‘The Green Knight’ and ‘Get Out’ Composers Talk About Writing the Choral Music That Mystified Each Other

Daniel Hart and Michael Abels swap stories about composing in unfamiliar languages, playing medieval instruments, and subverting traditional musical expectations.
The Green Knight
"The Green Knight"

Every score is its own adventure, no matter what equipment you set out with or how many people might be along for the journey.

As composer Daniel Hart approaches a double-digit number of films he’s worked on with director David Lowery, the two have an even greater range of past experiences to draw on. For 2016’s “A Ghost Story,” Hart estimates that about 80% of the music that made it into the final cut was their collective first try.

The score for “The Green Knight,” a product of their latest partnership, is a poetic blend of age-old story traditions and modern approaches. It calls on a variety of artistic forms, some ancient and others far more immediate to any listener in the present. It’s a potent mixture, and unlike the results from a half-decade ago, it’s one that took more than a few tries to perfect.

“Almost none of the first draft worked. So we’d butt our heads up against the wall for a while,” Hart said. “I’ll look back on things that I made five or six years ago and and hear the flaws more than the successes. But after working on this for over a year, at least now I listened back and I’m really proud of what we got to and maybe even more proud because it took us so much longer to get there.”

Hart recently spoke with fellow composer Michael Abels — who wrote the scores for “Get Out” and “Us” and is Emmy-nominated multiple times this year for his work on the HBO documentary series “Allen v. Farrow” — about the process of writing music for “The Green Knight.” In a wide-ranging conversation (which you can watch in full above), the two spoke at length about some of the specific challenges that come with writing choral music.

In order to keep a certain kind of medieval veneer to “The Green Knight,” Hart gave himself a crash course in a bygone form of English. It was all to better craft the songlike pieces that run throughout the film, sung at various points by a small choir and soloists Emma Fring, Katinka Vindelev, and Atheena Frizzell.

“I did a fair amount of online research into Middle English poetry and wording, spellings, phrasing, pronunciation,” Hart said. “The thing that really caught my ear when I started working on it, and listening to Middle English poetry being recited by people who seem to know how to pronounce things — at least somewhat correctly in the way that they might have been pronounced seven-to-eight hundred years ago — is all the Scandinavian influences on the language that have basically disappeared from the way that we speak English and the way that the British speak English.”

For the memorable choral opening of “Get Out,” Abels turned to a language that offered the kind of inherent lyrical nature he knew would lend well to a vocal piece. He was also working in a linguistic realm that was as much about how a listener processed it as much as the meaning of the words themselves.

“Ghosts don’t speak to us and don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m a ghost. And here’s what you should do.’ They speak to us in dreams and metaphors. So there was a need to disguise what they were saying,” Abels said. “What languages did slaves speak? Well, it turned out that Swahili was not the most common language that they spoke. But Swahili is a very musical language…I thought, well, Swahili is going to work because people will know that it’s an African language, and it’s going to deny them the right to understand what they’re saying. And given that Swahili is musical, I knew I could write in Swahili in spite of the fact that I knew almost no words in Swahili.”

Abels’ second collaboration with director Jordan Peele eventually birthed “Anthem,” another distinct introduction to a film rooted in a choir. It was so memorable to Hart that he retroactively realized it had somewhat of a guiding effect on some of the early music in “The Green Knight.”

“I was writing this cue called ‘Shaped By Your Hands.’ In the film, it happens near the beginning, in that long section of music. The king is giving his speech, right before the Green Knight shows up,” Hart said. “It’s vocalizations. It’s eighth notes very evenly spread out. And it’s the same kind of vocalizations that are in ‘Anthem,’ but it had been at least a few months since I’ve listened to ‘Anthem.’ I didn’t have it in mind when I was writing that. It was only later that came back and I was like, ‘Oh, I borrowed something here.'”

“Anthem” in particular, as Abels explained, is a fascinating example of the meaning that the human brain can ascribe to syllables that don’t necessarily belong to any existing language.

“It occurred to me, there’s no such thing as nonsense. The ear makes something mean something at all times. A baby cries, the first sound they make, you have to understand what the baby’s trying to say. Trying to make meaning out of vocal sound is this human need, and it’s hardwired,” Abels said. “So I thought, well, these words need to sound like they’re a language and there needs to be a rhyme scheme. It’s emotionally supposed to be dark and kind of scary, so it can’t sound warm and friendly. All those things that you would think about came up for me.”

Voices are far from the only musical tool that Hart had at his disposal. He recorded the violin and viola parts himself to form a kind of pared-down string ensemble. For “The Green Knight,” he also enlisted the help of an instrument called the nyckelharpa, one that made an appearance in Mark Korven’s score for another A24 film of recent years, Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.”

“It’s a medieval, Swedish stringed instrument…I thought that the timbre that it creates would be ideal for something like ‘The Green Knight.’ So I had one built for me by a guy in Wisconsin, and then I learned how to play it for this score,” Hart said. “It shows up quite a bit throughout the score and sounds kind of like an old, rusty violin. It’s a bowed string instrument, but instead of putting your fingers on the strings, like you would on a violin or a guitar, or most stringed instruments, you play these wooden keys on the side. It’s like a medieval keytar, essentially. The keys depress the string wherever you’re playing, so it’s got a very percussive nature to it.”

One of the standout pieces of music from “The Green Knight” plays during and after the fateful encounter with the sword-wielding character that gives the film its title. “One Year Hence” features not only a mysterious percussion sound (above, Hart explains in less transcribable terms how that particular noise came to be) but one of the film’s most resonant synthesizer melodies.

“And I was just messing around like making demos. I didn’t even have the film yet. I just had the script. They were still editing the film at this point. I was just making demos based on ideas that I thought would work for what I had read and what I had seen when I visited the set earlier that year,” Hart said. “I got to something that I was really excited about it and I was like, ‘I should record this.’ Maybe like a month later…I came back to it. And it wasn’t the same thing. I recalled everything that I had done. And I looked at my notes, and it didn’t sound the same. And I messed around for several nights trying to get back to that thing that I had recorded as a demo. I never found it. I got really close, but there was some ghost in the machine that night.”

For more on the sonic influences on “The Green Knight” score (“The Shining” and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson make an appearance) and a deconstruction of the very idea of “musical influences,” watch the full conversation between Hart and Abels above.

“The Green Knight” is currently available to watch in theaters and will be available to watch on PVOD anywhere you rent movies starting Thursday, August 19. Hart’s score is available for pre-order via the official A24 shop

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