Over the course of a pair of films and a television series, Nicholas Britell and Barry Jenkins have become one of the more exciting composer-director pairings working today. The upcoming series “The Underground Railroad” provided each of them with their widest canvas yet.
One of the best examples is the sequence featuring “Bessie,” the track embedded below. It is one of 25 cues that will appear on “The Underground Railroad: Volume 1,” set to be released by Lakeshore Records next week when the series debuts on Amazon Prime Video.
“It’s always an interesting question for me and for Barry, ‘What are we trying to say with the music?’ For us, the orchestra became a tool for a certain type of tone. ‘Bessie’ is really the most full realization of that idea within the world of ‘The Underground Railroad,’” Britell said. “That’s the sound of 50 strings together. We recorded it at AIR Studios in London. This was the largest orchestra that Barry and I as collaborators have ever done together.”
That larger amount of personnel results in a full, sweeping sound that’s a marked contrast to the melodies that run through the scores for “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Those are rich in their own way, but having a few more orchestral tools at his disposal helped Britell conjure an idea that he had reading the Colson Whitehead novel that forms the basis for the series. On her journey northward, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) arrives in South Carolina to find a much different world, traveling through it under an assumed name.
“When I first read the book, there’s a moment where you read that there’s a skyscraper in South Carolina in the mid 1800s. That brought up the whole concept of historical anachronisms and magical realism. I started thinking to myself, ‘How would we musically convey a question mark over something?’” Britell said. “Interestingly, as we got further and further in the project, it was it was actually this large, lush orchestral sound that felt almost fantastical. It created for us that feeling of a question mark. There’s a sort of strangeness, I think that the orchestra actually evoked for us in certain moments.”
A constant rhythmic backbone has always been a key component of Britell’s past scores. Here in “Bessie,” that comes out in the piano line that emerges at around 45 seconds in the track. Embedded in that initial twinkle are grace notes that keep things from moving in a completely straightforward fashion.
“The piano is just playing slightly late. When music is slightly behind the beat, it’s almost like you want to move your body into where the beat is. There’s an even further feeling of almost falling into a fantasy. If it was on the beat, it would feel too ordered, in a sense,” Britell said. “Barry’s very sensitive to those things. We spend literally hours and hours at a time just nuancing these things. There’s actually a lot of bass with that piano too, although it’s a very delicate felt piano sound. We wanted to have a very rich feeling.”
That sense of disorder also runs through those strings. As a section, they’re all moving in a wide arc. But a fundamental part of that sound is that each component part is often broken up from the other. “There’s very extensive string divisis, where you have all of the violins and the violas and the cello, all playing lots of different notes and different lines. It creates a very rich orchestral sound on purpose,” Britell said.
All of that helps contribute to the overall thematic idea that Cora’s travels are happening in ways beyond the physical. “There are really different musical landscapes for every place on Cora’s journey. She’s going to different states in America physically, but she’s also going to different states of mind, different states of consciousness. Barry and I really worked very hard to craft a multiplicity of different musical landscapes as the series unfolds,” Britell said.
Below is a full tracklist for the May 14 release of “The Underground Railroad: Volume 1.” Information on preordering the album can be found here.
02. But I Am
03. My Brother James
04. Arnold Ridgeway
05. Caesar’s Theme
06. A Soldier
07. It’s Time
08. The Journey
10. A Spirited Nature
12. When A Lady Enters
13. Queen of Egypt
14. Welcome to Your Future
15. South Carolina – Social Waltz No. 1
16. Aria (feat. Julia Bullock)
17. Glass Boxes
18. Penny Candies
19. This Is Science
22. Resurrection (Outro)
23. Searching (Foundation Track)
24. Mabel Violins (Foundation Track)
25. Caesar’s Theme (Foundation Track)
“The Underground Railroad” premieres May 14 on Amazon Prime Video.