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S2: So much of my job is to channel the emotions of the lead character. I read frightening music because I’m genuinely frightened by the things that are going on at the screen and the characters don’t know what’s happening. And that’s why they’re terrified. And I want to make sure that the music is every bit as good an actor as the actors. You know, I got to express the emotion in music as well as they do in their bodies and voices.
S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Ramona Lum, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler. And the other voice we just heard was the composer, Michael Abels.
S1: Isaac, do our listeners know Abels work even if they don’t know his name?
S4: I would guess that they 100 percent know at least some of his work. Michael Abels has actually worked in a lot of different forms. He’s worked in, you know, live concert music and things like that.
S5: But he is actually best known for his film scores, his first one of which was for a little film called Get Out, which I’m guessing our listeners have seen. He’s also collaborated with Jordan Peele on Peel’s follow up to Get Out, which was us. And he’s done a couple other movies, including the recent and I think highly recommended by both you and me, the recent HBO film Bad Education.
S1: So Bad Education, which, as you say, is an HBO film. It’s based on a real life scandal that happened in a sort of fancy public school district on Long Island. It is such a delight. It’s one of those movies I sat down and watched without knowing much about it. And Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney give these. Really? Lovely performances that are sort of like anthropologically accurate, but not mocking, there’s something kind of sincere in their depiction of suburban Long Island and it’s a really interesting movie. And one of the things that when when you mentioned to me you were going to have this conversation with Michael and you mentioned that he had done this film, I remember saying to you, like, oh, yes, that makes a lot of sense. It is a film in which the score feels I wouldn’t want to say that it feels overly present or something like that. Like, that’s not the point. But it is a film where I certainly noticed the music.
S5: Yes, absolutely. In the music kind of moves in two different modes. One of them is this kind of pastiche of baroque and romantic classical music. There’s some Beethoven and Mozart references in there, as well as other composers. But there’s also this other part of the music, though, which is this sound that we talk about at the very top of the interview in a track that, if you’re listening to the soundtrack, is called Come Quick, which underscores some of the film’s tensest moments. And you don’t even think of it as necessarily musical when you first hear it. But it, of course, has been carefully sculpted by its composer.
S1: It’s my understanding that Michael Abels has kind of an amazing back story.
S4: Yes, certainly so. When Michael Abels came to work on Get Out, he was actually the head of the music program of an exclusive private K through 12 school. And Jordan Peele was very dedicated to the idea that the film was going to have black collaborators on it and that he was going to find a black composer for the film. And as Michael and I discussed later on in the interview, there were not a huge number of African-American film composers out there. And so he was searching for one. And he actually found on YouTube a live performance of a piece of Michael’s called urban legends. And off of that thought that he would be a good fit and have you know, I think someone from Blumhouse, if I remember correctly, reach out to Michael and they, you know, hit it off and the rest is history.
S1: That is such an extraordinary story. And it really it reminds me of the conversation I had with Dumaine Davis, the director whose big break in directing for television came because the director, Ava DuVernay, had seen a film that Dumaine had made in her youth. There’s so much to be said for the importance of people who attain success, kind of holding the door open for other people. And that’s just that’s a lovely story. And it’s it’s wonderful that Michael was able to kind of find his home in film because clearly he’s very adept at what he does.
S4: Yes, I agree. It’s a lovely story. But I but I also think, you know, it reminds me of another interview you did, Ruman, and that it also has to make us think of all the people deserving of these kinds of jobs who did not get these kinds of jobs because of the institutional barriers erected against people of color. You know, and it is a reminder for people that sometimes because of those barriers, in order to find the right candidate and in order to find the right candidate who may not come from the standard background, you have to resort to unconventional means. Searching YouTube for, you know, interesting black composers is not the conventional way that you find a composer for your big, you know, breakthrough horror film. And so I think it’s a great story. But there is also this sort of other side of it that that we should acknowledge.
S1: Right. But it speaks to people’s commitment to using the advantage that was hard won even for him. And it is a reminder that, like I mean, the score for us in the score, forget, are so beautiful that it’s a reminder that, like the pipeline, that conventional pipeline doesn’t always necessarily provide the best people. Right. That there can be great talent lurking if you’re willing to actually just go out and look for it.
