Michael Abels, Composer Of Jordan Peele's 'Us', Balances Terror With Empathy

Mar 25, 2019
Originally published on March 25, 2019 7:38 am

Get Out may have been Michael Abels' first film score, but he's always known what makes music scary. "I actually have a memory of hearing 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' by Edvard Grieg when I was in a crib," Abels says, laughing. "And that piece terrified me."

After Get Out arrived in February 2017 — making 40 times its budget, becoming a cultural event and eventually earning an Oscar for best screenplay — writer-director Jordan Peele remembers getting a call from Steven Spielberg, who mentioned Michael Abels. "You've got to use him again," Spielberg said. "It's like me and John Williams." Peele was already planning to keep working with Abels, but that sealed it.

"His skill set is immense, and he has mastered many different genres of music," Peele says of Abels. "The best way for my movies to feel new and fresh is for the soundtrack to feel like something familiar, but also something that we've never heard before."

Abels was born in Phoenix and raised by his grandparents on their South Dakota farm. He was immediately interested in writing music and studied composition at the University of Southern California. Abels spent the past 30 years writing orchestral compositions, operas and commissions of all kinds.

In 2017, Abels was running the music department of a private school in Santa Monica when Peele went looking for an African-American film composer. There were disappointingly few in the industry, so Peele turned to YouTube where he found a live recording of a concerto for string quartet and orchestra called "Urban Legends." He tracked down the composer, and they met for coffee.

It's an inspiring Cinderella story, but it has darker undertones. After he graduated from USC in 1984, Michael Abels tried to find work scoring films but couldn't find any opportunities. It took decades for Abels' dream to come true.

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For Get Out, Peele asked Abels to conjure the sound of "gospel horror." So the composer wrote a choral piece for the opening titles, where African-American voices sing warnings to the main character in Swahili. For Us, Michael Abels says it wasn't so much about creating a new genre of music, but about reflecting the film's underground-dwelling doppelgängers: the Tethered.

"There was a real need to convey the tortured emotions of those characters because they are us, and yet they're angry and mistreated," Abels explains. "So the score is a balance, I think, emotionally, between sheer terror and a sort of despair and empathy with what they're going through."

For the main titles of Us, Abels wrote a nonsense-language anthem for a chorus of children and adults. "The anthem really represents the spirit of the Tethered, and the uprising that they're about to stage. There's a group of people, and they're organized, and they're angry," he says.

The score for Us plays with the duality and mirror imagery in the film. Abels paired normal instruments, like a solo violin for the young girl, Zora (played by Shahadi Wright Joseph), with much more abnormal ones, like a cimbalom for Zora's Tethered counterpart, Umbrae.

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"The film is really about individual characters confronting their own mirror images, so it's a very intimate, personal story," Abels says. "The score needed to feel like it was right with you, and not about invaders from another universe or something."

In addition to Us, Abels is scoring an upcoming Stefon Bristol-directed Netflix film called See You Yesterday and he recently co-founded the Composer Diversity Collective, which seeks to increase visibility for composers whom Hollywood has overlooked.

Peele says it's really Abels' heart that makes him a great horror scorer. "Michael's a man of immense empathy — very soft-spoken, a very sweet person, very loving," Peele says. "I think that the best horror is created by those who are in touch with their empathetic side. And that's him."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Oscar-winning director Jordan Peele is terrifying audiences again with a new film called "Us," which opened Friday. It's the follow-up to peals Oscar winning horror pic "Get Out." To ratchet up the fear factor, Peele went back to Michael Abels, a classical composer and teacher who had never scored a film before "Get Out." Tim Greiving has the story.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: "Get Out" may have been Michael Abels' first film score, but he's always known what makes music scary.

MICHAEL ABELS: I actually have a memory of hearing "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg when I was in a crib.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF EDVARD GRIEG'S "'PEER GYNT' SUITE NO. 1, OP. 46: 'IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING'"

ABELS: And that piece terrified me.

