It’s a story worthy of its own Hollywood movie: orchestral and choral composer/schoolteacher Michael Abels received a call out of the blue that Jordan Peele wanted to talk to him about scoring the comedian’s directorial debut, the horror satire Get Out.
“I did not believe it was a legit call,” says Abels, who is the director of music for New Roads School in Santa Monica, California, But it turned out Peele had discovered one of Abels’ orchestral works, Urban Legend, on YouTube and felt his genre-bending mix of classical, jazz, blues and other musical forms was just right for Get Out. And with that, Abels signed on to score his first feature film.
The film, which earned $33 million in its first weekend of release to top the box office, focuses on Chris, an African-American man, whose white girlfriend takes him on a weekend visit to meet her parents, liberal doctors, of whom she boasts “would have voted for Obama for a third term.” However, he soon discovers that her parents are not as benign as they seem. The movie deftly combines horror, comedy, romance and biting social commentary.
Similarly, Abels’ score had to juggle a number of themes as well. “Jordan has seen every suspense thriller ever made, as far as I can tell,” Abels says, “and he was very eloquent about what he loved about the scores.” Peele wanted something sparse but that also recalled classic horror films. And he had another very specific request: He wanted African-American voices in the score that would represent the African souls lost from slavery, lynchings and other social injustices. They served as Chris’ tie to his ancestors, while also warning Chris to danger ahead.
Abels’ research revealed that the African languages of the slaves weren’t particularly musical, so he instead chose to use Swahili because of its musicality. Working with an eight-person choir, he had them chant several phrases in Swahili, including “run,” “listen to the truth” and “save yourself,” that play in seminal scenes as Chris begins to understand the peril he is in.
Peele’s most salient advice to Abels was that the story was told from Chris’ point of view and, therefore, the music always had to represent that perspective as well. During a garden-party scene, Abels originally wrote a harpsichord concerto in the style of Vivaldi. “I thought, 'Wait till [Jordan] hears this!'” he recalls. “He said, 'No, that will not be appearing in the film.' That scene was the first one I started and the last one I completed to get the right temperature of foreboding that Chris would feel, not how the other garden-party guests would feel.”
Abels relied primarily on strings, harp and tuned percussive bowls to create a classic horror score. “There’s some brass, but it’s not used until midway when things get much darker,” he says. He also judiciously picked from sampling libraries to hit some of the creepier notes, including the eerie sound of a violin bow on a metal bike spoke.
Peele brought in Abels before shooting started, and Abels worked on themes apace throughout 2016. However, in September when Universal decided to pick up the film and gave it a February release date, it was crunch time. For the next six weeks Abels juggled his school schedule with scoring, delegating some of the cues to fellow composer Timothy Williams.
Up next for Abels is a piece commissioned by the West Point Army band, but he adds that he would love to work with Peele on future projects, as well as delve further into the film world. “Working with Jordan is like a dream. He’s so smart and so clear about what he wants, but so open to the creative process. I love writing music and I love storytelling.”