S4: Absolutely. And as we’ll hear, that’s something that Michael is dedicating a large amount of energy to changing.
S1: Honestly, this interview is so good, I think we ought to just get to it and we’ll let Michael Abels speak for himself.
S5: I wanted to jump really immediately to one piece of music right at the top, because when I told my co-hosts that you were coming on the show, one of them said to me, you have to get him to talk about the sound, talk about the sound from bad education. And of course, what he meant was come quick. I think it’s a flute pulse that underscores some of the film’s tensest moments. And I think it’s such a contrast from what I think of maybe some of your more maximalist work that it would be a fun place to start. So how did come quick that that very simple. I might be wrong about the flute part and then, you know, the percussion that comes in later. How did that come about? What was the genesis of that track?
S2: What a great thing for someone to notice. Thank you. So it literally in bad education, the whole story is really kind of like a slowly unraveling mystery where you’re peeling away the layers of the of the onion, if you will, to just to see how deep it goes in. And it doesn’t go exactly where you think it’s going to go. And to me that even the very first time I saw the rough cut, that was what really drew me into the film. And in one point early on, when you can tell that something’s not quite right, there’s a shot where we see a leak in a ceiling at the school. That’s a very well-to-do school, even though it’s a public school and we see a leak in the ceiling and there’s a drip. And it seems to me to be the perfect kind of metaphor for what was the gradually the the drips of the the story being revealed. So there’s this one note and then there’s a lot of space before you hear it again. Just like a drip and a lot of that is when we hear something dripping or something like that, that’s clearly in a pattern, but there’s a lot of time in between it. We become in our minds, we become obsessed by when it’s going to happen again because we know I’m totally. So that’s what that music does. It plays with your expectation of that thing and all the empty space that’s in between it. And you’re partially right about the sound. It’s it’s partially a flute, but it’s a bass flute, an instrument that’s not used very often. But it’s got this very sort of puffy cotton ball to sort of sound. And I wanted the sound to be both familiar and foreign at the same time. So that’s part of it.
S6: And then it’s also enhanced with a little kind of a virtual sound that I can’t even describe what it is. It’s it’s like a little a little rattle underneath it so that it sounds even more unfamiliar.
S5: I think those of us who’ve been homebound for a long period of time can relate to this, that you hear some mysterious regular sound coming from some part of your house and you really are like, is this a problem I have to deal with or isn’t it? And then the second time you’re like, oh, crap.
S2: Now it’s a problem precisely in doing music for suspense and for Jordan Peele in particular, that very notion of being in your house and hearing a sound and identifying whether it’s a threat or not is based on whether whether you assess it to be mechanical or natural.
S7: Right. Something I think about a lot, actually.
S5: Now, you mentioned that part of the idea from that came from the rough cut. So some chunk of the film was in the can or being edited when you were composing it. And I know I think I read that with Jordan Peele. He likes to hear at least some music before he begins actually filming. But was that also the case with bad education or was the score kind of at the end of the filmmaking process?
S2: The score was more at the end of the filmmaking in in that process. And there’s no right way to do that because it’s all about finding the voice of the film. And you can start before the film is shot or you can start once it’s been shot.
S6: Part of it is, is when you happen to meet or come into the conversation, sometimes it’s about when the the filmmaker feels ready to take on music as part of the world that they want to think about, because music is an art that takes place in time. Having the film assembled some it really is the telling point of what the music’s going to do in a scene, because timing is so crucial to every aspect of music and how of a scene plays out. So with bad education, they were in post-production, meaning that there was a rough cut and I was able to screen a version of the entire film to see if, you know, that I would be the right fit for the project. And I, I was laughing it just even at the rough cut because of the just Corey Finley, the director has his way of just lingering on a character’s face just a moment longer than maybe you would. And you see some hint of of what’s really going on with them. And just that to me, is something I find really fun to watch. So I really liked it the first time I saw.
