How Moonlight’s Composer Chopped and Screwed Classical Music

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Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight.

This awards season, Vulture is partnering with the podcast Song Exploder for a series of episodes on the most interesting film scores of the year. Here, host Hrishikesh Hirway interviews Oscar-nominated Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell about the process of creating the themes for the movie’s protagonist, who’s called “Little” when he’s a kid, “Chiron” as a teen, and “Black” when he’s fully grown. As Britell explains, he and director Barry Jenkins borrowed techniques from hip-hop to create three different themes from the same piece of music.

Edited excerpts from the conversation follow; listen to the episode below, and subscribe to Song Exploder on iTunes.

On what drew him to Moonlight:
 When I first read [the script], I was just overwhelmed by this feeling of beauty and poetry, that was really the starting point for my personal experience with the film. There was just this incredible sense of beauty and of sensitivity and tenderness and intimacy in the screenplay. 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.

My first emotional reaction to the film was that sense of poetry. I actually was saying to myself, What is the musical analog of poetry? 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 — that actually [turned into] Little’s theme.

On Little’s theme:
It’s a piano with these alternating harmonies. It’s going between the major 1 and the minor 4 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 a feeling — at least for me — a feeling of introspection. One of the things that I focused on when I first saw the film was I was imagining how to get inside Little’s point of view. He doesn’t say much, he is quiet, but you know that there is a lot that he’s thinking and 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.

The sound of the violin in that piece was something that I thought about right away. I’ve collaborated extensively with a very dear friend of mine, Tim Fain, who’s the violinist; 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.

I actually do a lot of experimentation with reverb because the sound that you hear of an instrument is entirely related to where you’re hearing the instrument. The space that you put an instrument in changes so much of the character, you know? With Tim’s violin line, the ocean is a big part of the film — not just literally, but symbolically — and there’s something to me in the sound of that long verb on the violin. To me it felt like sound almost washing over itself somehow.

There’s actually another piano underneath the first piano which fades in over the course of the track. The first piano is a grand piano, a fully in-tune grand piano and the second one is more of a sort of noisier upright piano with a loud mechanism. It’s not a really incredibly in-tune piano, but I think that’s what’s beautiful about it — different pianos have different feelings and different characters and it feels so human and so true.

On Chiron’s theme:
One of the interesting challenges from a musical perspective is how do you provide a sense of cohesion across chapters while also allowing for transformation? 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. In the process of slowing the music down, the pitch goes way down. You get this incredible, beautiful, deepened, and enriched sonic texture.

We immediately started talking about, could we do that to that to the score? Could we actually write classical music for the score and could apply these chop and screw techniques to it? I was immediately into it. I said, I know we could do this. That was an early exciting idea for us — this idea of my writing orchestral music and then as a part two of that process, taking my own recordings and chopping and screwing them and bending them and morphing the audio. 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. So where it’s in D major in the beginning in chapter one, in chapter two it’s in B major. It’s not played lower. It’s actually chopped and screwed so that the audio actually is bent lower.

That violin, it’s not like Tim played it in that key. That’s actually the Little’s theme violin but pitched down. I actually used an algorithm. I sort of experiment with a lot of different pitch-shifting algorithms. It’s just something fun that I spend probably far too much time doing. [Laughs.] But over the years I’ve found algorithms that work better than others.

The chopped and screwed Chiron’s theme, which is in the schoolyard fight, that’s a full chop and screw where it’s pitched down and slowed down. I took Chiron’s theme and slowed it way, way down. It’s over two octaves down and then I layered in a copy of itself on top of it and ran those two through this vinyl filter. So you’re hearing this crackle and then you’re feeling this kind of rumbling. That bell is actually the piano from Little’s theme, and what sounds like a bass is actually the violin from Little’s theme.

On Black’s theme:
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; pizzicato cellos, where they pluck the strings; and then there are cellos playing arco with the bow, playing the music of Little’s theme. 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.

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, a different key, and then applying the chop and screw technique to it.

With all of these ideas, what was so exciting for me as a composer was that Barry was 100 percent into trying all of this out. 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. 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 the more I get the opportunity to do this, the more I feel it’s important to follow these kinds of instincts and let your emotional response to things drive you in different directions.

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