• 'Walk through the doors that open' Get Out composer Michael Abels on music, movies and more

    Michael Abels is the composer of smash-hit, social satire horror movie Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele, and Kathryn Bigelow's critically-acclaimed civil rights drama Detroit. Outside of film, Michael enjoys a glittering career as a composer and arranger specialising in concert orchestral music. Here he talks to Mandy News about how he works, his process on Get Out and Detroit and what aspiring composers can do to succeed.

    28th Feb 2018By James Collins

    Michael, could you please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into the music and film industry?
    I’m a composer who’s most often known as a concert composer, meaning that most of my work has been for concert performance specifically for orchestra. I went to the university of Southern California where they have a very nice music school called Fountain School of Music and I majored in music composition. Even in school, and right out of school, I did some music for radio and television commercials and that was my introduction to media scoring and becoming familiar with how that worked.

    I wasn’t really passionate about it and I wasn’t tremendously successful either. I think I was just getting by. My business partner and I went separate ways and then a friend of mine asked me to write a piece for his youth orchestra. I did that and that piece ended up getting a lot of performances. That’s how I stumbled into my concert-composing career!

    On the back end of that, I got a call, about two years ago now, from a production company, that said that they had a film project for me. I was doubtful – I thought I was being punk’d to be honest – but I called them back and it turned out that I was not being punk’d. The story was that Jordan Peele was going to direct a film and it wasn’t a comedy, it was actually a psychological thriller, even a horror movie, and would I be interested in reading the script because Jordan was interested in having me compose for the film?

    Of course, even though I didn’t believe any of that I said “sure!” and they sent me the script and it turned out to be about 80-85% of what you actually see in the actual finished film. It was just the most brilliant and innovative script ever. Even not having scored a film, or having done any media projects in decades, because I live in LA and almost everybody is involved in the industry and it’s all around you, even if you’re not actually doing it, you know what a good script reads like. And that was what Get Out was.

    But I also knew that a good script does not equal a good film. For many, many reasons, many brilliant scripts get derailed on the way to becoming a great film. But, it being such an interesting thing and having come out of nowhere, how could I not want to meet the director? Especially when it’s Jordan Peele who turned out to be the most amazingly warm, brilliant and funny guy you could imagine. It was only then that I learned he’d found out about me by seeing one of my concert works on YouTube and that it was through that connection that I ended up meeting Jordan and scoring Get Out.

    Which was the piece?
    It was Urban Legends. He said to me, very specifically, when he first met me, that what he was looking for in Get Out is that he wanted the African-American voice, both literally and metaphorically. I think what he saw, when you see the video of Urban Legends, is music by a black-American composer, performed by a black-Latino orchestra and you also hear a complete vernacular of American popular music even though it’s also very much an orchestral piece and has African drums and is also is pretty harmonically outside. It’s actually the most harmonically-edgy piece I’ve written.

    So, in terms of concert audiences, it’s not their favourite piece I’ve ever written but in terms of an African-American director looking for someone who can bring that voice to what is a horror movie, I think that struck a chord with him.

    When you were working on the project, did you work on set or were you working separate from that? How was the actual process of writing the music?
    Well it was in two phases. One was because we had this lunch while they were still in pre-production, about 2-3 months away from shooting, and Jordan and I had this great talk. He’s very good at describing. He’s a huge fan of the horror and suspense genres and he’s seen every significant film that's ever been made in the genre and he knows the scores to them very well too.

    We had this great talk about "what is the language of music that makes us afraid and how can that be reflected in this film?" Out of that conversation, I said that I think what you’re looking for is a kind of a gospel horror music and we both were excited by what that phrase might be because we had never heard music like that before.

    He didn’t even ask me to write a demo, which is kind of stunning but I said “No, I’m writing you a demo!” That was not only because I wanted to show him how much I wanted the job but that I was sure that the producers would instantly fire me or tell Jordan that he had to fire me because "you can’t hire your internet friend to score your movie, that’s not how it works." So I thought “Well, if he’s going to talk to them about me he needs to hand them something that shows that he’s not crazy and that I’m not crazy."

    So I went home and I ended up writing the piece that ended up being the main title of the film, the piece called Sikiliza Kwawahenga which is Swahili for “Listen to the ancestors”.

    So Jordan was able to have that in his ear during production and he sent me some stills from the dailies a couple of times so, even though I was nowhere near where they were, I really got to feel that I was kind of part of the team. Composers never get to feel like part of the team! That was really great.