S4: Yeah. So what were those early conversations with Corey Finley about what the music might be like? Were you immediately going to the kind of, I don’t know, baroque vocabulary that a lot of the music wound up in? Was that like the first idea or did you hash out a bunch of different ideas?
S2: That was really the first idea. I mean, he was very he was very clear, I think, about what he wanted and why. And it had to do with that. The you know, it’s based on a true story. And the the character played by Hugh Jackman, Frank Tassone, I think is a classical music buff. And in there are a couple of scenes in where he is listening. In the background, you hear some classical music playing. And so we thought it would be nice to have the score seem like you weren’t sure if it was, you know, score or was some piece of classical music. So that that what’s called source music, meaning music that’s just playing in a scene so that the score in the source music would feel a bit integrated.
S5: I have a feeling a lot of people listening to this interview actually sort of don’t know what the step by step process of scoring a film at that point is. So you’ve seen the rough cut. Did it have temp tracks on? It already was a cut to sort of pre-existing music?
S6: Some of it was, and then some of it wasn’t a temp tracks. I think of it.
S7: I guess I would say it’s a necessary evil, meaning that it would be great to see the film totally without temp and directors. Also usually offer to screen the film for a composer without any music, but also time is short and you need to know you need to know what’s informing a director’s view of the film, you know, musically.
S2: And a composer needs to get inside a director’s head as quickly as they can and not just their head, but kind of like music actually lives in our soul. So what you’re what you’re talking about is you’re you’re having to suddenly get to know someone in kind of an intimate way and then be able to kind of use your skill to to express them as as if they were a musical artist in the way that they are a visual artist and doing a film. So that being the challenge, temp music does a lot to help you. You know, it fast forwards the conversation, I think in that part. In that way, it’s super helpful.
S5: Hmm, right. It’s not like you’re sitting there over coffee being like, oh yes. A G major seventh right at this point. Get your get your emotion across. Right.
S7: No, I always ask the director what emotions or what actions do you want the music to tell the audience at this point? Because I don’t want visual artists to have to speak in musical language. It’s my job to take what they tell me and what they’re feeling and translate it into music. So I encourage them rather than to try to use language they’re uncomfortable with, to just speak the way they would speak to an actor or to a cinematographer or any other of the crafts they collaborate with. Because just to hear someone speak about what they’re feeling or thinking without them trying to process it, it’s you get a much more accurate impression about what’s going to be correct.
S5: I think this is so fascinating to me because it just makes me feel very curious about how do you actually learn how to do that. Right. Because someone is giving you information and then you have to sort of process it into your art form and language and then give it back to them. And then they have to listen to it and say, oh, yes, this is actually this thing that I was thinking or this isn’t the thing I was thinking, but it’s better or. Nope, never mind. You know, how do you learn how to do that, especially since you’re working with different artists each time you have a different vocabulary?
S7: It’s a you’ve summed up the whole challenge right there. I mean, those of us who who write or create anything, there’s kind of two brains. There’s the creator and the critic and the critic is the one we use every day. It tells us what clothes to put on and how we feel about is this room to warm and what are we going to have for lunch and all these judgments we need to make to function. But when you’re creating that voice, what can actually shut down every good idea you’ve ever had? So you have to learn to let the creative voice just do something without explanation and justification and kind of let that bloom for a while. And then only then after the flower has had some water and some sun. Do you want to let that critical voice that you use every day have at it to say, well, this is a flower, but it could be so much different. It needs to be a different color. It needs to be taller and needs to be the leaves are the wrong shape. But if there is no flower, your critic doesn’t get to make those judgments. So how that relates to a filmmaker is that you you have to be the creator and create based on what they’re looking for and then allow them to have that voice that says I love it and it needs to be totally different. And that except that, as I mean, one of the notes Corey Finley gave me was that there’s a piece called Eye Contact, which is in a love scene. And my first version of it is he sent it to me and he he he text me, said eye contact is insanely gorgeous. Can you change the first three chords?
S5: What did he want out of those first three chords?
S2: What it was doing is that it was too dark. It was very in this scene, there’s there’s a lot of at least one of the characters is in a lot of conflict internally, which he doesn’t express, but it’s clearly going on.
