‘Succession’ Composer Nicholas Britell Channels “Darkess And Absurdity” Of Power-Hungry Elite

For composer Nicholas Britell, HBO’s Succession was tricky to score, given the “huge amplitude of emotion” within the story, and the discordant combination of elements shaping its tone. Centered on the Roy family, the dysfunctional owners of a global media empire, Jesse Armstrong’s series was many things at once—dark and weighty, with a caustic wit—depicting the “darkness and absurdity, and the trials and tribulations” that come with an insatiable hunger for power.

For Britell, who was making his first foray into television scoring, the task at hand with Succession was to figure out the nature of its “combination of tones,” and what kind of music could bridge the gap between them. “For me, every episode, there was a question of, ‘Is this something that’s funny? How does the music interact with that?’ I never wanted to step on the toes of the humor, so that was always a main concern,” the two-time Oscar nominee explains. “But at the same time, you want to give the drama its due. I wanted to make sure that I was implying enough gravitas where that was necessary, as well.”

As complex and layered as any of the series’ characters, Britell’s score also was marked by a combination of tones, infusing cold, aristocratic classical with driving hip-hop beats and other emotive elements, including “evil, wintery” sleigh bells. Bringing a New York sound to the New York-set series, the composer tapped into the schizophrenic nature of life in the high-stakes corporate circus.

What did you discuss with executive producer Adam McKay, when you first met with him about Succession?

Adam’s really focused on the world today, and one of the first things we talked about was the very real fact that there are these increasing concentrations of power and money, amongst smaller and smaller groups of people—in particular, families. The story of this one family in the media industry, and thinking about the nature of that power just sounded fascinating, right up front.

He asked if I would work on the pilot, and just try things out and explore before meeting up with Jesse Armstrong. Then, I invited him over to my studio in New York, played him some early ideas, and there were certain things that Jesse immediately gravitated towards. In particular, there was an early version of what became the main title theme. While I was with him in the room, I remember extracting these chords from that, demonstrating that sound, and he immediately encouraged me in that direction. Interestingly, I didn’t know that early idea would be the main title, and the final version of that piece was actually the last thing I did for the show.

In that main title theme, we hear the collision of hip-hop elements with a cold, classical sound. What about that juxtaposition spoke to the world of the show?

 Really, the challenge with Succession—which was a great, exciting challenge—was this combination of tones in the show, [which is] both very serious, and also hilarious and absurd. I think there was something about all of the music that I was doing in the show, where I was always trying to figure out, what is the sound of that? And in particular, there’s two kinds of things that come out of that.

One was imagining, what is the music that these people imagine for themselves? There was this idea that Logan probably imagines this courtly, elegant, powerful sound—and right away, from the beginning of the first episode, you see that Kendall loves hip-hop. The mixture of these things wasn’t an overt idea; it was just that I think there are certain sounds that feel like they amp each other up.

And there’s also something in the way I was writing the pieces, where I’d say, “Okay, if this is serious, this is serious. And when it needs to be funny, it needs to be even more serious.” That was the way I approached the humor. Making the hip-hop beat maybe almost a little too big, it was like turning up the volume to 11. Everything had to be a little bit misproportioned, on purpose.

To my understanding, this juxtaposition really speaks to your roots as an artist, and facets of your creative journey that aren’t so well known.

I’m a classical pianist, and at one point thought about being a concert pianist full-time. But at the same time when I was in college, right around the time I started scoring a friend’s first film, I joined a hip-hop band called The Witness Protection Program, and spent basically every day writing hip-hop beats and performing. We had two rappers and six instrumentalists; I would play keys and synthesizers, and wrote a lot of the tracks. I learned so much from that experience, and I also love hip-hop, so there is this interesting intersection. My training was classical, but then I spent most of my formative musical composition years writing hip-hop tracks.

But I think as a fan of hip-hop and classical, the way these sounds came together was more fluid, [rather than] an intellectual combination of things. And that’s the way I think about the sound for any project I’m on. It’s never an intellectual process, as much as it is an emotional process.

You visited the set of Succession when McKay was shooting the pilot. What did you take away from that experience?