    They were shooting the film, they were editing the film and there was a good 4-5 months where I didn’t even hear from Jordan. It was only when he was ready to show me a rough cut that we got back together. He showed me the rough cut and at that point I got scoring the picture and working in a much more traditional post-production way.

    What were you normally using to write on? What kind of programs do you use and was that then something that you went into the studio and did on a larger scale afterwards, or did you keep it more in the box?
    At the beginning, I had no expectation that we’d be able to do anything out the box at all, besides the vocals, which I’d already recorded essentially. So I’m a digital performer/user and was using that along with my sample library and was going from there. I started by working on the hypnosis cue which goes under the very significant hypnotism scene that’s near the beginning of the movie, because I knew that that scene was so crucial to setting up the film.

    I thought it was so masterfully written and directed that I thought that if I can do music that Jordan can get behind with this scene, I knew it would have a good sonic palate to the film and also even some themes that I could expand upon and use elsewhere. So even though I ended up using harp and strings as being the primary sonic palate for the score, I never really thought that we would have the budget to use real strings. As it turned out, near the end of the post-production process, Universal picked it up for distribution and more money became available and so we were able to do that so we were able to sweeten using Budapest’s scoring and that was really great!

    A lot of people talk about the way you combine the juxtaposition of classical styles and more popular music, that you mentioned earlier on. Where do your influences come from for those different sides?
    Wow! I think from all those things. It’s impossible to be a musician these days and not hear virtually every genre of music that’s out there. I don’t know how you could avoid that! I’ve had the benefit of having a classical education back when I was a little kid and easily malleable which frankly, every child should be so lucky, in my opinion, to have that sort of rigorous musical education.

    Music is a language and just like every language that you speak effortlessly, it’s something that you learn when you’re young, so I’m forever grateful for that. As you grow up, you become more aware of the culture that you live in and then you become aware of other cultures, and the differences between yours and theirs.

    Because I was a musician, I was always interested in musical differences as I encountered different cultures and also musical similarities – I thought that was even more fascinating. That musical thread of what is the music that identifies this culture, this genre and even this motion – that’s then a question that I’ve been answering every time I hear music throughout my entire life!

    You worked on Detroit as well. Could you explain a little bit about that?
    I’m trying to remember how I started! I was recommended to the team that was doing Detroit I think actually by the editor of Get Out Gregory Plotkin and – I’m not sure - Billy Goldenberg, who I think is the editor on Detroit, or maybe it was Kurt Sobel, who was the music editor. I got a call saying "would you like to screen Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film?" and in a year where I got these other crazy calls that I didn’t believe. I thought “Really?” The second time I’m being asked in less than a year and I’m like “Sure!!! I’ll believe in anything that you tell me at this point.”

    And, once again, it turned out to be a very convincing charade because there was Kathryn Bigelow and she told me what a fan she was of Get Out, and of the music of Get Out which was just unbelievable to hear. We had a conversation about what she wanted the music to be in Detroit and they screened it for me.

    Detroit is such a powerful, powerful film! I had to be by myself for a minute after I’d seen it. I couldn’t even speak! This was in the rough cut stage! Her process was- I would describe it as very intuitive. My feeling about her and how she works, is that she comes from a place of pure and emotional response, especially through music. I wasn’t always clear how she would react to a piece of music that I would play for her. She was always very clear when she had a reaction about how she felt it was working.

    There are moments in the film that have really just grown from underneath them. Just very simple, sparse, emotionally-evocative music and it’s crucial to a film like that because it is so visceral and it’s also based on a true story so you always know that this is something that actually happened. The music can’t overplay that, the music has to be extremely careful to be subliminal most of the time. So she asked me to do literally these drones that were designed to be almost unheard in very specific places. That seemed like another wonderful opportunity and, similar to Get Out in some ways in that both films are very intense, but also, completely different in the approach. I was coming in at the end to do a very isolated part of the project but I was really happy to do it and it’s another great film!

    It was important to Kathryn that the drones were simple music, that they not be electronic, so I started making sure that all the raw material that I started with was actual instruments. I used a lot of electric violins because that was a very cool way to get both drones and have it be an actual instrument vibrating. From that sound, the sound was processed even further by the music editor so a lot of the drones I did are kind of unrecognisable, unidentifiable sound.

    I would be the last person to guess that it was electric violin because it’s been heavily processed but, at the same time, it still has that same sound of something that occurs in the natural world and so I was proud of how that turned out!

