How construction and cicada sounds wound up in Nicholas Britell’s ‘Underground Railroad’ score [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Construction sites and cicadas are probably definitely not the first things you might think of as inspiration for a score, let alone the same score at that, but those were heavy influences and elements of Nicholas Britell‘s pieces for Amazon’s “The Underground Railroad,” his third collaboration with Barry Jenkins. One day, pre-pandemic, he got a text from Jenkins that was just an audio file.

“I listened to it. It sounded like drilling and construction equipment. I honestly had no idea what that was, really, that he was sending me,” Britell shares at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: TV Composers panel (watch above). “And a couple hours later, he texted and he just said, ‘Did you get what I sent?’ And immediately I knew what he was talking about. One of the really wonderful things about forging these longer-term creative partnerships is you really get a sense of the people you work with, the types of questions that you’d ask each other.”

Britell, who earned Oscar nominations for his work on Jenkins’ “Moonlight” (2016) and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018), immediately started experimenting with the audio, bending it and stretching it out. “There was this kind of undulating to the tone. It had this interesting up and down to it and it had a rhythm, and Barry was really into the rhythm,” Britell remembers. “And it literally was construction equipment that was drilling into the ground far away, not even on set, just sort of near the set. And that was the first conversation about this idea of exploring sound and what did that mean and what would it mean to explore elemental forces.”

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For a series, which is based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, in which people literally go underground, where the Underground Railroad is reimagined as an actual railroad, it makes sense to create diegetic music with ambient noises — the drilling into the ground, the buzzing of cicadas, the crackling of fire. Britell worked closely with supervising sound editor Onnalee Blank, who sent him, among other things, “incredible field recordings of cicadas.”

“From early on, there was this idea of taking these literal sounds and weaving them into the score. It certainly landed in the score as a sort of landscape, an element, but it also directly led to some of the musical ideas,” he says. “The idea of going downward and that feeling of digging — that led to this idea of employing a chromatic descent motif I wrote of E flat, D, D flat, C, which you hear and creates its own kind of rhythm through the series. And that ended up, through a long circuitous path, being one of the key elements of what you hear right at the very beginning.”

Britell, of course, is not a newbie to TV, having won an Emmy for his addictive theme to “Succession,” for which he’s currently scoring the highly anticipated third season. And yes, scoring an ongoing series is quite different than scoring a limited series, especially one that is as episodic as “The Underground Railroad,” which features a different state in nearly every episode as Cora (Thuso Mbedu) tries to escape to freedom.

“When we go from Episode 1 to Episode 2 in a season of ‘Succession,’ we’re still with the Roy family and we’re still probably in New York or London or perhaps a yacht in the Mediterranean, but we’re still in the same universe,” Britell explains. “With ‘Underground Railroad,’ the key thesis from early on was that every state was not just a different physical state but it’s a different state of mind, it’s a different state of consciousness. That required so many different musical ideas and I think the balancing act there was obviously we need to connect things through a thread. We need to figure out points at which things do recur and points at which things make sense as far as evolution. But at the same time, it was important to delineate these different worlds. So I think with ‘Succession,’ the opposite is almost true. It’s important that I’m evolving a set of themes, which are our ideas and we’re almost linked with the characters in that way. They almost have become kind of their own characters in some sense at times in ‘Succession.’ It’s a very different process.”

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