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About this Piece

Every composer’s route to Hollywood is a little different, but Nicholas Britell’s is one of a kind. After a youth spent training to be a concert pianist at Juilliard, he veered off that course to major in psychology at Harvard, where he joined a hip-hop band and began scoring his friends’ student films. When his group broke up, he began trading currencies in New York while continuing to score short films and even write telephone hold music. After quitting his job to focus full-time on composing, Britell found himself—within a few short years—contributing music to director Steve McQueen’s Academy Award-winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave. That project would lead to a long- lasting creative partnership with Plan B’s Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, who went on to introduce Britell to his closest collaborators to date: Academy Award-winning directors Barry Jenkins and Adam McKay.

A deep, fraternal collaboration was forged with McKay, who came to rely on Britell to bring big concepts to his apocalyptic movies at the earliest stage possible. For The Big Short, Britell conjured the sound of “dark math.” The composer scored Vice, a cynical portrait of former vice president Dick Cheney, like an epic western gone sour. “Nick was four months ahead of us with his music than we were with the edit,” McKay said. “He was clearly seeing things that we were still trying to figure out.” Their latest project, the Netflix comedy Don’ t Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as two low-level astronomers who go on a giant media tour to warn the planet of an approaching comet, features music for a kitchen-sink big band—filled with toy piano, mandolin, banjo, and celeste—along with big orchestral drama. Today marks the first live performance of music from the film.

Barry Jenkins drew on Britell’s facility with hip-hop in addition to his classical work for the 2016 Academy Award-winning Best Picture, Moonlight. The story of a gay Black man in Miami was told in three chapters of advancing age, and Britell’s simple, elegant violin theme for the protagonist likewise came of age through the digital slow-down process that characterizes the hip-hop subgenre of “chopped and screwed”—its voice dropping a register with each progression. Like McKay, Jenkins came to prize Britell’s input so much that he’s involved the composer on the ground level for all ensuing projects. That led to the melancholic, sensual, jazz-flavored score for If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ poetic adaptation of James Baldwin’s love story set in 1960s Harlem, and, most recently, the earthy horrors and fantasies in the critically acclaimed Amazon series, The Underground Railroad. “What I discovered very early on in the Moonlight process,” Jenkins said, “was how well he is able to receive the spirit of the film, the essence of the film, the energy of the film, and then reflect that in his sound.”

There’s no one, single Nicholas Britell sound. He used ’70s pop-inspired minimalism for the Billie Jean King story, Battle of the Sexes, and earlier this year did a completely different take on the poppy ’70s for the London-set Disney film, Cruella. He wrote moody ballads and hymns for the mud-and-blood Shakespeare epic, The King. And he continues to score HBO’s much-loved Succession with his moneyed chamber sounds and intentionally delusional hip-hop beats, and an infectious theme that earned him a Primetime Emmy. “The exciting thing about working in film, and specifically for me, working in film music,” he says, “is that every movie is different. And in every movie, you get to explore different characters, different possible sound worlds. That’s really what fascinates me, and I think that’s what continually excites me about the process. Because no two movies are alike. Each movie deserves its own unique soundscape.”

In addition to a selection of Britell’s own varied music for the screen, he has curated a performance celebrating some of his pioneering peers and colleagues. Mica Levi is another artist with an unusual avenue into film: the English violinist started out in the experimental pop group Micachu and the Shapes but turned heads with the neo-Herrmann horror score for Under the Skin. That led to Jackie, an alien-like take on grief and American royalty that defied tradition and earned an Oscar nomination. Jonny Greenwood is one of a growing number of rock stars turned film composers, but far from a gimmick, he is one of the most daring, surprising voices in today’s cinema. His debut, for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, was a revelation—a geyser of rushing rhythm and mesmerizing dissonance. Kathryn Bostic is a pianist, singer, and composer of both film scores and concert works, including a symphony inspired by playwright August Wilson. Her score for the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am captured the playful spirit and beautiful prose of the late author with Bostic’s personal expression of Americana.

Gary Yershon is a veteran British composer who has mostly worked in theater, where he often collaborates with stage director and filmmaker Mike Leigh. He has scored all of Leigh’s films since 2008—including Mr. Turner, about the painter J.M.W. Turner. In Yershon’s Oscar-nominated score, high sopranino saxophones drip downward like liquid paint. Terence Blanchard is a modern master, best known for his prolific collaborations with director Spike Lee. Malcolm X was an early pinnacle of their work together, and Blanchard’s musical portrait of the fallen firebrand explored stormy symphonic terrain with fiery trumpet solos. —Tim Greiving