    I’ll have to watch it again and listen out for it!
    The cues I wrote are only in the first couple of reels. There’s a scene where the National Guard rolls in and that’s a piece I did. Then there’s a piece where the riot breaks out – that’s also one of mine.

    What’s next for you? Is it back into film or back into composing? I was also going to ask you about your work as Director of Music at the New Roads School in Santa Monica.
    For many years I have been a music educator: a music teacher and the head of a department. For over 10 years, I’ve been at New Roads School in Santa Monica which is a private kindergarten to 12th grade school. It’s a private school so it’s very small. There are many fewer students in a class than you would find in a public school. We’re also in a very liberal progressive area with lots of liberal progressive parents and so, our school is very laid back and very Californian. People would find us to be a stereotype in some ways but our school is very diverse.

    Over half of our students are on some sort of scholarship. We don’t have an endowment, we actually take that money and, instead of doing the “smart thing” and getting an endowment, we’ve been giving that money away, for over 20 years, to students who need assistance with their tuition and so our school is kind of a miracle. It’s truly diverse – there’s no majority of one race or economic stature.

    People assume that it’s a performing arts school but that’s not its mission. Its mission is one of diversity in what we call economics, ecological sanity and social justice. All of our students really, I have to say, are models of that mission. They are not the Type A kids, not the ones who are all trying to get into the top university. They are good people and they are trying to make a difference in the world in whatever way they can.

    I’m inspired by them. When I see them around campus just being themselves, that’s when I realise, that’s who they are.

    That’s sounds really inspiring and you sound really proud of them as well! That’s great!
    The school’s only been around a little more than 20 years so I was the first person to really have the job of music director. Before that, they were too small to realise it was something that somebody ought to do and so I’ve had a chance to grow the job around what I felt we needed and the administration has been very supportive of me and the other music faculty, just seeing the students and understanding what there is to teach them and then using whatever styles of music or songs that we feel would best help them to where they want to go.

    So we’re hugely fortunate to have that environment and so we’ve had a lot of fun doing interesting music with young people over the years.

    So, what’s next for you? I mean obviously you’ll continue as director of music but what else have you got planned?
    I have several concert works that are due very soon so I’m working on those. One I’m writing is for military academy at West Point for their concert bands. Something I didn’t think about, prior to another performance I had, was how many great musicians are hired by the military to do the things that musicians need to do.

    I was asked to do this piece, we’d been talking about it and there was a change of administration in our country. I changed my opinion about this project because I was first asked about it before that happened. I decided the piece is about the first black graduate of West Point Academy which is this guy name Henry Ossian Flipper and he graduated in the 1800s and I don’t know how he managed to do that! But the fact that he did, I find it tremendously inspiring and brave and all the things that would make me want to write a piece for this concert band. Not to mention that they are also brilliant musicians, so that’s on the front-runner.

    Also I’m writing a double concerto for flute, clarinet and orchestra so those are the things that I’m most looking at and I’m in talks about writing an opera! That’s a lifelong goal and the idea of that just thrills me, we’re still in the talking stages but I’m really hoping it can come to fruition.

    Do you have any advice for up-and-coming composers wanting to get into the film and music industry and do the kind of things that you’re doing at the moment? Do you have any advice for them?
    I do and I don’t. The part where I don’t is that the way I described it to you, you can tell that, most of the best things that happened to me have been happy accidents. They’ve been really lucky breaks that I was able to follow through on! I didn’t open the door but I was at least able to walk through the door when someone else opened it! I’m sure that anyone who becomes successful, well I’m not sure, but it’s been my experience that you have to be prepared to walk through the doors that open. The doors that will open for you will be as unique as the doors that opened for me! It wont be the same doors, it’ll be other opportunities that you’ll have to be ready to walk through through when those opportunities become open.

    The other, I don’t feel like is advice but here it is! If you specifically are looking ahead, wanting to write music for media, then I would say that the best strategy is to befriend directors because it’s so hard for a director to find a composer that he or she trusts, and who he or she feels really can realise their musical vision. That is why you see directors who become successful and direct many films, often take the same composer with them. That relationship is so hard to find that, when it’s good, they want to make sure that they preserve it and it’s worth taking it from one project to another.

    So there’s lots of directors who understand, or feel like they understand all of the visual crafts that go into directing but who really need someone who can be their musical voice because that’s the thing that they’re not naturally gifted at. So, if you can be a director of music or voice, they will remember and take you with them.

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