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‘Succession’: Nicholas Britell Mixed Classical and Hip-Hop to Show the Precariousness of Power

The Oscar nominee ("If Beale Street Could Talk" and "Moonlight") musically tackled the satire of Adam McKay's HBO series by getting serious.

Succession - Brian Cox

“Succession”

HBO

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For Nicholas Britell’s first foray into TV with “Succession,” continuing his collaboration with director Adam McKay (“Vice,” “The Big Short”), the composer experimented with strange musical sounds that defined the dysfunctional Roy family and its global media empire. But it was actually showrunner Jesse Armstrong (“Peep Show”) who encouraged Britell to go wild with texture and atmosphere to underscore the family’s precarious emotional state, including, of all things, the sound of sleigh bells.

It was all part of the musical mythology of “Succession,” which combined classical and hip-hop, two of Britell’s favorite forms. “Similar with other projects that I’ve been brought on early, Adam gave me time to think about ideas and to visit the set when they shot the pilot,” he said. “Then I met with Jesse in New York and I played early ideas. What is the sound that expresses the characters in an unexpected way? For me, the tone of the show was very specific: funny and dark.

“But it had real gravitas, the way it explores this concentration of power among these small groups of families. Thinking broadly, how does this focus of power and money get impacted by petty rivalries, betrayal, and anger [along with health issues for Brian Cox’s patriarch, Logan]? I think there’s something really dark that the show was exploring and satirizing at the same time.”

Composer Nicholas Britell

In composing the Main Title Theme, for instance, Britell found the right mixture of out of tune classical piano underneath a massive hip-hop beat. “I liked the dissonance of not feeling quite right for a moment before resolving,” he added. “We’re conscious that things are out of balance but very serious. There’s a zooming out effect where you see the absurdity, supplemented by strings, brass, and low-end 808 drum beats. There are some odd percussive sounds laid onto the theme and woven throughout the show.”

Delving into TV for the first time, Britell not only had to discover the right pacing for 10 episodes but also when to stay out of the way of the satirical dialogue. Fortunately, his experience on “The Big Short” prepared him for that. By understanding the distinctive musical voice, he knew when to avoid overstaying his welcome. But, more important, he developed the strategy of not trying to be musically funny. “As soon as the music says this is funny, all the humor is drained,” he said. “Getting darker makes it funny, and that’s what I leaned into — this counterpoint.

“And I approached a lot of the writing of the music as imagining what the Roy family might imagine for themselves,” said Britell. “What’s the music that best represents them?” Therefore, the composer came up with a courtly, classical style, representative of late 18th century styles. So the music is very minor key. There were even minuets, which help accentuate the absurdity. “Some of the more atmospheric cues create a sense of unease, but it’s never overt.”

Succession HBO Finale Kendall

“Succession”

Colin Hutton/HBO

In penultimate Episode 9, the Roys wind up in England for a family wedding that rips them apart when all of the squabbling comes to a head amid a hostile takeover. Musically, Britell starts right off with a piece that’s a variation of a previous theme with strings, brass, and woodwinds. “I’m always drawn to a large amplitude of emotion,” he said, “and I use this as counterpoint to the opening with the bust of a guest getting stuck and being unable to enter the wedding compound. So it’s the pomp and circumstance getting undermined.”

However, Britell’s favorite piece of music occurs in Episode 10, coming out of a car crash with Kendall (Jeremy Strong). “There’s just a sense of tragedy and deeply forlorn emotion within Kendall, and a sense of confusion,” he said. “What is his entire life at this moment?” Britell’s musical answer was searching strings run through a long reverb and then decaying out with quiet solo piano. This call back to a previous theme, or the “re-contextualization of those ideas, is something I’m always moved by,” he said.

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