“It has all these different elements,” says Abels. “There’s the awe and wonder that the characters experience, but then there’s also the satire. The Western aspects are both legit and satirical.”
“Nope” combines science fiction, horror, and movie and TV sendups into a sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying experience. After a freak accident kills their father, Hollywood horse-trainer siblings OJ and Emerald (Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer) discover that there is a UFO hovering in the clouds over their ranch, and it just may be malevolent. Their neighbor, a former child star (Steven Yeun) who runs an Old West theme park, finds a way to cash in on the phenomenon.
It fell to Abels to find the right music for all of this. He even wrote the theme-park music heard emanating from the bushes and buildings while tourists stroll by, inspiring him to brilliant takeoffs of both the classic American Western score (Jerome Moross, “The Big Country”) and the Italian spaghetti westerns that followed (Ennio Morricone, “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”) for the same movie.
“You can tell how much fun I had,” laughs Abels.
The composer’s early music for “Nope,” relaxed and pastoral, gives no hint as to the frightening events to come. “Some cues have a heart, because this is really the story of OJ and Emerald, their relationship as brother and sister, and this adventure they find themselves on,” he says.
Yet the wonder and mystery they experience as they realize they are on the verge of capturing footage of a real UFO turns into something far more frightening. “The awe and terror are intermingled in this film,” Abels explains.
So he turned to complex string writing including aleatoric techniques, familiar from some of John Williams’ work in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” although Abels is quick to point out the chaotic random notes are “terrifying and disorienting,” and that the surface similarity of plot (UFOs visiting Earth) is coincidental.
Abels recorded in May with a 75-piece Los Angeles orchestra and 32-voice choir. Unlike Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us,” for which Abels prepared texts to be sung, “Nope” demanded wordless choir “for that sense of wonder.” But instead of the usual “oohs” and “ahs” heard in many film scores, Abels had the singers “shift their vowels” to create an eerie, unearthly vocal sound.
“It’s very subtle, but it gives it a different, sort of otherworldly quality that’s not what you would normally hear. I made my best attempt to put a Jordan Peele spin on that,” he says.
Peele dislikes electronic sounds, according to the composer. “He is so conscious about creating terror in a natural world. The minute he hears an electronic sound, he’s taken out of the world he’s trying to create. So I use virtual instruments when it comes to textures and sound design.”
Director and composer are in a constant dialogue during the months of score creation. “He’s able to hear a cue once and instantly give his feedback,” says Abels. “He can instantly say what he likes, what he doesn’t like, or where it needs to go. He also likes being challenged – causing him to think about either the scene or the music in a different way. That includes every craftsperson that he works with.”
Peele even moves cues to different spots in the film than they were intended for. “When he first started doing that, it was disconcerting, but now I actually love it,” Abels notes, “because I hear the music in a different way and I understand where he’s trying to go. It’s really instructive.”
Abels spent more than three months writing the music for “Nope” at the same time he was preparing for the debut of his first opera, “Omar,” at South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival in May. It will have its West Coast premiere with the Los Angeles Opera on Oct. 22.
Based on the true story of a West African Muslim scholar abducted into slavery in 1807, it is a collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy-winning American roots writer and performer. Also upcoming for Abels: “Breaking,” a fact-based drama starring John Boyega, due in late August.