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How Composer Nicholas Britell Created the Sound of ‘Succession’ : NPR

Actors Jeremy Strong (from left), Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin are pictured in an episode of Successionwhich ends on Sunday.

Claudette Barius/HBO

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Claudette Barius/HBO

Actors Jeremy Strong (from left), Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin are pictured in an episode of Successionwhich ends on Sunday.

Claudette Barius/HBO

The last episode of Succession will air on Sunday, ending the hit HBO series and, almost as importantly, what some have called “the definitive TV theme of the 21st century.”

The opening theme, with its dissonant chords, dramatic strings, and 808 beats, has remained a popular earworm for the past few years, not to mention fodder for high-profile remixes and viral memes.

This all came as a surprise to Nicholas Britell, the composer behind the show’s Emmy-winning score.

“What happened with Succession has been beyond my wildest dreams, I think,” he said. morning edition. “And certainly on the music side, it’s very special that the music resonated the way it did. I didn’t expect that.”

Succession is Britell’s first foray into television. He previously worked on acclaimed films including Moonlight, If Beale Street could talk, don’t look up And The big court. That’s how he met director Adam McKay, who told him in 2016 about the new show he was producing.

Once Britell came on board, his first task was to figure out what the project should look like.

“A lot of my early work on anything is really about trying to experiment and see what might work and what looks good,” he says, adding that the process usually starts with conversations with the showrunner. and ends once there is an edited episode to work off. “The photo tells you what she’s looking for.”

The sound of Succession came from Britell’s early conversations with McKay and show creator Jesse Armstrong, as well as his on-set visits.

He watched the filming of the pilot – including a fight scene between patriarch Logan Roy and his original heir apparent, Kendall – an experience that Britell describes as “an unconscious kind of awareness of the show’s frequency”.

Afterwards, Britell invited McKay and Armstrong back to his studio and played them some early ideas, one of which was a chord progression “that sounded very, very 1700s”. And this is how the Succession theme was born.

The show’s signature music is its blend of “dark, courtly classic sound” with “oversized hip-hop beats and 808s”, the latter reflecting the taste of both protagonist Kendall and the true hip-hop enthusiast. Britell.

And it’s supposed to sound “quirky”. Britell says he is asked if the piano and strings are supposed to be out of tune – and the answer is always yes.

“I’ve got takes of some of these things where it’s perfect and it doesn’t sound good because when things sound, in quotes, ‘good’ to the Roy family, it’s wrong,” he adds. he. “It doesn’t work because the family is so dysfunctional that the music has to have that kind of breakdown somehow.”

How Composer Nicholas Britell Created the Sound of 'Succession' : NPR

Nicholas Britell accepts the award for Outstanding Original Score Main Title Theme for Succession at the 2019 Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

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Nicholas Britell accepts the award for Outstanding Original Score Main Title Theme for Succession at the 2019 Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

Phil McCarten/Invision/AP

by Britell Succession the repertoire includes much more than the opening. He says he makes five to 10 new themes each season, in addition to variations on the main theme chords, which was part of his conscious effort to evolve the music throughout the show’s four seasons.

“I had this framework, it was kind of like a first thesis of, well, what if each season was kind of like one movement of a classical symphony?” he explains, adding that everyone has their own “emotional tinge.”

The first season, like the first movement of a classical symphony, was an allegro: “You lay out a certain set of ideas in a perhaps slightly faster tempo.” The second season was an adagio, or a “slower, more inward, more introspective sort of move” (inspired by Kendall’s arc). The third season was a lighter scherzo, which comes from the Italian word for joke.

Britell said season four could have been a lot of things, and he approached it not from any particular angle, but considering the shape of the story and the characters’ journeys. Logan’s death posed a particular challenge: it arguably changed the nature of the show and demanded a new sound, yet Britell didn’t want that sound “not to feel Succession.”

“I think the biggest challenge was finding a way forward for the sound where it could allow for the possibility of some future, while still staying true to, for me, that weird mix of absurdity and gravity that is the essence of the show,” he says.

Britell spoke to morning edition on its process, the final season and what comes next.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On his use of hip-hop

I was obsessed with hip-hop and in college I was in a hip-hop group. … So when the idea came to me to experiment with using 808 or beats with this sound, it was something I knew how to do because I had spent 20 years doing it. … Hip-hop is used very specifically in certain places – the beats, the use of 808s – certainly in the main sequence.

In season four, there’s a sequence where Kendall walks into the office and he’s listening to hip-hop as a clear way to boost his confidence. It’s kind of a nudge in a way, and the sequence where I put one of my beats under him walking into the office is right after he’s listening to a Jay-Z track in the car, so there’s a bit of a parallel, I think, in that to the pilot episode where he listens to the Beastie Boys, and then he walks into the office, and then the main title beat sort of comes in. … I like to try to establish certain links, parallels and symmetries with things.

On the episode rating process

I get a full episode of the editorial and… I review and start experimenting, where do I put the music? … That’s a big, big question, because you could theoretically put music anywhere, but there are certain places music goes that have power, that work in relation to the grammar of a particular project. …And then once you get the feeling that there might be a time for music, well, you actually have to say, OK, well, what’s the music? What do we put in it? One of the wonderful things with Succession is that after living with her for four seasons now, you have an instinct for where, what and how for music.

On the episode where Logan dies

This episode in particular was really fascinating to me, because I had written a few pieces of music imagining what it might be like. But when I finally got the episode and saw the phone call sequence… I realized that this whole sequence actually required some type of music or sound that I had never used in the series before, as Logan had never died before. … For me, the key to this particular sequence was that we had to feel like we were inside of this emotion. I didn’t want to make people feel a certain way, I wanted you to feel like you were one of them, to feel that, to feel your dad dying on the phone and not can’t be there.

I called [Armstrong] and I think he was traveling, he was out of the country. And I said, “I really think we have to walk into the room together, because this sequence is so important and I think the only way to make it feel good is if we sit together, watch it and in the smallest details to shape it together.” … He flew to New York and came to the studio and … we basically sat together like an entire day, just watching this footage and talking about it and experiencing it.

If there’s more TV work in her future

Television is a lot of work. I mean, it was a joy to work on it Succession. I am very motivated by the collaborators with whom I work, it is a kind of confidence to work with certain people and to believe in the projects themselves. So for me, I would go ahead and work on another show if it was the right awesome people for sure. …And I think TV requires an order of magnitude more work than movies, just because of the sheer scope of a show. So I think before I go into another TV series, I would think about how much music needs to be written.

The broadcast interview was produced by Chad Campbell and edited by Olivia Hampton.

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