Writing new music for the “Star Wars” universe would be daunting for any composer, considering its iconic scores by the legendary John Williams.
Luckily for “Andor” composer Nicholas Britell, writer-producer Tony Gilroy and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy gave him “total freedom” to imagine a new, totally unique soundscape for the backstory of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the rebel spy first encountered in the 2016 film “Rogue One.”
So, unlike “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” the “Star Wars” series for which Williams wrote a new theme earlier this year, there isn’t a note of Williams music in “Andor,” which launched a 12-episode run last Wednesday on Disney+.
Under a veil of secrecy, Britell — the three-time Oscar nominee and Emmy winner for “Succession” — began talking with Gilroy during the spring of 2020, before shooting even began.
“The first thing we started working on was the on-camera music,” Britell tells Variety. “The Morlana club music you hear in the very beginning, that’s just me creating all that. We figured out the sound of the Beskar steel and the Time Grappler [who appears in episode 2], and then in episode 3, the alarm signaling is a whole percussion piece. We had to figure out how it would sound, how it would feel on set.”
The bigger challenge, however, was how to portray Cassian, who is a very mysterious figure at the start of the series, haunted by his past and facing an uncertain future. “It’s really about a sense of discovery for Cassian,” Britell says. “He is learning about his life and his family, his place in the universe. To some extent that was how I thought about the main ‘Andor’ theme, which isn’t just about Cassian; it’s about the whole series. I wanted the theme to start uncovering itself, start emerging, in a way.”
There are 12 different iterations of that main theme, a new one for each episode (three have already been commercially released by Disney Music). A sense of mystery and a touch of melancholy pervade them, with a rhythmic pulse that becomes stronger with each version.
“There’s a sense of, what does this music around Cassian mean?” Britell notes. “Maybe it’s even something that Cassian doesn’t know yet.”
Every planet has its own sound. “On Morlana, there was this dark, gritty, urban landscape [that demanded] something edgy, textural, a rumbling that wasn’t pretty.” For Ferrix, Cassian’s current home, “there’s a lot of masonry and metallurgy in their culture, so you hear a lot of metal sounds throughout. Tony and I created some of those sounds together,” Britell says, noting that he and Gilroy are neighbors, living just 11 blocks apart in Manhattan.
“Tony has a lot of pipes in his basement,” he adds with a laugh, admitting “there is some of Tony’s basement in Ferrix.” Kenari, the planet where Cassian was born, “is the sound of his childhood. I actually put rustling leaves inside the recording, so you hear the forest in the music. But there’s also a kind of wistfulness, a sense of loss, a sense of memory.”
Subsidiary characters including mechanic Bix Calleen (Adria Arjona), droid B2, and the still-unseen Republic Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), have their own musical signatures as well.
Britell and Gilroy spent about 10 months preparing the music that would be heard on the set, as well as “brainstorming, experimenting” and establishing priorities in terms of key sequences, Britell says. Then around May 2021, he started writing the scene-specific scores. Recording began in the fall of 2021 and continued through the end of July 2022.
“I was here in New York writing, and we were recording literally every week in London,” Britell reports. Veteran orchestrator Matt Dunkley regularly conducted an approximately 80-piece orchestra in London’s AIR studios, with additional percussion recordings happening at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio.
But the final sound of “Andor” is not just orchestra. It’s also synthesizers, sampled sounds and advanced production techniques, all totaling more than seven hours of score over the 12 episodes. “It was more work than I’ve ever done in my life,” Britell says.
Gilroy was deeply involved throughout, visiting Britell’s studio three or four times a week, often spending four to six hours at a time. “He has such an attention to detail, he cares so much, and we went so deep. When you work with someone who is so passionate, it can’t help but be inspiring.”
Britell has finished scoring the first 12 episodes and has already begun work on the second season.
And how does it feel to join the ranks of “Star Wars” composers? “It’s the most profound honor,” Britell says, “and very emotional. I think back on growing up and watching the movies with my little brother in our den. I was a fan from the very beginning. John Williams’ work is so legendary, not just musically, but culturally, for all of us.”