How a Drill Inspired the Music of ‘The Underground Railroad’

·3-min read

Composer Nicholas Britell recalls receiving an audio message from director and writer Barry Jenkins with no words or description to accompany it, just a drilling sound.

“He didn’t even need to say to me what it was, I immediately thought, ‘I’m going to start experimenting with this,’” Britell says.

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And that was the beginning of Britell’s work on Jenkins’ 10-part Amazon Prime Video series “The Underground Railroad,” based on Colson Whitehead’s book of the same name, marking their third collaboration after “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

It’s a partnership that Britell calls an “incredible dichotomy”: Jenkins gives a strong vision of what he’s after, yet at the same time, he is willing to try things out.

“There’s a joy to discovery, and Barry is open to exploring and to not knowing where we’re going to wind up,” he says. “We discover things together and there’s always a sense of forward motion and a constructive mindset.”

“Talk about evolution,” Jenkins adds. “Five years ago I didn’t know what tremolo [a wavering effect] was. Now I’ll say, ‘I think we need some hard tremolo in that opening.’”

Unlike their previous projects, the two didn’t have time to sit down and discuss what the sonic world would be for “The Underground Railroad,” due to other work commitments. But when Britell heard that drill sound, his first thought was, “We’re going down, we’re exploring.” With that, he started building sounds for the series.

With the dramatic opening cue, Jenkins wanted “to drop the audience into” the project, he says. “Visually, our characters are falling through space and time, and the music had to come with them. It had to have the same burst of energy.”

That piece was called “Pillars” and is a progression from the drilling idea Jenkins had sent. “I was experimenting with descending motifs, and what is a sound that I could be going downward with? What is a sound that would allow us to become a motif?” Britell says.

Once Britell knows an idea resonates with Jenkins, he experiments further. In fact, even after finding a motif or sound that works, he says, “there’s never a moment where we think we’re finished.”

“The Underground Railroad” was the first time Britell and Jenkins worked together with a big orchestra, but due to the pandemic, the 50-string section was recorded with musicians in London via Zoom. An audio linkup would allow both to hear as if they were in the room with the mixing engineer. “It was a process that took on a whole new level of difficulty,” Britell says about the technicality of it all.

A further complication was that the music came together in a different order than how the pieces ended up in episodes.

“The story Nick and I are building is not the same one you are watching,” Jenkins says. Having 10 episodes to tell his story is rewarding because “there’s more ground and more space for the music to evolve.”

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