while still generating enough sound that he felt comfortable with the note. And then we recorded it very close to a mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "LITTLE'S THEME")

BRITELL: The ocean is a big part of the film. And there's something to me just musically that sounds almost like washing over itself somehow.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "LITTLE'S THEME")

BRITELL: With "Moonlight," which is divided into three chapters, the first chapter is the main character Chiron as a young boy where he goes by the name Little. The second chapter is when he's in high school, and he goes by Chiron, which is his name. So chapter two is called Chiron. And then chapter three is many years later when he's really in his late 20s, and he goes by Black.

One of the interesting challenges, I think, from a musical perspective is how do you provide a sense of cohesion across chapters while also allowing for transformation? And Barry told me about his love for chopped and screwed music, which is a style of Southern hip-hop where you take tracks and you slow them down. And in the process of slowing the music down, the pitch goes way down.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "LITTLE'S THEME")

BRITELL: You get this incredible, beautiful, deepened and enriched sonic texture. We immediately started talking about, well, could we do that to the score? You know, could we actually write music - classical music - for the score, and could we apply these chop and screw techniques to it? And I was immediately into it. I said, I know we could do this. So with "Chiron's Theme," that was the first evolution of the track. There was this idea that the key would get lower as the film progressed, it would deepen. So whereas it's in D major in the beginning in chapter one...

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "CHIRON'S THEME")

BRITELL: ...In chapter two it's in B major.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "CHIRON'S THEME")

BRITELL: It's not played lower. It's actually chopped and screwed. So there's this - that's the audio, actually, is bent lower.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "CHIRON'S THEME")

BRITELL: In chapter three, "Black's Theme" is actually an A major cello octet. There's cellos playing some tremolo, where the bow is shaking back and forth.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "BLACK'S THEME")

BRITELL: Pizzicato cellos, where they pluck the strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "BLACK'S THEME")

BRITELL: And then there are cellos playing arco with the bow, playing the music of "Little's Theme."

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "BLACK'S THEME")

BRITELL: That track, I recorded it in D major, so in the same key as the very beginning of "Little's Theme." And then I took that track as a master and pitched it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "BLACK'S THEME")

BRITELL: The sound of the cellos is fascinatingly changed, where they don't really sound like cellos to me, but they also don't really sound like basses either. They sound like some sort of hybrid string instrument. So that's where "Black's Theme" exists, it's a different orchestration, different key and then applying the chop and screw technique to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "BLACK'S THEME")

BRITELL: For me, one of the amazing things about the film scoring experience is that I think you really never know how things are going to turn out or work.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "CHIRON'S THEME")

BRITELL: There's this fascinating alchemy of how sound and picture relate. And I don't think anyone really knows why these things feel the way they do. So, you know, the more I get the opportunity to do this, the more I feel it's important to follow these kinds of instincts and feelings and let your emotional response to things drive you in different directions.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "CHIRON'S THEME")

SHAPIRO: That was Nicholas Britell talking about composing the score for the movie "Moonlight." His score has been nominated for the Academy Award for best original score. The awards will be presented this Sunday. His story came to us from the podcast "Song Exploder." It's produced by Hrishikesh Hirway. You can hear other episodes at songexploder.net, or wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL COMPOSITION, "CHIRON'S THEME")

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