Interview with Michael Abels

A sinister, hypnotic score with a racially satirical difference, “Get Out” creeps up on you with a lulling power until whipping forth the musical equivalent of deer antlers. It’s a soundtrack full of the kind of lethally cunning assurance that can only come from a composer schooled in suspense. But like this film that reveals comedian Jordan Peele as a master of metaphoric horror, listeners will be shocked to discover that this is actually the movie composing debut of Michael Abels, a composer whose background lies in a not-so lily white world of concert and performance work.

Growing up on a farm in South Dakota, Abel took up the piano at the age of four, a musical exploration that grew to include jazz, gospel and African drumming. His cultural influences would be reflected in work that encompassed the life of Martin Luther King, fall of The Berlin Wall and global warming. With his orchestral skills growing through commissions by the Richmond Symphony, The National Symphony and the Los Angeles Opera, Abels composed music for children’s fables narrated by the likes of James Earl Jones and Garrison Keillor, wrote a hip-hop ode to The Watts Tower and explored the operatic tunes of Giuseppe Verdi.

Abels’ impressively prolific body of work outside of the movie screen only makes for the kind of seemingly come-from-nowhere debut that dazzles with a wealth of ideas. Yet perhaps you might expect Jerry Goldsmith to actually be under his skin, as Abel’s superb, subtle use of deceptively bucolic strings, delicate harp, old scratch fiddle and demonic chanting bring to ear such classic scores from the seemingly dead maestro as “The Other” and “Poltergeist,” let alone “The Omen.” Abels is indeed to the old school manor born, beginning “Get Out” with a catchy, skin-crawling version of the 1930’s song “Run Rabbit,” brilliantly re-configured to sound like some doom-laden spiritual. The banjo-like Kora, an ancient, African instrument, along with gasping voices, tell us that the movie’s happy liberal home is in fact a southern plantation of the damned. Sucking our seemingly placid hero into mind slavery is the sound of percussive bowls, becoming the ersatz metronome of a stirring teaspoon. Even an emulated orchestra, usually the bane of horror scoring, is used to terrific, effect as it slowly reveals a silent garden party to be a human auction in the score’s most striking moment.

But when the chorus practically sings “Amen!” it’s time for Abel to really claw out of his lulling melody and deliver the kind of stabbing terror right in line with a climactic body count, though with the big difference here being a black hero that doesn’t make the stupid, dooming mistakes of his genre forbearers. There’s a thrilling sense of discovery from Abel’s subtle, slow burn score that helps Peele wield his darkly satirical edge, showing a composer who can play The Man’s horror scoring expectations while at the same time subverting them into something even scarier. “Get Out” is a breakout score for Abels in more ways than one.

Tell us about your musical beginnings, and what styles interested you. Was the influence of film music ever part of that equation?

Yes, from the beginning. The first film I remember seeing was “The Sound Of Music.” I think I must have been 3 years old. Rogers & Hammerstein’s Do Re Mi influenced me profoundly. “One word for every note, by mixing it up, like this!” The perfect and essential music composition lesson.

Tell us about how you explored various cultures, and historical figures and events through your musical education?

Like every passionate music student, I explored them as I discovered them. Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder. After college I made an effort to study West African music for a semester. There was more separation between classical, popular and world music in the way it was taught back then, but I tend to be fascinated by any music that is well written and performed.

What were your first experiences with a symphony orchestra like?

Great. I actually got to hear the first piece I ever wrote performed. Little did I know how lucky I was! There is nothing like the sound of so many great musicians playing together, it’s just magical and always will be.

If you’d watched horror films before “Get Out,” did anything strike you about the fate that usually met black characters in them?

Come on. Everyone knows the black guy gets it in the first reel. If not, everyone’s got a stopwatch on him to see just how long he lasts. Obviously that’s one of many stereotypes this film sets out to turn on its head with humorous and terrifying results.

Were you familiar with Jordan’s sketch comedy show with Keegan-Michael Key?

Yes, ever since “Obama’s Anger” went viral. But I hadn’t seen a full episode until I was scheduled to meet Jordan. Then of course I watched some so I wouldn’t seem like a complete idiot. But I didn’t watch too much, I didn’t feeling intimidated would help.