S7: And so I was feeling that and responding and in his mind and the way it was planned for him was that the music was implying that there was something darker in the scene than the audience should really be feeling at that point.
S2: And these are differences in shades of emotion. I mean, it’s really like for I think for a writer, it’s like talking about adjectives and they’re all synonyms in a sense. But actually, if you really get down to it, they’re entirely different. Right. Right. You know, and so so you’re looking at, you know, we’re in the right we’re in the right color palette. You know, we know that it’s a shade of blue, but is it indigo or is it aquamarine or is it navy or is it midnight? And when you’re really looking at blue, those things are a world apart, you know?
S5: It strikes me that, you know, sometimes the film music is getting us into the point of view of a specific character, and sometimes it’s outside of it, you know? How do you negotiate that? Are you thinking, Frank Tassone, what is Frank Person’ feeling right now? I have to express that in string’s.
S7: Point of view is a really important part of deciding what music works for a scene is that the music can’t take the point of view of everybody in the scene. It’s it’s got to depict something. And is that an overview or is it from one character? I found that a lot of directors really want to make sure that we, the audience, are able to experience the film from the main character’s feelings. And so you can as a film composer, you can never go wrong by thinking what is the lead character feeling in this moment and coming from from that point of view. But there are also times when what that character’s feeling is maybe different than the rest of the scene. And then it’s worth thinking about, you know, coming from another point of view of the scene. Also, the question is, are you how much foreshadowing are you doing? Are you letting us know that something bad is about to happen or that this is purely as it appears in this moment? And and so these are all things that you as a composer talk about extensively with the director, because just how it lands to you could be either totally different than the director sees it or totally different than the director is wanting the audience to see it. And so sometimes you are helping portray an emotion that may not in a in a scene that’s dry with no music. And it’s an emotion that may not be readily apparent just from looking at what’s on the screen.
S5: Right. So it’s almost like the music provides the subtext in that in that moment, the sort of a truth behind the encounter. The music frequently is the subtext rather than the text. And it strikes me that this is a particular challenge with us, the Jordan Peele film, because you have two antagonistic groups combating each other. And how does the music express point of view when you have two opposing point of views at once? I mean, I imagine that’s like part of the creative challenge of doing that film.
S7: Yes. So so how we from the beginning, you know, and as you mentioned, Jordan is someone who likes to start hearing music in preproduction, you know, while in fact, while he may still be working on the script of the film because he comes with a whole world, when he imagines a world in a story, he imagines the music in as much as he imagines the characters and the setting.
S6: So the first thing he said to me about us was he said, well, obviously it’s about duality. So give me some instruments that don’t belong together. You know, just give me some some duets of things that don’t go together. And I, I, I had read the script, so these were inspired by the film. But when I sent them to Jordan, I didn’t tell him which scene they were because I didn’t want my conception to limit him. You know what? If he liked them, I figured he would you know, they would speak to him in some way that related to the film. So I think that virtually that the demo I did is actually in the film during when the family is it’s called Beach Walk, and you see them walking down the beach. And it’s supposed to be a happy day at the beach, but the music’s really troubling and unsettling. And that was, at least on the basis of it was actually just the demo I did without seeing any film.
S4: You know, one of the other things you have to do within this, of course, is actually figure out what the melody is, you know, actually figure out sort of what are the notes that are going to be played. And I’m very interested in that part of the process because like as a writer, for me, it’s about getting so immersed in the research that it’s kind of all I can think about. And then I have to shut the books or close down the computer and take a shower or go on a walk or just do something and wait for the sentences to come. And then when the sentences come, I know it’s ready. What’s that process like for you?
S6: So I’ve had to actively notice my inspiration. By that, I mean, rather than feel like it’s just a gift from God that I have no control over, I have to I mean, it it is that but to be a productive composer, I have to gain some control so that my only control is to listen to to see if I could detect any patterns to it rather than view it as random as kind of like, well, notice how this works and see if I can then create the situation where it might happen. So one thing I’ve noticed is that often the first idea I have in the morning is the one that’s the the most inspirational of other things. So now that I’ve noticed that, I try to harness that. And if that means the first thing I have to do in the morning after I wake up is go into the studio and write something down, or at least recorded enough that I won’t forget it, that I let myself do that, even though that’s not what I want to do. I want to have coffee and wait. But I’ve learned not. If you want to be inspired, you have to, you know, take that moment. And I ride my bike and I notice that if I think about music before I ride my bike, then when I ride my bike, then something generates, you know, after I’m doing that.
