These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.
photo credit: Emma McIntyre

SoundBox: Apr 14–15, 2023


Apr 1, 2023

Music to Picture: Collaborative Partner Nicholas Britell


NICHOLAS BRITELL WAS FIVE WHEN he sat down at his family’s upright piano and picked out the theme to Chariots of Fire. It was an impressive feat even if, granted, a good part of that score was just a pulsating, repeated note. In any case, it was enough to persuade his parents to get him piano lessons. “I was transfixed,” Britell recalled in an interview. “And once I had even the vaguest notion of how the piano worked, I started experimenting with what was possible.”

Today Britell, 42, is one of the most sought-after composers in film and television with recent credits including the Star Wars espionage series Andor, the tense #metoo drama She Said, the searing Amazon adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, and the acerbic HBO series Succession. He has been nominated for Academy Awards on three occasions, most recently for his score to one of Netflix’s most successful films of all time, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, and twice for his collaborations with the director Barry Jenkins: Britell’s music to the Best Picture-winning Moonlight bathed the film in a subaquatic blur that captured its mix of alienation and wonder. The elegiac shimmer of his soundtrack to If Beale Street Could Talk lent aching dignity to its characters. Britell’s title theme for Succession, meanwhile—an infectious brew of courtly classicism and cocky Hip Hop—won him an Emmy. At the San Francisco Symphony he is now one of the Collaborative Partners whom Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen has gathered together to help redefine the role of the orchestra. Classical institutions have often been bashful about programming music composed for film and television as part of their core subscription series. That may have something to do with an unvoiced bias against “functional” music that molds itself to the requirements of a story or image. But as Britell points out, music written for visual media accounts for the bulk of all recorded symphonic music. It literally keeps much of the industry in business. And some of this new orchestral music finds passionate listeners, often among people who never make it into the concert hall. On Spotify, individual tracks of Britell’s film scores show millions of streams. The challenge, then, is how to lure some of these fans into the live symphonic experience.

“Certainly there are a lot of possibilities,” Britell said. “I’m very passionate about new voices and new contexts inside and outside the concert hall. There is a lot of music that has yet to be performed. Even expanding the range of music that people associate with film is interesting, just as the idea of what classical music is has expanded.” He said this could take the shape of orchestral concerts of score excerpts similar to programs of opera overtures or suites from a ballet. Or it could be a combination of the increasingly popular screenings of movies with a live orchestral score and discussions with some of the creators. After all, Britell said, a symphony hall “is a gathering place for people to experience their love of music, their learning and their sharing.” Watching a film with live orchestral accompaniment is special, he said, “because you are experiencing a bit of the film behind the scenes, you’re pulling the curtain back on some of the processes. It deepens your understanding and appreciation of these things. When you are watching a live score to screen performance, it is as if the soundtrack has come into the hall with you and is being made anew. It’s like peeking under the hood.”

One way of discovering what’s under that hood is to watch the same scene from a movie first without and then with the score. It’s a process Britell sometimes uses when he works with students, as a means to investigate the uncanny power of music to color our perception of a given scene. “When you put music up against a picture, it immediately changes the picture,” he said. “But it also changes how you hear the music.”

Britell said he remains fascinated by the alchemical reactions between image and sound and the ways those sometimes run counter to expectations. “A funeral march set to a very plaintive-sounding piece will surely feel like a dirge,” he said. “But the amazing thing is if you actually put a ‘happy’ piece of music over a sad scene, oftentimes it will feel even more tragic. Because in this context, the happier sound feels like the loss of happiness.”

In scoring a scene, Britell said, small details can effect profound changes. “Sounds have their own integrity,” he said, “but so much of this is about that counterpoint, or interaction. It’s almost like quantum physics, where as soon as you observe something, it forces it into a different state.”

Britell has written “pure” concert music, including pieces he performed as a student when he was on track to a career as a concert pianist. In works like these, he said, “the music is itself.” But he’s most himself as a collaborator. Even as a soloist, some of his most satisfying concerto performances were with The Knights, a musician-run orchestral collective. At Harvard, he joined a live-instrument Hip Hop band called Witness Protection Program, which for a brief, heady period toured clubs and colleges across the Northeast. “We had a blast,” he said. “I realized how much I loved being part of an artistic team like that. I wrote a lot of music for the band. I loved writing and then immediately performing it.” It was around that time that Britell began to write functional music on spec, including television themes for programs that didn’t exist and even a few minutes of telephone hold music, which he persuaded a local restaurant to plug into its phone system in exchange for free meals.

When a friend approached him about scoring a film he had made, he jumped at the opportunity. “The thing about film music is, it requires a movie to score it,” he said. “That film was actually never released, but it became this kind of creative testing chamber, where I had my first experience of sitting with the director in basically a closet with a couple of screens in front of us. You look at a scene and say, what do we do?”

Compared with a piece of concert music, a film score comes with a lot of constraints and strictures: music has to fit into scenes of a certain length, which may change many times during editing, requiring ever new cuts and revisions. But Britell said he finds those parameters liberating. “Those limits are what is so fertile for creativity,” he said. “And there are no preconceptions for film scores. There are no rules. It’s like a ballet: the music and the picture are doing this dance with each other.”


CORINNA DA FONSECA-WOLLHEIM is a writer and the founder of Beginner’s Ear.

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