We had an opportunity to sit down with Michael Abels, the film composer of Get Out at the ASCAP Music Cafe in Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival and he shared with us his process for creating the haunting music behind the hit film by Jordan Peele, Get Out.
Michael Abels: “Well I have been primarily known as a composer of concert music, music for live performance and I write a lot of orchestral music because I just enjoy the challenge of doing that I think. I think it’s extraordinary when groups of musicians who so well trained all play music together.
So, anyway.. Jordan Peele saw some of my orchestral music, live performances on Youtube and he had the producers of Get Out hunt me down and give me a call. And they said.. after I returned their call, after I looked them up to make sure I wasn’t being Punked, I returned their call and they said, “Would you like to read this script.” and I said .. “Hell Yeah!”
The script I read is about 90 percent of what you see in the finished film. It was just the most remarkable script I’ve ever read. And I met Jordan and he is just about the greatest guy you could ever meet. And I thought, between those two things, this was a no-brainer. I would love to participate in this. And I was just doing it because, I thought it was such a great, important script to see executed and because I wanted it out there in the world with a really well told story. I had no idea it would be received so well by people. So all of this.. All of this year after the film has been released has just been amazing, and gratifying and remarkable.”
Michael Abels: “Jordan, as now everybody knows, but back then, nobody knew, is that he is a huge fan of suspense and horror and he has seen every film in the genre and is also a student of all the music and he’s very much aware of what makes music effective in a film. And so we were able to sit down right away in our first meeting, just over a hamburger and have a really great conversation about the power of music and what makes scary music.
And so he started out by saying first he said “ I just want it to be scary as shit.” And so then the next thing he said is “I really want the African American voice to be present both literally and figuratively in this film” and so we talked about that and we kind of came up with this concept of what I call Gospel Horror, meaning that; a style of music that you can clearly tell it was the African American voice and African American voices singing, but at the same time something that was just really scary with out any hope or uplift to it.
So, we talked about how the voices really needed to be the voices of the departed. Of departed slaves, of lynching victims, of every African American person who has been wronged in anyway, kind of. And that the ghosts were really trying to warn Chris, the lead character of Get Out. But you know when ghosts speaks to you, they don’t just say “Get Out!” They knock over a lamp, or there is a shadow or there is a dream or something. Ghosts speak in metaphor so I knew they couldn’t be speaking English.
So, after researching languages, African languages, I chose Swahili to write in because it wasn’t apparently the most common language of the actual slaves, but it’s a very musical language and I needed a little bit of artistic license to come up with something, Well what would they say, well they would say “Get Out!” But that’s a figure of speech, that won’t translate in Swahili. So, I had to think of other phrases they would say, if they were going to be warning Chris to get out. And that I would translate those phrases and I would try them on my tongue and I see how they felt and wether any musical ideas occurred to me. I had this little spread sheet of Swahili phrases that the ancestors would say to Chris and out of that I constructed the piece, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” which means listen to the ancestors.”
It was recently announced Get Out has been nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Congratulations to Jordan Peele and the Get Out team on their accomplishments.