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Composer Nicholas Britell Talks the Powerful Spiritual-Field Songs in '12 Years a Slave'

Interviews
by Bill Desowitz
November 29, 2013 2:20 PM
1 Comment
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'12 Years a Slave'

"Yarney's Waltz" fulfilled the function of an old-time waltz with an authentic dance for a masked ball. Britell was enthralled about understanding the local culture but had to be very nuanced because of the limitations of what we know of the era. 

Fiddle tunes are a combination of original songs in the style of the era along with clever re-imagination. "'Devil's Dream' is a very old fiddle tune and it may have been popular in New York. And since Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is from New York, I thought it would be appropriate to have him play it when we're getting acquainted with his musical talent.

"But we made the fiddle sounds unique. The violin is held by its lower slung on the shoulder and we tuned it differently played it almost classically. In 1841, northeast musical influences would've been Schubert and Beethoven, in addition to the popular Irish and Scottish folk tunes."


For "Roll Jordan Roll," they needed to solidify the moment when Northup resigns himself to being a slave. The composer wanted a link to the spiritual tradition by using the "Roll" lyrics as homage. "That song is a new conception where there are different sources woven together into a new statement. I had read that the Jordan River may have been code for the Ohio River and I thought there was a very strong connection. Of all the music in the film, we wanted it to be a unique statement."

Meanwhile, "Money Musk" is part of a Virginia Reel tradition that Northup plays when Eliza (Adepero Oduye) is separated from her children. "It's a terrible counterpoint between the upbeat nature of the song and the tragedy of her experience."

In fact, Virginia Reels are mentioned in Northrup's book, and in his research Britell came across the "Money Musk" melody in a collection of Reels. "It was almost like archaeology in putting it together," he says.

1 Comment

  • Kate | December 1, 2013 7:57 PMReply

    I just saw the movie and it amazes me that McQueen's use of song and sound design is so extraordinary while his judgement of score is so terrible. The Zimmer score is either recycled (Thin Red Line) or inappropriately overbearing (the horror show clanging while on the ship south).

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