Given that you had no movie credits, what drew Jordan Peele to you for “Get Out?” And do you think your mutual bond was being in uncharted territory, as he’d never directed a film before?

Jordan was looking for someone who had the harmonic language for horror who could also bring an African-American perspective. Yeah, there was some first-timer bonding because of that. But a director’s job is much different than the composer’s, and deals with so many other competing considerations. So I was focused on delivering a score he could be proud of, one that honored all the hard work he’d put in on this film.

Do you think your own background in orchestral, black-themed performance and orchestral pieces make the transition easier? Or do you think the freshest film scores are done by people who are unexpectedly thrust into that world?

I had some experience scoring to picture doing commercials and short TV projects right out of college. So I wasn’t in entirely uncharted waters. The difference is that Jordan chose me because he liked the music I had written purely for the joy of it, and had decided that was the voice he wanted for the project. If the score is fresh, it’s because that’s what he wanted and allowed me to do.

What were your biggest challenges adapting from free-form music to composing that has to play with picture?

The deadline. Every project has one, but the film post-production schedule is particularly demanding. The compositional challenges are not as daunting because the assignment is so specific that the creative choices you need to make seem clear. At least that’s how it was for me.

Did you immerse yourself in horror films, and scores to bone up on the genre’s music?

No but I did listen to particular pieces that Jordan said he found scary.

Could you talk about your creative collaboration with Jordan?

Essentially, he told me what types of music and which scores he found particularly scary, and why. There was a temp track for the rough cut, and so I asked him “what emotions does this music evoke that made you choose it?” and took careful notes. He is excellent at communicating about that, so I had very clear direction. But he also enjoys collaborating, so I felt free to try things and experiment.

Director Jordan Peele (L) and composer Michael Abel (R)

Both you and Jordan come from multi-cultural parents. Do you think that gave you an added bond, especially given the theme of mixed couples in “Get Out?”

Believe it or not, we’ve never talked about that. Maybe because it was obvious? We have similar backgrounds, as we’re both in interracial relationships. None of our in-laws are trying to kill us. Or are they?

“Get Out” has a very calculated, slow burn to its pay off. How did you want to keep the kind of self-doubting suspense up, while gradually unraveling this family’s secrets?

The script is so brilliantly paced, all I needed to do was provide the correct emotional temperature in any given moment. I did some subtle things to reinforce that, i.e. I held off using any brass or low percussion instruments until midway through the film. But mostly it was “score the moment, score the film.”

Just in the way that “Get Out” handles its racial satire, your score handles its African elements in a subtle way. How ethnic did you want to make the score with its banjo-like strings, or was it important to “bury” those elements, much like the black characters themselves who are consumed within their own bodies?

A great question, but extremely hard to answer. The main title, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” — that’s clearly meant to sound exotic and African in the way that we Americans imagine it. In the body of the film, it was important to make the score straddle genres as successfully as the script does. So I was trying to make it feel Hitchcock-ian, but with added rhythmic elements to bring a contemporary, African-American influence. “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” emerges in the score in a couple scenes, but without the vocals.

“Get Out” starts with the incredible creepy use of the 1930’s song “Run Rabbit.” Who had the idea of using it, and how did you so effectively distort it?

My guess is that it was the choice of Chris Moliere, the music supervisor. Jordan loved the implication that the song could be referring to black people in its lyrics “Run, Rabbit, Run!” even though I’m told it was actually written to demean German soldiers in World War II. Regardless, it’s a perfect choice for the abduction scene. I can take no credit.

How did you want to create the sound of hypnosis, especially given its particular form here?

That was the first scene I scored because I knew if I could get Jordan’s approval it would give me some themes I could use throughout. The scene is mesmerizing, it actually hypnotizes the audience along with the main character. The music had to match, had to draw the audience into a hypnotic pattern without them noticing. So that’s exactly how I approached it. There is a harp phrase that evolves into a pattern gradually.

You have a striking use of voices here that not only suggest the cult’s victims trying to claw their way out of the black pit they’ve been thrown into, but also the suggestion of the oppressed ghosts of the past. Could you tell us about that choral approach?