GREIVING: After "Get Out" arrived in February 2017 - making 40 times its budget, becoming a cultural event and eventually earning an Oscar for best screenplay - writer-director Jordan Peele remembers getting a call from Steven Spielberg who mentioned Michael Abels. You've got to use him again, Spielberg said. It's like me and John Williams. Peele was already planning to keep working with Abels, but that sealed it.

JORDAN PEELE: His skill set is immense, and he has mastered many different genres of music. The best way for my movies to feel new and fresh is for the soundtrack to feel like something familiar but also something that we've never heard before.

GREIVING: For "Get Out," Peele asked Abels to conjure the sound of gospel horror. So the composer wrote a choral piece for the opening titles where African-American voices sing warnings to the main character in Swahili.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "SIKILIZA KWA WAHENGA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Brother, sikiliza kwa wahenga. Brother, sikiliza, sikiliza, sikiliza kwa wahenga.

GREIVING: For "Us," Michael Abels says it wasn't so much about creating a new genre of music but about reflecting the film's underground dwelling doppelgangers, the Tethered.

ABELS: There was a real need to convey the tortured emotions of those characters because they are us, and yet they're angry and mistreated. So the score is a balance - I think - emotionally, between sheer terror and a sort of despair and an empathy with what they're going through.

GREIVING: For the main titles, Abels wrote an anthem for a chorus of children and adults.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "ANTHEM (FROM 'US')")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing syllabically).

ABELS: The anthem really represents the spirit of the Tethered and the uprising that they're about to stage. There's a group of people, and they're organized. And they're angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "ANTHEM (FROM 'US')")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing syllabically).

ABELS: It's a nonsense language. I made up the syllables.

GREIVING: The score for "Us" plays with the duality and mirror imagery in the film. Abels paired normal instruments like a solo violin for the young girl Zora with much more abnormal ones, like a cimbalom for Zora's Tethered counterpart, Umbrae.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "ZORA DRIVES")

ABELS: The film is really about individual characters confronting their own mirror images. So it's a very intimate, personal story. So the score needed to feel like it was right with you and not about invaders from another universe or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "ZORA DRIVES")

GREIVING: Michael Abels was born in Phoenix and raised by his grandparents on their South Dakota farm. He was immediately interested in writing music.

ABELS: At some point in my early childhood, I went to see "The Sound Of Music." And in "The Sound Of Music," Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein tell us, it's one word for every note by mixing it up like this. And I thought, well, how simple as that? (Laughter).

GREIVING: He studied composition at the University of Southern California and has spent the past 30 years writing orchestral compositions, operas and commissions of all kinds. In 2017, he was running the music department of a private school in Santa Monica when Jordan Peele went looking for an African-American film composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "URBAN LEGENDS")

GREIVING: There were disappointingly few in the industry, so Peele turned to YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "URBAN LEGENDS")

GREIVING: Peele found a live recording of a concerto for string quartet and orchestra called "Urban Legends." He tracked down the composer, and they met for coffee.

PEELE: You know, when I first met him, the first thing he asked me was, how did you find me?

GREIVING: It's an inspiring Cinderella story, but it has darker undertones. After he graduated from USC in 1984, Michael Abels tried to find work scoring films but couldn't find any opportunities. It took decades until this young African-American auteur, who wanted to make a thriller about a young African-American staring down an evil, white system for Abels' dream to come true.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "CHRIS AND ROSE (LOVE THEME)")

GREIVING: In addition to "Us," Abels is scoring an upcoming Netflix film. And he recently co-founded the Composer Diversity Collective, which seeks to increase visibility for composers that Hollywood has overlooked. Jordan Peele says it's really Michael Abels' heart that makes him a great horror scorer.

PEELE: Michael's a guy - a man of immense empathy - very soft spoken but a very sweet person, very loving. I think that the best horror is created by those who are in touch with their empathetic side. And that's him.

GREIVING: But don't worry. He'll still scare your pants off. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.