I’ve interviewed dozens of film composers throughout my career and not all of them are comfortable talking about their own music. It can be awkward translating into words what was occupying a composer’s mind solely as music. As an added challenge one must also be able to speak to the lay person who isn’t fluent in the creative language a composer might use when collaborating with a director or their musicians.
Michael Abels, who recently composed the magnificent score to Us (2019) for Jordan Peele, is an artist who is as comfortable with words as he is music. His insights into his own creative process are valuable, fascinating, and wholly revealing. Any creative, especially one tasked with collaborating with another, would benefit greatly to hear what he has to say. In fact, I would have to say that my conversation with Michael was one of the better explorations of a composers’ creative process that I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking.
There’s no doubt our conversation will make you appreciate Michael Abels’ music more. It will certainly make you love Jordan Peele as a filmmaker more, and it will deepen your admiration for Peele’s films Us and Get Out (2017). That’s the hallmark of a really good interview; however, I’m not taking credit for any of it. I just ask the questions. It’s up to the subject to deliver the goods and Michael certainly does.
ScoreKeeper: I want to thank you for taking the time out to talk with me today. When I interview composers I like to gravitate toward the creative process itself and explore how and why creative decisions are made. So let’s start at the beginning. What was your introduction to the story? How did you get to know Us?
Michael Abels: Jordan (Peele) told me the idea even before he had written the script. He told me, “I have this idea where people are attacked by their doppelgängers.” I was instantly inspired by that idea. I thought it was a great idea! So I had to wait for Jordan to write the script, which he did. Months later when that was done he had me read the script. Of course, there was a lot to unpack.
I would imagine that there would have been a lot of pressure on him after Get Out and a lot of expectations. Rather than give people Get Out 2, he completely wanted to bust peoples’ expectations and take them on a new and interesting journey that gave them a lot to think about. I knew he had done that from just reading the script, but as any film composer knows, the script can be told in any number of ways. It’s likely to change over time as the film itself evolves. So I didn’t know which parts of the story I read would end up being the most impactful when it ended up on screen, but I knew that was going to be a process for everyone involved.
Jordan really understands music, its effect and impact in telling a story, and he really understands the power of music within the horror genre. He gave me some…marching orders, if you will. They were more like inspirations rather than orders. First he said, “It’s a story about duality so what if you experimented with instruments that don’t normally go together?” I mean, what a great thing to say to a composer! There’s inspiration there and it creates a wide open field. He didn’t say, “Give x and y,” he just said, “express duality.” Then also, another thing he often likes to do specifically is he likes to take something that we think of in one context (usually a sweet, friendly, or happy context) and put it in a context that makes it very unsettling, awkward, or uncomfortable…or terrifying! So he told me, “I’d really love to start with childrens’ voices.” Again, that’s something that people think of as being sweet and harmless and he wanted to then turn that on its ear.
So those were a couple of the instructions he gave me and then he turned me loose and expected me to inspire him. So I went away and wrote…not a lot of demos, but maybe around a dozen or so just experimenting with those ideas. The piece for the childrens’ voices, I was specifically trying to write a piece that could be used as a main title, so there was some intention behind that one, but the others I wasn’t even sure if I was thinking of specific scenes. I was really just experimenting with the instructions he gave me. I was imagining the experience and the world of the Tethered who lived in a place called the Underpass. Even though I hadn’t yet seen that world, I wanted to be able to imagine myself in it and how those characters might feel.
So I wrote these demos and I didn’t even name them, I simply numbered them which was very…clinical (laughs). I didn’t want to give Jordan an impression about them except for what he heard. I really trust his ear. I sent him the demos while he was off shooting the film. He really responded to the “Anthem” (Track 1 of the soundtrack album) which in the film, as the Main Title, is pretty much exactly like the demo I did. We recorded it with live instruments and I had to come up with lyrics, but that’s the track.
The rest of the demos sort of evolved. I didn’t know which ones he liked until they showed up in the rough cut as part of the temp score and I would say, “Oh! He’s thinking of this music for this character or that scene.” It was a wonderful surprise for me, not only that he loved the demo, but how he saw it helping to tell the story effectively.