S2: So every and it’s different for everybody. And your walk, you know, that’s that’s exactly what I do when I ride my bike. So every artist I think has that. And you have to learn to learn what it is that triggers your creative artists and then nurture that and really honor it and and help it out.
S1: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with the composer Michael Abels, in a moment. One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration or discipline, send them to us at working at Slate Dotcom if and when we can. We’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests. Welcome back to working. I’m Ramona Lum. Now back to Isaac’s conversation with Michael Abels.
S5: So if we’re talking about kind of where the ideas come from, where did the idea for the poor did in us come from, which is, of course, you know, it’s one of the boldest moments for me anyway of that whole movie is that this whole fight scene is scored to a kind of adaptation of, you know, got five on it, which you’ve heard earlier in the film. So. So how did that come about? It was such a wild idea. You know, you’re kind of laughing and terrified and fist pumping all at the same time when it happens.
S2: So whereas Jordan does more and more films were kind of learning what his special brand is, what his art is. And I would say that part of what his brand is, is taking nice things and ruining them for people. And we all love him for it even as we get freaked out and so on. It is introduced in the in the exposition of the film as a way that you get to know the family. It’s playing on the radio and it’s the you know, it’s the music of the parents generation. So they’re enjoying the song. They’re trying to teach the kids about the song. They’re trying to pretend that it’s not about drugs, even though they know that’s not really true.
S8: You get me when I might just chill, but I’m doing like syquia. I feel really this when I mean, I got some sounding, but it ain’t enough.
S2: And we see the family interact and it’s really funny. And we get to know them, you know, in a way that’s very easygoing and fun for us.
S6: So when he did the trailer, he knew it would have to be something like it has to be the trailer version of God five on it. And then when there was such a reaction to that for the pod to do, which was always a scene in the film because that’s the climax of the film. Originally we were going to have it be a piece from The Nutcracker called The PAS de Deux, because a partida is actually a thing in ballet where the lead dancer and the lead and the lead ballerina, it’s their solo and it’s the French term for basically a duet. So that was and of course, us the duet is between the The Lead and the Doppelganger. So it’s a duet with oneself or one’s alter ego. And so because she was a ballerina, the lead character played by Lupita Nyong’o, that was going to be the Poveda from The Nutcracker because we see her dancing to it in tiny little quick cuts during that. And the choreography actually is from the original Balanchine choreography, I’m told, which was. And so the choreographer and I had worked on this music and we were going to deconstruct and kind of do a horror version of The Nutcracker. That didn’t happen because five on it was so clearly the idea. So we we scrapped that and then we we took that whole scene and reimagined the music for it to completely take five out it to the dark place.
S5: The scene had already been shot at that point, right? Yes, so the other thing that’s going on is that this decision then impacts the editing of it. You and the editor are kind of, oh, completely on some level, become collaborators at that point to create what this thing’s going to be, but not even on some level.
S2: I mean, that was true of every scene because all of the timing and it’s true in every film, but in horror, you know, when you’re scared and when you’re just, you know, mildly upset, it has to do with timing. And so that scene and there were I don’t know how many versions of that part of the scene that Nick, the editor, did to the to The Nutcracker music, to The Nutcracker horror music and to the the five minute horror music, all just seeing what really, you know, played and what was going to work.
S5: You know, I read this interview with Jordan Peele where he said that you were a good fit for his work because you’re a nice person and the best horror is made by empathetic people. And I was just wondering what you thought about that, about about that aspect of your collaboration.
