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The Sunday Read: ‘The Composer at the Frontier of Movie Music’

You have almost certainly heard Nicholas Britell’s music, even if you don’t know his name. More than any other contemporary composer, he appears to have the whole of music history at his command, shifting easily between vocabularies, often in the same film.

His most arresting scores tend to fuse both ends of his musical education. “Succession” is 18th-century court music married to heart-pounding beats; “Moonlight” chops and screws a classical piano-and-violin duet as if it’s a Three 6 Mafia track.

Britell’s C.V. reads like the setup for a comedy flick: a Harvard-educated, world-class pianist who studied psychology and once played in a moderately successful hip-hop band, who wound up managing portfolios on Wall Street.

That is until he started scoring movies, and quickly acquired Academy Award nominations.

“What I’ve found in the past,” said Jon Burlingame, a film-music historian, “is that people have found it impossible to incorporate such modern musical forms as hip-hop into dramatic underscore for films. When Nick did it in ‘Moonlight,’ I was frankly stunned. I didn’t think it was possible.”

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Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Emma Kehlbeck, Parin Behrooz, Carson Leigh Brown, Anna Diamond, Elena Hecht, Desiree Ibekwe, Tanya Perez, Marion Lozano, Corey Schreppel, Margaret Willison and Kate Winslett. Special thanks to Mike Benoist, Sam Dolnick, Laura Kim, Julia Simon, Lisa Tobin, Blake Wilson and Ryan Wegner.


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