The black voices represent the souls of black slaves or lynching victims. They are trying to warn Chris, the protagonist, just like his friend Rod the TSA Agent does. Ghosts speak in dreams and metaphors, so the voices sing and whisper in Swahili, which forces us English-speakers to hear the foreboding in their voices, rather than the actual words. They are saying, “Brother, run! Listen to the elders. Listen to the truth. Run away! Save yourself.”

One of the most effective scenes is the ersatz “slave auction.” How did you want to handle the moment where we finally realize there’s a conspiracy afoot?

That moment is scoring with the same four descending chords we first hear when Chris sinks into “the sunken place.” It’s laced with the tense, rhythmic pattern first heard when Chris comes upon the deer in the woods. There’s another repeating melody of depressing finality that happens over the shots of each of the family members’ faces.

How did you want to play the unusually cheerful villains, as well as to create a bucolic sense of upstate suburbia?

I found the cheerful garden party guests to be quite funny, and wrote a baroque concerto in the style of Vivaldi for that scene. It was the type of music those characters would party at a garden party. Jordan hated it, saying, “It’s Chris’s story. The audience has to see the situation through his eyes.” Chris was feeling uncomfortable and on display. He was right of course, so I went back and wrote some unsettling, creepy, on-display music. The only comedy is in the dialogue, and in the embarrassment we feel watching the awkwardness of the situation.

There’s some particularly delightful sinister music as we get to see their training films. How did you want to handle these sunny, evil explanations of their technique?

There is one piece of comedic music. It’s the underscore for the orientation video that is played for Chris. Jordan said he wanted that music to sound “like an erectile dysfunction commercial.” (Point of fact, whoever scores those commercials is actually pretty skilled.) His meaning was, “Give me your most horrible saccharine happy music ever.” It’s so terrible I actually hesitated to put it on the soundtrack! But if you’re listening closely, the melody is the hypnosis theme that is heard in very creepy moments in the film, played on a cheesy jazz guitar sample over the most obvious banal chord changes. But that’s the only comedic music in the soundtrack. All the true comedy scenes are dry because they represent reality, and a break from the tension. The score is used to help create the sense of isolation and hopelessness that surrounds Chris as he gets deeper into his predicament.

How much of a horror score did you want to make “Get Out,” especially given that a genre film has to pay itself off by releasing the bloody tension it’s built up? And what was it like going for those musical shocks?

Jordan’s first direction to me was that, above all, the music had to be “seriously scary.” The film had to work as a legit psychological thriller, aside from any comedic or satirical aspects. So where the story was scary, the music had to deliver the shock. Creating the music that makes an audience jump is fun! It’s like lying in wait for your little sister to come around the corner.

Why do you think “Get Out” has become such a hit with both audiences and critics? And what do you think it says about the future of black-themed thrillers?

I think it’s a hit because it’s just so interesting to watch. The characters are interesting, they say believable things, the actors are each masterful in their portrayals, you care about what happens to the protagonist. It works as a thriller, as a comedy, as a satire. And if you don’t like the film, you want to talk to your friends for an hour about what you didn’t like about it! It’s a great entertainment, even if it rubs you the wrong way.

Many black composers peers can get pigeonholed into doing “black” scores, what’s your key to continuing onward as a composer suited to all stylistic colors. Or do you want to continue exploring scores with those ethnic elements?

I’m interested in doing any good creative project, regardless of what sonic colors the story calls for. I’m choosing projects based on whether they are well written and musically interesting. Projects that meet those definitions will likely include diversity. But it’s not a prerequisite.

If you could imagine a sequel to “Get Out,” what would the story be, and how would you like to develop your sound for it?

In my opinion, a composer shouldn’t develop a sonic palette before listening carefully to what the director is hearing in his/her mind. It’s their film, their vision. Composers are there to bring the music the director is hearing in his/her mind into reality. So regardless of the story, I’d begin by asking the director, “What are you hearing when you listen to this film? What emotions does the score bring up for you? What messages do you want the music to convey to the audience?” There’s your sonic palette right there.

“Get Out” is now in theaters, with Michael Abels’ score available on Back Lot Music HERE