S2: First of all, I’m very flattered that he said that. Second, I. So sometimes people it’s related to sometimes people ask me, what are your favorite horror films? And I’m not such an expert on horror films. I was a little kid who was terrified of my shot, you know, of anything scary as a kid and was hiding under the bed or whatever. And so much of my job is to channel the emotions of the lead character. And I write frightening music because I’m genuinely frightened by the things that are coming out of the screen. But it doesn’t matter how many times I watch them, it’s still terrifying. And so I want to make sure that and the characters don’t know what’s happening and that’s why they’re terrified. And I want to make sure that the music is every bit as good an actor as the actors are expressing. You know, I got to express the emotion in music as well as they do in their bodies and voices.
S5: When you’re doing your concert music composition, which are you still working in that in that realm and still working on that stuff?
S2: Absolutely. I’ve I I’ve just completed a piece for the Kronos Quartet and Choir. It’s a I think it’s probably 80 minutes. It’s a full evening. And collaborated with Nikky Finney, who’s a National Book Award winning poet. And it was just a wonderful project. And of course, because of Korona, the premier has been put off a year, but we’re still very committed to making that happen.
S5: So, yeah, that’s because it strikes me that, you know, obviously that must be a somewhat different creative process, because there isn’t this thing of the film that you’re trying to score. You know, like the collaboration is towards a different end. How does that change how you work or approach composition, or does the approach kind of remain essentially the same?
S2: I look at all music as storytelling, whether the composer may not regard it as storytelling, but if I’m if I’m an audience member, if I’m listening to it, I’m essentially in that same world that we’re in. When you’re in a film where it’s like, tell me, what’s this journey we’re going on for the next however long we’re doing it and how that affects the creative process is that as the composer of concert music, I have to decide if this is the journey we want to go on. And that’s a much more open question than whether this chord works underneath this scene. Like I was talking with with Corey Wright. And I don’t always know the answer.
S6: And sometimes you take a few steps and you realize, okay, this is not the journey we’re on or this has complicated the journey in a way that doesn’t help. Or you have to take a few steps back and, you know, throw things some things out. But ultimately, you’re still on a journey that’s designed to to provide someone with an experience that justifies their attention and and helps them appreciate the amazing performers and also help makes them glad that they’re part of the human experience.
S5: I think you founded the composer’s diversity collective. And I know that, you know, part of the origin story of your collaboration with Jordan Peele has to do with the challenges of finding a black composer to do the music for the film. And I was just curious, you know, obviously we’re in a moment where there is a great reckoning. Yeah, hopefully. Hopefully happening. I mean, there’s there’s some sort of reckoning happening, but hopefully it moves forward into real change. And I was wondering if I could just ask you, you know, what do you feel like needs to happen for in the film industry to offer more opportunities to black composers and to to open those doors that that have sometimes historically been shut?
S2: Well, I think what needs to happen is what I actually see happening a lot, which is that, you know, get out to end Black Panther and crazy rich Asians and film a lot of films that came out right just a few years ago, busted open this myth in Hollywood that you can’t be diverse and make a ton of money. We’ve seen that. That’s just not true. And so because of that, particularly because that is no longer a justification for a lack of inclusion. Now, Hollywood is trying, I think, pretty hard to be a lot more inclusive and is understanding the importance of doing that on every level behind the camera, in front of the camera, in the writers room, everywhere. The ongoing obstacle is that people just don’t have the contacts. They don’t have those people in Hollywood like we want to be inclusive. I can’t wait to be inclusive. I just don’t know anybody or I don’t know enough people. The people I know are now working. And so I once again don’t know anybody I can hire today. So if that’s true, the composer’s diversity collective is there to help with the pipeline to say you don’t know some people. Hello. Over here, we got your diversity right here and it’s not. And in the composer’s diversity collective, we have not only black composers, but South Asian composers and Asian composers and Latin composers and Middle Eastern composers, women and men. And just if you are looking for inclusion and diversity in composers, our organization has it. And so we’ve been having you know, some studios have offered to have mixers. We’ve had these great events where people have just met people. Other studios have their own talent and diversity initiatives where they are going out of their way to recruit composers and writers and people and, you know, behind the camera to be part of the team for a film or a media project. And so we’ve been partnering with them to make sure that that people know about their programs and that they that people are encouraged to apply for those programs so that they can be come part of the media and Hollywood community. And I think if that continues over time and it’s not just a thing of this moment, but it’s a thing of it’s really it’s really a generational shift and a generational shift takes years. But if we keep at it, I know that we will all be making a difference. And the good news is that with all of the content there is these days, a lot more diverse stories are finally being told and having a chance to reach audiences on new platforms as the industry restructures itself once again and figures out how it is we get our content out to audiences.
