An Oscar and Grammy Award has eluded him thus far, but if there is any artistic justice, Nicholas Britell will take home a second Emmy Award this September for his stunning original score for “The Underground Railroad.” His third collaboration with Barry Jenkins after “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the orchestrations for “Railroad” have already amounted to 3 hours and 13 minutes of original music. During a conversation earlier this month, the “Succession” theme composer said that “Underground” was the most difficult project he’d worked on, “without question.”
“This is the largest scale work I’d say I’ve ever even imagined doing,” Britell says. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and I mentally planned for that, and we did work on it for over 18 months. I think it was 20 months of work—all the time. Constant work, and a portion of that, we were almost literally together every day for about six months working. Yes. I can’t even really imagine doing something of this scope ever again, actually. I think it might end up being the most work I’ve ever done. The nature is so specific to this project. The idea that you have something which was 10 episodes. Ten chapters, that each of which requires so much distinction and elimination.”
Over the course of the interview, Britell details the process of working with Jenkins, considers the possibility of transforming the music into a complete symphony, and explains the rock influence on his other major score so far this year, “Cruella.”
The Playlist: Did your work on “Succession” make it easier to approach a 10-episode score for “Underground Railroad”?
Nicholas Britell: That’s a good question. Interestingly, having done “Succession” on a purely, almost on a technical level, I feel that having done some television gave me a sense of even just schedule-wise, procedure-ly what it’s like. When you do television, at least the way I approached it, there’s a lot of early work and early phases where you’re thinking about things where you’re trying things out. But then, television gets to a place that’s very regimented with its schedule and with mixing and finishing. So I think that was helpful to know in the sense that I knew from the very start that “Underground Railroad” was going to be a vast project and a vast experience. So I think knowing what the final schedule would look like having done television gave me a sense of how much work I wanted to do, so that wouldn’t be a problem in a way if that makes any sense.
I think that’s actually why I got started so early actually was knowing the nature of this. On top of that, as we worked on the Underground Railroad, one of the things that became so clear was that Cora’s journey to these different physical states, these places, was also a journey to states of mind and states of consciousness. And really required entirely different musical worlds as she went on this journey. Because of that, I think it truly was a completely additional added dimension and challenge on the “Underground Railroad,” beyond “Succession.” Just in the sense that on “Succession,” when I’m writing music for one episode, let’s say, the Roy family in episode one or two or three, it’s still the Roy family. They’re still basically in the same world. In “The Underground Railroad,” we’re not in the same world. We’re in different worlds. Going from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina, these are different magically realist different worlds with different anachronisms and different elements of the strange and different psychological states and universes. Barry and I really thought of it that way in the sense that it felt like, and I think Barry would say, it feels like we’re doing six or seven scores because obviously there’s also a point at which we were tying things together. There is a constant balance of the new and the exploration, and then at a certain point in our process, realizing okay, well now we need to make sure we go back and think about how that all weave together.
Notably, you referred to six or seven scores because I listed six different themes or tracks from the score. I know that some of them you delineated as foundation tracks.
Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Does that mean that they were one of the compositions you came up with before scoring the rest of the project?
It’s interesting. Barry and I, the nature of our process is such that there’s always so much music that I write and that we work on together that doesn’t necessarily wind up in the project, but which actually was the basis of so much. For us, foundation tracks are pieces that are recordings that represent either the fully flushed out early idea of something or the largest scale version of something that isn’t in the series. So, for example, a piece like “Caesar’s Theme Foundation Track.” “Caesar’s Theme” is throughout the series, yet that particular version with strings isn’t. And yet, that recording represents almost one of the purest expressions of that piece in a way. It’s a way for us to release a piece that Barry loves, which the literal recording isn’t in the show.
Britell continues: Actually, an interesting example parallel to that is on “Beale Street.” Actually, the first piece in “Beale Street” that I played for Barry that he was really, really, really loved was a piece called “Harlem Aria,” and that was with brass. It was directly from his idea of me exploring brass and horns. I played it for him, and he felt it was totally the right universe, and yet when we put it up against the picture, that recording, it just wasn’t quite right. It was missing something and what we later discovered was that it was missing this feeling of love that the strings provided. The horns themselves on their own were almost too direct, and we put it on the album as a “bonus track,” because we were saying the theme of the “Harlem Aria,” the chords, the concept is throughout “Beale Street,” and yet that exact recording isn’t. For “Underground Railroad,” because there were a few of these that happened, we wanted to be even more exact with our terminology. A couple of things are called “early sketch,” which are really just early sketches of something.. And a “foundation track” is more like a fully recorded piece, which represents a theme, but that exact version might not be in the series.
Is it an obvious statement to say that this is the most music you’ve ever recorded and written for one project?
Without question. This is the largest scale work I’d say I’ve ever even imagined doing. I knew it would be a lot of work, and I mentally planned for that, and we worked on it for over 18 months. I think it was 20 months of work—all the time. Constant work, and a portion of that, we were almost literally together every day for about six months working. Yes. I can’t even really imagine doing something of this scope ever again, actually. I think it might end up being the most work I’ve ever done. The nature is so specific to this project. The idea that you have something which was 10 episodes. Ten chapters, that each of which requires so much distinction and elimination.
I made notes for certain key tracks. You’ve got something like “Bessie” that has this beautiful love and optimism to it, and then there’s something like “It’s Time,” which is, I think, my favorite, which is just this horrifying mountain of strings that attack you. Where did you get your basis for this style?