SK: So you laid a foundation of music that Jordan was free to tap into. When you see the film for the first time, perhaps it’s a rough cut or dailies, how does seeing these images (and perhaps hearing your early demos as temp) affect the evolution of your music to completion?
MA: Well, Jordan had Nick (Monsour) the film editor, started assembling scenes even before he finished photography. I was able to see different versions of various sequences in their purest form. Jordan would temp those scenes with music from my demos, music that I did for Get Out and other sources. You can be informed simply by watching and listening. But it’s also important to ask questions regarding why choices are being made and hear the director and the editor tell you their answers in their own words rather than assume. So I would do that if we had the opportunity. That would mostly happen sporadically; however, we did have official spotting sessions where we would sit for hours and go through each scene cue by cue and discuss what that cue represented and what its emotional temperature and purpose was.
Jordan is excellent at being able to express these things. None of it is done randomly. He would even often tell me what the temp was not doing so that I could write what the scene needed to provide that the temp was not. His instructions are very clear and insightful, but he’s always interested in being surprised. He truly regards it as a collaboration and makes it clear that I’m invited to surprise him and take what he is going for while adding my own expression.
SK: That doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that. In the two films you’ve collaborated with Jordan, I can see and hear the free exchange of ideas in the resulting work. The freedom to inspire each other from both sides of the creative coin is evident in the film. Let’s face it, there are plenty of situations in Hollywood-based moviemaking where this doesn’t exist and that is also apparent on screen. One of the questions I had (which I think you’ve already touched on) is regarding the length of Jordan’s “creative leash” he gives you. You said earlier that Jordan lets you inspire him, which I find to be a very telling revelation.
MA: Thank you, I love your phrase “creative leash” (laughs). That’s how I feel. I absolutely want to tell his story in the way he wants it told, but the only way that I can do that, is to be creative. He’s not going to settle for an idea that is not creative.
SK: Let me ask you about the “Anthem.” This is one of the striking musical signatures of the film. In concert music, you’re known for your choral writing; however, in film it can be sort of a tricky proposition. Other than the ubiquitous vocalise, you don’t get a lot of contrapuntal, text-based, four-part choral writing in film like you used to hear many decades ago. How did you take Jordan’s instruction of utilizing a children’s choir and morph that into the choral centerpiece of the film? Where did the text come from and the inspiration behind the assembly of the different voices you used?
MA: Yes, that came from Jordan’s initial vision. Aesthetically, Jordan loves the human voice and how it can be used to help tell a story. There is no instrument that is more empathetic than the human voice. It’s just a part of our being. He wanted an anthem for the main title and he wanted it to start with children’s voices because of the possibility of it being really creepy rather than sweet.
We also used voices in the Main Title for Get Out except in that film, those voices are specifically the voices of former slaves, lynching victims, and black victims of injustice. I chose the voices to sing in Swahili. It’s not the most authentic slave language if you do the research, but it’s unmistakably African sounding. Even though the audience won’t understand what they’re saying in most cases, they’ll hear that these are black voices singing to black people. Just having the consciousness of understanding that that was going on was very important.
I bring that up because in Us, who is singing and what do those voices represent? In this case, the voices to me represent the battle march of the Tethered. If it’s not something they’re singing themselves it’s music which represents their intent as they prepare to go and fight their battle for justice.
So I asked myself, “How do I want the audience to pick that up?” Well…a march. We often think of marches as militaristic and being very organized. They’re rhythmically very strict. I had to follow through with those expectations if I wanted somebody to experience it as a march. But I also didn’t want it to feel like it was coming from a particular culture. That was something we wrestled with. So we asked ourselves, “What kind of voices can we use? Do we need to make sure they’re diverse?” That’s important simply because diversity is important and we can talk about that more as a tone subject, but the thing is, the quality of the voice is intrinsically part of culture because of language. You can cast singers to look like a Benetton ad, but if you do that and the style of music is especially of one culture, those voices are going to sound more of that culture because of the language and the cadence of the music.