S5: Well, Michael, thank you so much for coming on working and discussing your process with us.
S6: It’s been my pleasure. This has been so fun.
S1: Not every artist is good at talking about what they do, and I think in some ways that’s to be expected because maybe it’s unfair to expect artists to also explain themselves. Art is a weird thing. It’s an intuitive thing. But Michael Abels is really adept at explaining his art. At least I thought so because I know nothing about music. But listening to him talk about the thing that he knows so intimately, I really felt like I understood what he was talking about. I really felt like he was explaining to me how he works. And I was nodding along and thinking, yeah, that’s how composers do what they do. Of course.
S4: Yes, totally. And I have to imagine that some of that is why he’s so good at being a collaborator and a film composer in particular, because, you know, as we were talking about in the interview, it’s not like he’s sitting there with directors and, you know, they’re discussing what the chord progression is going to be or speaking about it in music theory terms. You know, the director is explaining it to him in the director’s language and then he has to digest it into his own art form and then explain that or have that art form explained to the director back what the director was doing. And, you know, like that’s a tricky thing to have to do. And so I think that in order to be successful in that kind of world, you have to become good at talking about things that can seem extremely abstract.
S1: I found it really illuminating also to hear Abels likened the work that he does inside of a film to the actor’s performance, that his music is just another facet of how the film functions. And the composer, to me, can be sort of like a Titanic figure who we use to represent ego. And all art involves ego. But but Abels is talking about collaboration, about modulating his art to suit the needs of the people he’s working with, whether they’re the director or the editor.
S4: Absolutely. I think I’ve spoken on this podcast before of the kind of way in theater that we talk about what it wants to be as opposed to what I want it to be. This when we’re collaborating. And I think, you know, another person we think of as representing the Titanic ego is the director. But I think most really great directors actually understand that their aesthetic choices, their ideas, their concepts are going to create this larger thing that is actually made up of everyone’s labor. But I also think that one of the things that’s very clear from everything Michael was saying is that part of a good and healthy collaboration is actually a really clear establishing of roles and what the hierarchy is. And it’s actually easier to collaborate when you do that. We think that it can be harder to collaborate when you do that. But actually having that stuff clear and know who’s the decision-maker and who’s in charge of what and and all that stuff actually makes the job much easier.
S1: I mean, that makes our jobs this year. We just do what our producer Cameron tells us to do. Right. And he puts us through our paces and then we make this Sterling podcast. That’s entirely true.
S4: In fact, every word I just said was written by. Yeah, yeah. Exactly. No, no. But but but it is it is true that those clear roles really help. That’s true on a podcast. That’s true on a play. No matter how big the cast is. And on film, you know, there’s like hundreds of people collaborating in that. Yeah. But it only works if everyone really knows what they’re places.
S1: Hearing Michael Able’s talk about his work and hearing the pieces of his work that you play throughout the interview helped me think more about what it is a score does inside of a film. You know, yes, it provides a sense of atmosphere, but it does these other things. And you and Michael discuss something that you and I had talked about, which is this particular effect in the film, that education, which I think was a film that we you and I both enjoyed watching and we both noticed this particular sound. You know, it’s more of a tone than a song. And it was really satisfying to hear Michael explain how it was made. But it’s actually more interesting to me to think about what it does mean. It’s just like very tiny provocation that destabilizes you as you’re watching a movie that is actually like it is a movie that goes down very easily. Right. Like it’s a it’s a very entertaining film. So it’s an unusual aesthetic choice to have this little bit of friction inside of something that feels really candy colored and enjoyable. But, yes, it makes you kind of notice like something is off.
