Michael Abels is a seasoned Los Angeles based composer, arranger, and music educator with a specialization in the creation of orchestral and choral music. Due to the power of the internet, Comedy Central star, Jordan Peele called Abels out of the blue in the hopes that he would sign on to score his first feature, a satirical horror film, Get Out. I had the thrill of speaking to Michael just days after the movie hit theaters. Since then, Get Out has gone on to make $214 million! Talk about a Hollywood ending.
So, your main composing background is in orchestral and choral music. Is this really the first movie that you’ve scored?
That's correct. It's my first feature. I did some TV commercials way back in the day, then some shorter film work. So, I was familiar with scoring to picture. But this is my first feature.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Get Out got 100%. How does it feel?
Stunning. I don't think La La Land got 100%. So, the trailer makes it look like it's a straight horror film. But the truth is it's a psychological thriller, I would say. It gets on a slow burn. Jordan cites three films mostly as the influences. They are Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for obvious reasons, but then The Stepford Wives, and Rosemary's Baby.
How long did you spend perfecting the score of "Get Out"?
I first met Jordan in November of 2015. I recorded the title track, "Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga" in February 2016 before they had even shot the film. That was my demo to show Jordan. In our initial conversation, we had talked about having Black voices really heard in the film. So, I wanted to do an example of what that might be like. But then when the film was picked up, then suddenly it all had to be completed in about a six-week deadline. But it worked out well because in that time when we were going slow, I had a chance to try different things and Jordan had a chance to try those things on and see what direction we wanted to go. So, we had made a lot of artistic choices by the time it was suddenly time to jam.
When you're working on a score, do you record with a sample library? What DAW (digital audio workstation) do you use? How do you like to work?
I use Digital Performer. When we began, it wasn't clear whether my demos would be the finished product or whether we would have the budget and the option to sweeten with live instruments. As it happened, we had the budget to sweeten, so my demos were all done with samples and later sweetened with live instruments after all those were approved in terms of their timings and their character.
The soundtrack is hauntingly awesome! You can almost hear the bow on the string.
Oh my gosh! You're supposed to. So, thank you. Jordan didn't want to, and his first choice was to use less strings because he had lesser numbers of players. He loves very intimate sounding music and he thought that was excellent for the film. So, even though we were able to use a larger string orchestra, we wanted to make sure that it was still very present and not a far away, disengaged sort of feeling.
Just listening to the music, there was one piece in the educational video that struck me as a different sound. It seemed to me that there were just two instruments. Is that right?
Yes. Very good! So, that's in a very special place in the film, as you can imagine. The main character is, at one point, forced to watch a video. That music is actually in the background of the video and it's playing out of a really old TV from about the 1960s. So, as bad as it sounds on the soundtrack, it sounds even worse in the film deliberately. Jordan said he wanted it to sound like a bad erectile dysfunction commercial. So I said, “Great, I’ll do my worst job ever, I promise.” If you listen closely, you’ll notice it’s the creepy melody theme from the hypnotism scene. That theme is in many of the scenes in the film. Usually, the harmony underneath the theme always makes it sound unsettling. But, in the educational video cue, I made the harmony very simple and overly happy. So happy that the theme may not even be recognizable! But technically, it’s the same melody.
There's always a feeling of dread in there.
Yeah, exactly. That's something that we did a lot of talking about. What are scary things and unfamiliar things? But then sometimes overly happy things are scary. So, it was really fun to really sit down and identify what makes something scary, and it's not always the things you think of.
What's your earliest memory playing music?
I was impacted so much by music. I actually have a memory of hearing music when I was in a crib, like before the age of one. Yeah. It's one of those things where you question whether it's a real memory because it just doesn't seem real. But I have this real distinct memory of a particular song, In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg. My grandmother used to have a recording of that. It's a piece that starts slow and it builds to just a terrorizing conclusion. I remember as a kid, screaming my head off at the end of that piece of because it was so terrifying. I tell that story and it's a real memory to me, but I understand if it sounds incredible. But I was always influenced by music at a very early age. I was always singing as a child. It just was the most natural thing to me.
I was really influenced by The Sound of Music. It came out when I was about three, but in there is your first music composition lesson. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote a song that tells you how to write music. One time when I was teaching kindergarten students, I taught them that song. I said, "This is a really important thing for you to know." I said, "You have to know this song." Any student who hears that music, they fall in love with it. It stays with you.
Absolutely! You went to USC and majored in Music Composition. When did you realize being a composer was your destiny?
I was always writing music, but got frustrated and never finished it. When I was in eighth grade, I finished a piece of music and I got it performed just by a lucky, unbelievable coincidence. So, I thought, "This is what I'm doing," because I was always fascinated and excited by actually how hard and mentally challenging it was. When you have something that challenges you, and it's a thing you can focus your mind on, and you're inspired - you just lose track of time and you just embody that thing. That's what writing is for me, especially writing for orchestra or large instruments. When I'm working on that intricate matrix, I just lose track of time and I lose track of myself and I'm in the zone. I'm lucky to have that in my life and I think everyone needs something that does that for them. It's very therapeutic, it keeps your brain alive, it gives you something to look forward to.
Is it true that Jordan Peele found you via YouTube?
That’s correct. I have an orchestral piece called Urban Legends on YouTube and Jordan reached out to me after seeing that.
When communicating with the director of the film, what are your tips to attain clarity on what they’re looking for musically?
I will always start with, “Name me a few emotions that you want the audience to feel.” I think that’s the most simple common language to be able to boil down, especially if you compare that to what emotions they think the music is making them feel. The comparison you have there will tell you exactly what your job is. From there, then you’re the one who thinks, “Okay, maybe we need a flat five”. (in C major chord, the flat five would be a G flat note).
What's next for you, Michael? Will you continue to score movies or return to concert music?
I have a concert piece I'm supposed to be writing soon. It's not fully signed, so I can't really talk about it. That's a gig that I'm familiar with and it's straightforward in that regard. I don't know what other film projects I'll be doing. The film's been out for about 72 hours. So, we'll just see what's up. I'm very excited to have more opportunity to write. You have to come up with a sonic palette that matches the director's vision of the story. A composer's job is to help the director tell his or her story.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy | Paul Goldowitz
Extending gratitude to Michael Abels.