×

‘Succession’ Composer Nicholas Britell on Making Music for the One Percent

The Roys, the media empire family at the heart of HBO’s “Succession,” are ridiculously rich. They’re manipulative and cruel. They’re also a bit delusional and absurd.

When Nicholas Britell conceived the show’s score, he wanted to capture all of that.

“I wrote in this almost late-1700s, dark classical zone,” says Britell, the Oscar-nominated composer of “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” “I was kind of imagining: what is the music that the Roy family would imagine for themselves? What’s the music that they think they sound like?”

But this “dark courtly” elegance is often also infused with fat hip-hop beats, an 808 drum machine, detuned piano — all piano is performed by Britell — and modern filters and samples. This is music for the delusions of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), who has a predilection for rap, but intentionally exaggerated.

“There really needed to be this seriousness, but there’s also high-level absurdity in the show,” says Britell, who even sampled his own music from the early part of Season 1 to create hip-hop tracks in later episodes.

Britell comes at both musical strains honestly. After a rigorous upbringing as a classical pianist, he was in a hip-hop group called the Witness Protection Program while a student at Harvard, making beats every day.

“Hip-hop really is so universal,” says the New York native. “I think it’s the most profound new art form in the past 50 years. That zone of musical experimentation is wide open, and has so many possibilities.”

Succession” was created by Jesse Armstrong, the British wit behind “Four Lions” and “Peep Show,” and executive produced by Adam McKay. McKay, who also directed the pilot and has collaborated with Britell on “The Big Short” and “Vice,” says he wanted the score to feel “cinematic.”

Britell brought his lush, big-screen sound and philosophy to television, but he also took advantage of the much larger canvas it provided.

“It’s an interesting question of, how does an audience respond or absorb certain ideas, and how does that then translate into the emotion you feel hours and hours later?” he says.

Rather than scoring the show’s action, per se, Britell composed cohesive, songlike variations on his handful of main themes. They recur in eclectic guises, with such titles as “Adagio in C Minor” and “Strings + 808 + Beat,” attending the Roy’s royal household and worming into the audience’s ears. A soundtrack album with selections from the first season was released by Sony Music Masterworks on Aug. 9.

The show’s tone is one of deadly serious satire. In many ways, it’s a brutal commentary on America’s 1% — but for some, it’s also one of the funnier things on TV, due to razor-sharp writing and pitch-perfect performances by Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook.

“Something that Adam and Jesse really capture so well is this duality,” says Britell. “The show isn’t just serious — I mean, obviously it is based on serious and real phenomena in the world today. But at the same time, the moment-to-moment absurdities, the pettiness, the bitterness, the feuding, the games — all of these things are at times so ridiculous.”

He leaned into a proven tradition of film and TV composers who score comedy straight.

“When I wanted to be serious, I would be serious with the music,” he says, “and when I wanted to be more absurd or funnier with the music, I would actually be even more serious.”

Britell expands on his palette of “dark gravitas mixed with extreme absurdity” in Season 2, which premiered Aug. 11.

“It’s always a tone that keeps you on your toes,” he says. “The show doesn’t let you settle into a comfort zone. I think you’re always wondering what may happen next.”

More Music

  • Jason Isbell

    Jason Isbell, Maren Morris to Headline Kentucky's Railbird Festival

    Americana favorite Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and country star Maren Morris top a slate of performers just announced for the Railbird Festival, to be held on three stages over two days in August at the Grounds at Keeneland, a renowned race track in Kentucky. The August 22-23, 2020 fest features an unusually eclectic [...]

  • Issa Rae Interview Variety

    Issa Rae’s Raedio Partners With Kobalt for Global Publishing Deal

    Kobalt today announced a worldwide publishing deal with Emmy-nominated actor-producer-writer Issa Rae’s company, Raedio Publishing, LLC. The global partnership with Raedio includes creative and administration services, which includes providing guidance and funding on new Raedio signings, pitch Raedio’s writers, artists and library for synchronization opportunities and provide admin services, according to the announcement. Rae has [...]

  • Pharrell Williams movie musical

    Pharrell, Michele Anthony, Jody Gerson, Jon Platt Join Rock Hall of Fame Foundation Board

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in New York today announced five new members who have joined their Board of Directors: Michele Anthony (Executive Vice President Universal Music Group); Jody Gerson (Chairman & CEO Universal Music Publishing); Pam Kaufman (President ViacomCBS Consumer Products); Jon Platt (Chairman & CEO SONY/ATV Music Publishing); and artist/producer/entrepreneur [...]

  • Elvis Presley 1968 Comeback Special

    'Elvis: That's the Way It Is' Documentary Set for Re-Release (EXCLUSIVE)

    Trafalgar Releasing has set a re-release for the concert documentary “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is” for April 22 in 14 countries, Variety has learned exclusively. The event will mark the 50th anniversary of the film’s original release by MGM. Most of the remastered footage was shot at the International Hotel in Las Vegas with [...]

  • The Weeknd Reveals Album Release Date,

    The Weeknd Reveals Release Date, Album Art for 'After Hours'

    The Weeknd has revealed that his new album, “After Hours,” will be released on March 20. Leading up to the release, the artist, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, will perform on “Saturday Night Live” on March 7, his third appearance on the show. Hear the title track here. The XO / Republic Records full-length [...]

  • Tyrese Gibson

    Tyrese Dedicates Valentine's Day Concert to Kobe Bryant, John Singleton, Paul Walker

    R&B singer Tyrese dedicated a Valentine’s Day performance to entertainers who are no longer with us, including late Lakers star Kobe Bryant, rapper Nipsey Hussle, director John Singleton and actor Paul Walker. Taking the stage at the Forum on Feb. 16, where he shared the bill with Avant, Dru Hill, Ginuwine and Joe, Tyrese, accompanied [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content