I think that a lot of our creative processes operate on a very unconscious level, actually—probably more than any of us realizes. And anything that adds to that experience or adds to your understanding, be it conscious or subconscious, I think is helpful. So, it’s not always a sense that I’m going to set, looking for something specific that I will use. I think it’s more just taking things in.

There’s a really powerful sequence in the pilot where Kendall and Logan are having a heated conversation. Logan looks at Kendall and says, “Do you want to hit me?” It’s this father and son that have such a pained relationship, and sitting there—a few feet away from this scene that is being acted out—and watching Adam direct that, and how that came together, I think it gives you a sense of the emotional amplitude. It gives you a sense of the feeling of a project. But a lot of that is having the time; I think that’s what it’s really all about. When you have the time to take in those things, you absorb them. They go somewhere in your mind and work on themselves.

What inspired the decision to incorporate a detuned piano into the score?

I detune instruments a lot. You know, we get so used to tuning in certain [ways]. Technically speaking, most instruments are tuned to 440 Hz. These days, orchestras tune a little bit higher, but sometimes, I like taking a piano and putting it at 430. It makes things sound off, but sometimes it’s fun if you’re trying to make elements rub against each other the wrong way, on purpose—or trying to make things feel misaligned. Whether we consciously or unconsciously notice those things, I think a detuned piano gives things a bit of a sour feeling, and sometimes makes the piano feel a little more maniacal.

This series features a lot of sounds that are digitally created. How do you tend to work with those elements?

Some of these sounds, I’m just making, or they’re in my computer. I’ve spent much longer than I’d like to admit in a dark room, just playing around with sounds on my computer. But it’s the product of basically decades of misspent youth, right? Just making these strange sounds in my computer. Some of those, I might record in a room; some of them might be processed in the computer. You can detune things in the computer; you can bend sounds. There are so many programs these days where you can literally morph audio however your heart desires.

Is there a piece of music from Season 1 that you particularly enjoyed putting together?

There’s definitely a few things that I really love. Just on the level of being fascinated with how it sounded, I remember being most excited when I recorded some of the ideas with banjos and guitars. I just remember wondering what that would feel like, and liking it so much.

For me, that’s one of the things about producing and composing, is that you get the chance to be be newly surprised with things. In the beginning of a project, you never know where you’re going to wind up. I remember talking to Jesse and Adam about ways of evolving things, and it was an experiment.

What was it like embarking on your first television series, after building a career in features?

I think there was a new question for me, this question of the architecture of a 10-hour series versus a two-hour movie. I’ve gotten more and more used to thinking about how themes and ideas evolve and recur, and develop over the 90-120 minute real estate, and thinking about 10 hours of real estate is different. I spent a lot of time thinking, how does an audience ingest what we’re creating? What’s their response going to be like? And with this, it was different because I was trying to imagine not even so much one episode at a time. I was actually trying to imagine: Well, if someone’s watching this as one big binge watch, what does it feel like to watch this at hour seven? So, those were new ideas for me. [In] what ways is the audience experience changing? I think those are ideas that everyone in the industry is probably curious with, as well.

You’re currently working on Season 2 of Succession. How have you struck a balance between the musical qualities you established for the series in Season 1, and venturing out into new territory?

That’s exactly what I’m thinking about right now. On a musical level, one of the things I’m focused on is, you want to maintain and enhance the things that you feel musically about the show, but of course you want to also evolve and develop ideas. But I guess all I can say is I’m in the midst of that exact exploration right now.

What other projects are on your mind at the moment?

I’m going to be working with Barry Jenkins on The Underground Railroad for Amazon. That’s something that Barry and I started talking about last year, but that’s on the horizon. And actually today, they announced that I’m working with Benjamin Millepied on his Carmen project. It’s a film musical, so I’m writing a lot of songs right now, and I’ll also be writing a score. I’m collaborating with a brilliant singer-songwriter named Julieta Venegas, a Grammy-winning artist, and she’s incredible. I’ve written songs many times before, and I love writing songs. But the idea of writing really a new musical landscape like that is something I have not done before.

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