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How Nicholas Britell’s ‘Andor’ Score Finds the Sound of Rebellion

The Emmy-winning "Succession" composer tells IndieWire about expanding the "Star Wars" musical lexicon by looking closely at the emotions that motivate the hero of "Andor."

Andor Diego Luna

“Andor”

Screenshot/Lucasfilm

It’s kind of weird that there hasn’t been more rock music in “Star Wars” up until now. It’s story of rebellion in a galaxy that, while long ago and far away, presumably has some analog synthesizers and drum kits to go with its giant starships and faster-than-light space travel. For so many “Star Wars” episodes on film and TV, however, the series’ mode of storytelling and the music that goes with it has been rousing adventures and orchestral epics. Much like The Force, John Williams will be with us always.

But the narrative ambitions of the latest “Star Wars” story, “Andor,” are more of a b-side. The prequel series for Diego Luna’s “Rogue One” character is still a space adventure story of an unlikely hero called to oppose the evil Empire — but the show is, thrillingly, much messier in the execution, and its hero is much less starry-eyed. Cassian Andor is a spiraling small-time thief thrown into revolt only because of the little bit of murder he’s done. Nicholas Britell’s score reflects this war within the soul of show’s protagonist and the sharper (one might even say hard-boiled) corner of the galaxy he finds himself in. Britell’s score feels both of and like a breath of fresh air for the “Star Wars” canon, balancing as it does the bite of the show’s clandestine schemes with a rage at the oppressiveness of the Empire that most “Star Wars” stories take for granted.

The sound of “Andor” wasn’t something Britell just sat down and wrote — at least not right away. “There’s actually a lot of on-camera musical things that happen in the series,” he told IndieWire. “And so [showrunner Tony Gilroy and I] first began working on those things because some of those had to be shot. Quite a few of the musical moments in the series had rather complex on-set elements and directions that had to happen.

“The signaling that happens on Ferrix was a warning communication signaling system that Tony and I created. So it’s not random. There’s actually a rhythm that signifies the beginning of a warning and then there’s a rhythm that signifies the warning itself. And then it was actually quite complicated because we have to figure out this on-camera thing — could it coexist with score? Would the score have to be in the same tempo as the signal? Or would it just totally not work? These were the types of things we were trying to figure out early on.”

Star Wars Andor Bell Guy

“Andor”

Screenshot/Lucasfilm

Britell’s score ultimately stands apart from the warning system he and Gilroy devised, both to avoid any confusion if the audience interpreted changes in the score as diegetic sound. But it was through the show’s in-world musical elements that Britell was able to get a sense for the world(s) of “Andor,” and the characters who would be moving through it. “The colors changed depending on where you are, but some of the themes coexist and crossover, and the themes themselves, for me, are really about relationships between characters and about relationships between characters and what’s happening,” he said.

This layered approach to theme writing was Britell’s way into the overall identity of the score, which is never just one thing. The opening sequence on Morlana has enough synths (and rainy, bruise-blue lighting) to be not that far off from the world of “Blade Runner,” but also a pounding heartbeat underneath it, the percussion propelling Cassian, and us, onto adventure, however dark it may be. Britell never wholly loses the rousing spirit of the music of Star Wars, but he finds a thrillingly new way to reframe it and new instrumental choices to give the audience an understanding of the characters that they themselves might be unable to articulate. “I think the drums in Episode 2, for example, signify a sense of fury and rage that stems from Cassian’s youth,” Britell said. “There’s a sense of power, but also anger. You want to get this sense that there’s all of this pent up emotion in Cassian, and that there is an active feeling here. If you hit hit the crash cymbals in a drum set, you know, it’s a strong sound. It punches out.”

Those moments of punching out, like Cassian’s walk through the scrap yard at the end of Episode 2 to meet Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), are very specifically chosen. They are moments where the relationship between the characters and what’s happening shifts, where choices get made that can’t get taken back and where new forces come onto the board. There aren’t too many easy cues put there simply for us to shorthand who we’re dealing with and how we should feel about them; Episode 4’s introduction of an Imperial intelligence branch and Anton Lesser’s exacting, efficient chief Partagaz is done without much in the way of score at all, making the forces Andor and his new rebel friend will oppose seem all the more icy and antiseptic.

Andor Episode 2

“Andor”

Screenshot/Lucasfilm

Part of what makes the “Star Wars” galaxy such an enthralling setting, though, is the franchise’s ability to  present vivid, unexplained details that prompt us to imagine life in faraway star systems and ask questions that make the world feel more real — like the wall of workmen’s gloves at the muster point for Ferrix’s scrapyard team or the Ferrix bell ringer, who is possibly part alarm clock and possibly part muezzin. Because Britell’s “Andor” score offers up novel sonic colors and textures that evoke what it’s like to live in this world, it prompts the same imaginative inquiry for the characters.

Within the theme for Cassian’s homeworld of Kenari, Britell laced a textural sound. “I even put rustling leaves in the score so you have to hear that sort of rustling in the music,” he said. “But at the same time, one of the themes that plays there is related to, I think, Cassian’s sense of himself and his search for himself. When we go to Kenari, it’s always a memory. We’re in the past and then we’re in the present and so I wanted that theme to have a sense of reminiscence, perhaps a sense of wistfulness.” According to Britell, hearing those textures in the present-day timeline is a sign of “Andor” reckoning with Cassian’s past.

The overlap between past and present is brought to life at the end of Episode 3, which finishes showing how Cassian’s younger self, Kassa (Antonio Viña), came to live with Marva (Fiona Shaw) in flashback just as Cassian goes off-world and into an unknown partnership with agents of what will become the Rebel Alliance. Parallel shots of Viña and Luna offer similar views of the boy and the man leaving what they know and looking out into the undeniable beauty of space with a mix of wonder, confusion, pain, and hope that can’t be articulated in words. But the music in that moment captures all of it.

Andor Cassian

“Andor”

Screenshot/Lucasfilm

“I found that scene so moving when I first saw that,” Britell said. “And it was a good exercise for me because it was a question of, like, well, ‘What are the themes that happen there?'” Britell wanted to present more than a theme for Cassian; he wanted the score to evolve as the scene progresses. “Musically, there are elements of Cassian and there are elements of Marva,” he said. “There are elements of the whole show, there’s a chord progression there — there’s a lot of different things happening.”

Part of the joy of “Andor” will be untangling all of competing agendas and schemes Cassian’s found himself caught up in, as well as figuring out what his own goals are. But there’s also something to the way the show honors the messiness of his motives, and the tangled, often cruel choices the Empire forces its subjects into making. The score often acts as our emotional line through the show’s webs of secrets and the psychic white noise of oppression, giving us a sense of what this world feels like to the people who inhabit it while leaving room for us to imagine even more. “I think in some ways the most exciting moments are the ones where there is this overlapping of feelings and you’re hopefully feeling a multiplicity of things,” Britell said. “There was just so much to write and this show is so epic that we just dove in and never stopped.”

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