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‘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.”

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