So what happens in the “Anthem” is that it starts in a very sound-design-y environment that evokes uncertainty and that to me represents the Underpass. Then the childrens’ voices emerge out of that. The next big musical change that occurs is the beat drops. When that comes in it’s a funky culturally undefined rhythm that in no way goes with a march. So this becomes my way of saying, “Ok, this is a march, but not your traditional Western march.”
SK: But then you juxtapose that with very specific cultural references peppered throughout the score.
MA: Yes, everything has a cultural identity. You can’t just rip a cultural identity out of an instrument or sound. It comes with it. But there’s a conscious choice to include more than the dominant culture. So why? It’s not just to make interesting music. Think about the movie. Regardless of what people might think it’s ultimately saying, number one, it stars a middle-class black family who aren’t there because they’re black but rather to have an experience. So what is said in the background is that, middle-class black people exist and they can have an experience that any audience member can relate to. And…their culture is holistically American and carries with it some things that are maybe unique to the black experience. These things aren’t talked about in the film, they’re just shown. It’s so rare in film to see that. So the musical choices are made in keeping with that. Our American experiences are more multi-cultural than we have given ourselves credit for.
One of my favorite moments of the film that relates to this is when the Tethered have just broken in and we’re learning about who they are and in the middle of a very tense moment Gabe asks Red, “Who are you people?” and she smiles ironically and says, “We’re Americans.”
SK: So then, what language and what text did you use?
MA: Jordan told me, “Just use nonsense.” Great, that simplifies it. But then…when you think about it, everything means something. There’s no such thing as nonsense when it comes from a voice. When I sat down to write, every single thing I came up with reminded me of something.
Jordan is an Oscar-winning writer (laughs). So I was a little intimidated when I’m suddenly asked to write nonsense by somebody who is an award-winning writer so I told him, “Everything means something.” He acknowledged that. I also told him, “By the time you put in all the syllables need to sing it’s going to sound like Latin.” It’s actually difficult to sing in those short staccato notes, so I didn’t want to use vowels that made it difficult to nail the pitch. And I didn’t want to use consonants that wrapped-up the mouth. By the time you do that, you end up with syllables that sound like Latin even though it’s not. Jordan was okay with that.
SK: Yes, it’s a lot harder than it seems when you’re tasked to make up singable words.
MA: That’s exactly what I found (laughs). I was struggling for an entire day and found myself having so much respect for Dr. Suess (laughs).
SK: I admire the score a lot. There are two moments (other than the “Anthem”) where the music really stood out for me as pivotal moments in the score. The first was when Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family arrive at the beach early in the picture (Track 5, “Beach Walk”). You use percussion, a kalimba, and what sounds like a bowed metal string grinding away in the underbelly. It’s a “nice” scene where a family is arriving to have a fun day at the beach; however, nothing in the music reflects that. In fact it’s revealing quite the opposite. You’re adding so much narrative to what is not necessarily shown on screen.
MA: Well, thank you so much. That piece was from one of the demos that I did. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it for that scene but the musical inspiration came directly from Jordan’s direction to “put together instruments that don’t belong.” So in that moment that you’re citing, there’s a berimbau (which is that instrument that buzzes) in a trio with kalimba playing an almost serial tone row (which kalimbas don’t normally play, laughs) and there’s a drumbeat but it’s actually a didgeridoo utilizing percussive vocal inflections. It sounds like a drum, but if you know its a didge you can hear that it’s indeed a voice.
If Jordan was looking for instruments that don’t go together, well here you go. Try this! (laughs)
SK: Oh wow! I’ve used didgeridoo on a number of occasions and I’m aware of all the different techniques that can come from the instrument, but I never heard that as a didge. It just sounded like a unique drum to my ears. That’s awesome.
MA: Yeah, terror is about the unknown. When we hear a sound that we don’t know what it is, then our senses are heightened. What I do is I take the sound library I’m using, dump all the books on the floor and experiment with the sounds.
As for that beach scene, I never would’ve expected anybody to cite that scene as an interesting one musically so the fact that you pointed it out is really great for me. The reason Jordan chose it for that scene is because it’s supposed to be a happy and relaxing day at the beach. But! What is Adelaide experiencing? This is where that horrible thing happened to her and so she’s feeling very unsettled. Jordan wanted to make sure that we’re not seeing a day at the beach, we’re feeling her walking along that beach for the first time as an adult.