S4: Yes, absolutely. Does the thing that Michael is talking about, which is that it alerts you to the fact that there is now a mystery and that there is more to this mystery than you initially think there is. And, you know, if you watch that sequence where first appears, which I think is just a camera panning as Allison Janney walks through an office and something like that. Right. You don’t immediately think this sequence must have music to work. It’s just someone moving. Right. So there it’s about like what additional meanings and understandings that music conveys in that moment and where it leads you to go. Even if all of that is happening totally subconsciously and you’re not actively thinking about it like that’s what it’s doing to you, it is creating a separate set of meanings for those images.
S1: I think you’re in the middle of writing a book. I’m supposed to be writing a book.
S5: Are you writing another book? Where is this a news flash you’re reading?
S1: That’s what I know. That’s what I do for a living. I think like you, you’ve got to you know, you’ve got to keep going, right? I guess so. One of the things that I have heard our colleagues report, so this is just anecdotal. This is like one of those, like, nonsense anecdotal trends is that they write to soundtrack’s. And I wonder if you’ve ever heard that one, if you’ve ever done that.
S4: I have done that sometimes it might be a little bit different in nonfiction or at least in the kind of nonfiction that I’m writing right now, which is heavily researched because I really just need to be focusing on have I got this timeline straight? I’m pulling together four different books and three different interviews. And do I have all the facts in a row? My you know, there’s a lot of like little teeny stuff like that that I’m often working with before I can even write the sentences. And so I’m actually often not listening to music when I do that. But when I was writing stuff, that was more. Or shall we say emotionally expressive or whatever, I listen to music a lot of times when doing that, I think it helps you get in the mood, it helps you get in the character. But I could be wrong. You are a fiction writer, among many other things. So do you create, like play lists for your characters or do you think like this is a moment where this character is really devastated? So I need to listen to the love theme from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet to get into character.
S1: It doesn’t often align emotionally like the emotional tenor of the scene, doesn’t often correlate to like the nature of the music that I’m listening to. I do tend to write in long bursts. And so I do listen to music more the way that I would imagine you do when you’re working out or something, where you just sort of need something with some some sense of movement to keep your own work moving. When I was working on the book that I’ll publish later this fall. This story is so insane and I kind of love telling it because I think it really it really distills for me the madness of what I sometimes do to work. I was in a hotel room revising the center of the central section of this book, and there was a day that I was just I was really tired because I was working sort of round the clock and I was really I needed music to provoke me. And so I listened to my favorite Beatles song, which is lovely, read a meter made forty eight times in a row, which is a really lot of times to listen to the same song over and over again.
S9: Lovely Rita meter maid. Nothing can come between us when it gets dark, I tell you how to.
S5: That’s amazing. I have a friend who for each writing project, he has a small number of songs that he listens to on repeat and it’s often just one song that he listens to on repeat.
S1: Wow. I mean, that’s an intense commitment to one particular like I know like a long project.
S4: And there is a play that he and I worked on together that he wrote and I directed actually we co directed that production and it was about a theater that had burnt down and he wrote it to The Decemberists. I was meant for the stage.
S10: I was man for the state. I was Mansoor’s and.
S4: And then we use that as our like as a tribute to him, I put that as the curtain call music because it was like as an affectionate like this is the show. But, yeah, I have a lot of trouble writing to things with words. I often have a lot of trouble writing stuff that’s too emotionally expressive. I like to listen to like Steve Reich’s drumming.
S11: Or, you know, Philip Glass, I listen to a lot of Philip Glass when I write.
S4: Those are the sorts of things that I listen to. But for this particular book right now, I’m actually trying to get as close to a silent space as possible because so much of my brain is taken over by other stuff.
S1: Well, it was lovely to hear some of Michael’s music, but just even lovelier to hear an artist really dig into what they do and how they do it. This isn’t such a great conversation.
S4: Yeah, it was a lot of fun to do.
S11: And listeners, if you enjoyed this show as much as we did, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slate Dotcom working plus thanks to Rob Weinert, Kent and David Hamlin for their help with this week’s episode.
S1: Thank you to our guest, Michael Abels.
S11: An enormous thanks as always to our producer, Cameron Drus. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Remon and the artist, Paul Superyacht. Until then, get back to work.