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‘Moonlight’: How Nicholas Britell’s Score Balances Poetry and Southern Hip-Hop

For Barry Jenkins' introspective, African American portrait, composer Nicholas Britell created new sonic shapes with Southern hip-hop.

Moonlight

“Moonlight”

A24

Composer Nicholas Britell (“The Big Short”) was immediately drawn to the poetry in Barry Jenkins’ script for “Moonlight,” the introspective coming-of-age portrait of a Chiron, a gay African American growing up in Miami’s tough Liberty Square. So much so that Britell was compelled to find a complementary sonic lyricism for his score.

“My [initial] musical instincts were to have sensitivity, tenderness and intimacy,” Britell told IndieWire. “And a cool counterpoint to that was early on Barry told me of his love of Chopped and Screwed music, which is a genre of Southern hip-hop where songs are bent and pitched and slowed down. They become fascinating morphed versions of themselves that are deepened and enriched.” So Britell decided to apply this concept to a classical score.

 

“Moonlight” is divided into three chapters (“Little,” “Chiron” and “Black”); Chiron is played by three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) at ages 10, 16 and early 30s. The score charts the character’s growth with progressive continuity.

Britell first began experimenting with “Chiron’s Theme.” Piano alternates between major and minor chords, with spare violin acting as counterpoint. In fact, Britell initially called it “Piano and Violin Poem.”

“It was a multi-part compositional process,” Britell said, “where I would write pieces of music, we’d record the music fully with instruments, then we started the next part of the process, where I slowed the pieces and manipulated some of the audio sounds with bending and morphing as well.”

"Moonlight"

“Moonlight”

A24

“It became a concept we employed throughout the film. As the music evolves and develops, the bending and morphing evolve as well,” he said. “And in some cases, there are moments where ‘Chiron’s Theme’ appears quietly in B major and then over the course of the film modulates down. And the pitch actually goes down in crazy ways during a schoolyard fight, where the music rumbles in the sub woofers. It’s the same piece of music with three octaves down.”

Later, when the adult Chiron reunites with childhood friend Kevin (Andre Holland), who cooks him dinner at his diner, “Chiron’s Theme” morphs into a more romantic ensemble of cellos.

By contrast, “The Middle of the World,” first heard in a baptismal swimming scene between the young Chiron and drug dealer/father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), offers soaring strings (tremolo) that’s otherworldly.

“The instrumental colors themselves would change,” Britell said.

Also, when Chiron and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) slap hands in a high-five before tragedy separates them, the composer used the sound as an element to create a percussion tapestry.

“It was a fascinating exploration of what happens to the pieces after they’ve been woven into a sonic landscape,” Britell said.

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