SK: The other cue that I like a lot is the scene where Kitty’s dopplegänger Dahlia (Elisabeth Moss) is looking at herself in the mirror while applying her lipstick. It’s so radically different than the rest of the score that I wondered for a moment if you wrote it. I was delighted to find it on the soundtrack album as one of yours. It’s such a huge departure from the rest of the score. It has a very 1950s/60s retro glissando strings vibe indicative of an idealized world that completely defines the film for me.
To me, this piece of music, at this very moment, defines what the entire film is about. It makes everything make sense. I have to admit that up until this point in time, I was feeling a little like, “What the hell is going on?” and that’s a cool thing to perpetuate for a finite period of time, but if it lasts too long you could get frustrated. But when this scene happened, it all clicked. I instantly got it and it was the music here that single-handedly became the film’s greatest revelation.
MA: Yes! Yes! Thank you so much! That again was Jordan. He temped that scene with a piece that harkened back to old Hollywood. The idea is that this character is pampering herself and making herself beautiful for the first time in her life. It’s a huge moment for her and she’s reveling in it. When you watch that scene you have to understand she’s Audrey Hepburn in that moment. The music had to completely embody that she was imagining herself as an old Hollywood movie starlet.
I knew it had to be all violins with tight jazz harmonies exactly like it was 1962. That’s also what I told the orchestra. I saved it for the end of a session after we played all these effects and dissonant techniques to make people’s skin crawl. It was great because we were on the old MGM scoring stage on the Sony lot where they recorded Gone With The Wind (1939). I told them, “OK, remember all those things I told you all day, forget everything I said. Now it’s 1962 (laughs). We’re going to play with all the beauty and vibrato that we know how to play with. Pete Anthony, the conductor, said, “Can we turn off the click?” And I said, “Yes!” So that was the one part of the score that was played off the stick beautifully in the room the way God intended. It was just like liquid chocolate which is exactly what it was supposed to be.
SK: I’m horror guy. I love horror cinema and film scores and always will. But, I’m loathe to admit that horror scoring as of late is getting a bit stale and trite. Many horror scores are devolving into conjuring up terror with loud stingers. While there are certainly opportunities for a well-placed stinger, I’ve always felt its dependence is a bit like cheating. A loud bang following periods of prolonged silence will make most people jump. There’s no real craft or discipline in doing that, and when it’s done all the time, it just gets annoying.
What I appreciate about your horror scores is that they don’t rely as much on paltry scare-gags. Your scores have a blossoming creepiness to them which is really cool. So in this modern age of horror, how do you scare your audience, without resorting to loud bangs and stingers?
MA: That’s such a great question. One of the first things Jordan told me in one of our very first conversations we ever had (even before Get Out) was how important silence was to the score and how he considers silence a part of the score. It’s truer in Us even more so than Get Out. The silence of anticipation is as good as any music that you can write. You need to use the silence as another instrument in the score. That’s one thing.
Another thing is simply limiting the palette. Jordon told me once that he didn’t want any brass. So I thought, OK, Jordan doesn’t want the brass to play the melody or hear any trumpets. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t want the low trombones and the really scary things they can do. Well as it turns out, he did mean that. (laughs). He didn't want any brass! Even the trombones and the bass trombones. This was surprising to me! But when he can point them out and say, “That! It makes me feel like I’ve seen this movie.” And when somebody says that and they point to the one thing you would never really think they would notice, and they say, “Take that out.” It’s just like, “Yes sir!”
I wasn’t resisting him, I just really wanted to be sure that when it came time to scare people that he had what he needed. But having him force that choice on me, I’m forced to make other choices and that’s where creativity comes from. I was a little skeptical at first to believe he meant what he said. I was really happy to have the challenge be able to come up with new ways to do what I needed to do.
SK: Michael, thank you for taking the time out today. This has been an exceptional interview. Not everybody can break down their process and talk about their own music the way you can and I think those who have had their eyes and ears piqued by your scores will certainly benefit from your insight. Thank you.
MA: Thank you, it was a pleasure!