The very beginnings of these concepts were from the elemental forces that [from an] initial audio recording that Barry sent me from the set early on. It sounded like a construction site. And he doesn’t normally send me text audio. This text message, and with no comment. It was just sound. Like a construction site, and I was a little confused. And then, a couple of hours later, I got a text from Barry that just said, “Did you get what I sent?” Immediately I knew what he was talking about because everything Barry does is so on purpose. I knew that then he was talking about let’s experiment with this. Let’s see where this takes us. I started taking that sound of drilling like I’m drilling into the ground. I bent it and started seeing there was a rhythm to it that Barry liked. There was an almost undulating tone to the drill, and that started this whole process of wondering about things like earth, digging into the earth. Going downward. Going underground. What about air? What’s in the air? These insects. These cicadas. Getting field recordings of cicadas from our Sound Supervisor, Onnalee Blank, was amazing.
Britell continues: The sound of fire and seeing that elemental force. What is that? What is the nature of that if we incorporate that into the score somehow? It really started from these kinds of inspiration from nature and the world in a way, and then after all those early experiments, I started, I guess, synthesizing it into a musical question of “O.K., well, going downward, what does that musically mean?” Not just sonically, but musically. I started playing with this descending motif that you hear. E flat, D, D flat, C that chord note motif. I remember it was January 2020, I believe, where Barry and I were in Los Angeles before the pandemic. I started playing this piece with this descending motif and putting these chords around it. One of those pieces. We called it “Pillars” because they felt like these pillars in the earth. Then I put strings with that. These raw strings, and I think it really over many, many months each of these ideas evolved over such a long period of time, but that idea born out of the early elemental force experiments became the opening piece in the series that you hear right at the very beginning. “Genesis,” which is this huge, raw string of sound.
Britell, again, continues: It’s an interesting thing. For those pieces, there’s no particular genre, I think. It was really almost inspired by nature itself in some ways, and then in each world, taking South Carolina, for example, where you talked about the orchestral lushness initially. Each world represented a different question in some sense of what we were trying to say musically and where Cora was in her journey. I remember reading the South Carolina chapter about how there was a skyscraper in South Carolina. When I read the book, I remember thinking to myself, “Wow. I didn’t know there were skyscrapers in the mid-1800s in South Carolina.” And that was a perfect example of that kind of question mark. You’re reading something, and it brings up the historical anachronisms and the magic of realism of this series. I think for me, from very early on, there was this question of how do we musically invoke that strangeness? That sense of almost the fantastical or unreality. And, Barry and I worked on that a lot. For us, in many cases, that very lush orchestral sound, the almost fantastical lush orchestral sound represented a question mark actually for us, where you hear that, and then you see Cora. You see, for example, where she is in South Carolina. As opposed to putting, let’s say, a strange sound, which would imply strangeness, we put this very lush orchestral sound, which also actually, to us, was a strange juxtaposition there. I think we’re always trying to evoke. We never want to push people to feel a certain way. We’re always hoping to evoke a feeling in a more true way in a sense, and that was one of the hopes with that usage of the orchestra there. I think for every single state, for every single world, there were these kinds of questions. In each one of those, we asked ourselves, “What role would the music play?” And in some cases, Barry knew that he didn’t want a lot of music. It was amazing seeing how Barry had truly internalized the entire series in his mind, to be honest. I would play a piece, and he would say, “North Carolina.”
Or I would say, “Episode 10,” and he would say, “Not a lot of music.”
Would you ever consider doing an “Underground Railroad” symphony? The music seems like it lends itself to that. Is that anything you would consider?
It’s interesting. Barry and I have talked about some musical concepts. Actually, “The Gaze,” which Barry released recently, in a sense, is a very large musical structure that’s fully related to what we did, but that is also for this other project, in a sense. But I could talk to Barry about that. I mean, I think in a way we, I think we do think about this as that structure in a way. The music is so tied with what we’ve done, and it’s so cohesive with that, that I haven’t personally thought about doing something outside of it with that. But it’s always something I could talk to Barry about.
I need to ask you about “Cruella,” because it’s such a different type of score for you.
I actually got to the end of the movie, and your name came up, and I was like, “What?” And then I was like, “Oh, yeah. That moment when she jumps off the cliff. That sounds like Nicholas.” But it’s so wonderfully out of the box for you. How did you convince Craig Gillespie to go with a rock-fueled score for “Cruella”?
Thank you so much. The greatest part about getting to do this is getting to explore these new worlds. I really want every score to do to be different, and that’s really what excites me. And I love these new adventures where you have a project where it’s totally different than you’ve ever done before, and I think that’s what is really fun. With this, Craig had all of these huge rock songs from the era that he wanted to use, and so I think my goal was to create a score that could connect all of those things together and not feel like you have this rock universe and then you have this other score that’s doing something different. The goal, I think, was to create a fully complex character for Cruella and yet have it also have the texture of that era and the rock. I actually recorded these amazing rock musicians. You had Abbey Road and Air Studios in London with all this vintage gear. I wrote all these rock pieces and then wrote all these orchestra pieces and tried to fuse them. That was really the challenge; there was putting it all together in a way that felt cohesive, and that didn’t feel like it was apples and oranges or something like that.
“The Underground Railroad” is available on Amazon Prime Video worldwide. “Cruella” is in theaters and available on Disney Plus Premier Access.