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The story behind composer Nicholas Britell's 'chopped and screwed' score for 'Moonlight'

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Nicholas Britell and director Barry Jenkins combined classical music with hip-hop production techniques to create the music for the acclaimed film.

The film "Moonlight" has received a lot of awards love lately. 

But while critics are lauding the film’s director, Barry Jenkins, and the performance of its cast, there’s another element that deserves a special shout-out: The score by composer Nicholas Britell.

Reading the script was a very impactful thing, especially on this project. My initial emotional reaction to it was that it had this incredible feeling of poetry, and that was something which inspired much of the compositional path that I would take. One of the first things that I sent to Barry was a piece that I wrote called "Piano and Violin Poem." I was thinking, What is the musical analogue of poetry? What does that sound like? The piece, "Piano and Violin Poem," actually became "Little's Theme" in the movie. 

Britell is a Juilliard- and Harvard-trained classical pianist with a few film scores under his belt, including "The Big Short" and "Free State of Jones." But for "Moonlight," he had the extra challenge of creating sonic themes to unite the film’s three-act structure. The key idea came from Jenkins who had been listening to a sub-genre of '90s hip hop.

Barry told me right from the beginning about his love of "chopped and screwed" music, which is this style of southern hip-hop where basically you take tracks of music and you slow them down. What happens when you slow music down like that is the pitch goes down. So the music in a weird way is stretched and bent. It creates these unexpected, very enriched, powerful textures.

Composer Nicholas Britell in his studio.
Courtesy Nicholas Britell
Composer Nicholas Britell in his studio.

The film is divided into distinct chapters in a young man’s coming of age story, with interstitial titles referring to names the character is known by: Little, Chiron and Black. They found the slower, pitched-down technique meshed well with Britell's classically-inspired compositions and not only helped link the film's three sections, but also added to its contemplative nature.

I would write music for the film that was inspired by these ideas of poetry. And then, I would take a recording I made and start playing with it. So I would start pitching it, bending it or slowing it down just seeing what happened. That became a sort of technique that we would apply to evolve the music. One of the key things for "Moonlight" is that it is in three chapters. And there is this question of: How do you link these three chapters? How do you create cohesion while at the same time allowing for a journey? This chopped and screwed aesthetic — this set of techniques — became one of the avenues that we followed to find the path. 

During a traumatic fight sequence, "Chiron's Theme" is manipulated à la chopped and screwed, creating dramatic tension. 

You don't even hear the music at first, you just hear this rumbling in the subwoofers of the theater. Occasionally you just hear these notes poking through. It almost sounds like a low bass and a bell. That low bass is actually the violin from before and that bell is actually the piano. I think that was a real moment of discovery for us. Barry and I were so excited because we had to see what would happen if we applied a chopped and screwed aesthetic to classical music — to instrumental recorded music. What was so exciting is that it worked. It felt like we were following an approach that made sense for the film itself.

As Britell reflects, seeing how his collaboration with Jenkins manifested itself onscreen was the most rewarding part of the process.

To us it felt very emotional. And on a personal level, a lot of the times that I feel a cue works, it's almost like a physical feeling. Maybe you get a shiver or a tingle down your spine. You have this sense where you see the scene totally differently. There's this actually feeling of, Yeah, that's it

Listen to Britell's full score for "Moonlight" below:

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