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‘Nope’ Composer Michael Abels Knows Exactly What He Wants Chaos to Sound Like

 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

One of the biggest tricks in making a film like “Nope” is figuring out how to not overplay your hand. The third feature film from Jordan Peele has its unsettling moments in the early stages, but the movie’s overall momentum is a long, steady, gradual build toward a rousing ending. That build doesn’t happen, though, without a meticulously balanced score. Continuing a half-decade partnership that also includes the music for “Get Out” and “Us,” composer Michael Abels and Peele arrived at a specific way to gauge how scared an audience should be at any moment.

“I talk with Jordan a lot about, ‘What’s the threat level?’,” Abels told IndieWire. “He’ll sometimes say, ‘Something bad is coming, but it’s not here yet.’ It’s very important that each cue match that intention of the script and the storytelling, and that the music not be scarier than where we are or not as scary as where we are,” he said. “Every sound has its natural threat level, I think.”

That threat level is a clear way to talk about the purpose that the music serves in a movie like “Nope.” But then again, “Nope” is a specific genre blend that doesn’t make for an easy blueprint. Fortunately, Abels has another concise way of summing up the two needs that his music had to meet at the same time, based on a question posed in the script: “What’s a bad miracle?”

“The idea of ‘bad miracle’ is an important theme of the film because it’s equal parts ‘Oh shit’ and ‘Oh my god!,'” Abels said. “The music needs to have both those senses together. Both a little bit of a sense of awe like we would have looking at the Grand Canyon, but then also the urge to run far away from the Grand Canyon because falling in would not be good. That’s the dichotomy that’s present in the film.

“So in the music, you hear a sense of a little bit of awe and magic, and then there’s sheer terror. But then there’s also a sense of a real epic adventure towards the end and giant music that accompanies a giant, historic adventure.”

For Peele, Abels’ music sometimes goes beyond those two poles, to work as a counterbalance to some of the more unnerving things that anyone might be seeing on screen.

“There’s a motif in there and an energy that is about joyousness and adventure and agency and everything that is antithetical to the horror genre,” Peele told IndieWire. “These moments where it’s all about this calibration and negotiation of what the audience is seeing and what we want them to feel, sometimes those things aren’t the same. Sometimes the visual and the aural sound, the music, it’s imperative that they don’t link up. That was a lot of what our discussion was.”

That melding begins when Abels music accompanies an extended, slow move through a mysterious tunnel beneath the film’s opening credits. Having the chance to set a tone with such a sequence isn’t always a given in film (or on TV either, though Abels was able to write an introductory theme as part of his Emmy-nominated score for last year’s documentary series “Allen v. Farrow”). Yet Peele has set a personal precedent for giving the audience that extra space to sit with the threat before taking the plunge.

“Right from ‘Get Out,’ Jordan had an opening credit sequence,” Abels said. “It’s even rarer now, but as long as he keeps doing it, I’m for it.

“It’s a great way to establish the vibe for people both in what to expect and how to interpret what they may have just seen before the credits begin. We always have fun playing with how that’s going to take shape, and it usually goes through a couple of iterations. And I was loving the Muybridge loop and being able to set that to music and find what the musical vibe of that repeating little two second thing was.”

It’s certainly not exclusive to music in genre films, but stacking the dread that’s necessary to make “Nope” work involves thinking specifically about how the music is played. With a string-heavy sound familiar from Abels’ other work, there’s a back-and-forth between the airy high-pitched anticipation and the more jarring, aggressive additions when trouble arrives.

“It’s very hideously notated, because if it’s not, it doesn’t come out right,” Abels said. “All the notes you give [the musicians] are never about what’s already written. It’s about what isn’t written that ought to be written. And so usually that’s, ‘No, that needs to be louder,’ or ‘There needs to be more at the more at the frog at the base of the bow,’ or ‘Everybody needs to be down-bow.’

“There’s some snap pizzicato in the basses, which string players are not a fan of,” he added. “I don’t write that effect in concert music. But given that we’re only recording it, you only have to do it a few times. That’s my justification. But I tell you, there’s nothing like it when it’s used in the proper place. It’s both percussive and string. And especially for this film and what was happening, it was perfect.”

One of the most distinct tools that Abels has used in times of onscreen crisis is chaos. The anarchic sound of an entire orchestra section all working against each other — think a string section scrambling right before a big reveal or when a character is brought face-to-face with a monster — is something that has popped up in key Peele movie moments when trouble is either brewing or fully brewed. As with any element of good storytelling that seems random or unhinged, Abels has had to hone that specific sound and method over his career. There’s a large amount of control that goes hand-in-hand with that disorder.

“It’s aleatoric music, which means music that is in some way improvised,” he said. “But the thing is, is that it’s not really improvised. When you think, ‘Oh, you mean I don’t have to write every note out?’ there’s an excitement. But in fact, you have in your mind parameters of that randomness. Your randomness is in fact, not random. And then you have to explain to the player every way in which it’s not random. How often are you playing in this this erratic way? In what range? At what volume? Do and do any of those change over time? And suddenly, that’s a lot of notation and thinking and really working.

“The minute I’m doing any aleatoric effects, I’m instantly thinking, ‘OK, what are all the possible ways you could do this wrong?’ And then I’m trying to explain how not to do the thing I’m not looking for. And then with all that said, and working with great orchestrators, when you do all that work, it often comes out right very quickly. And then it only takes as much adjustment as any other notated music might take. Because you’ve given people the parameters, and they can tell what kind of sound that you’re you’re looking for. It becomes not a search, but it becomes fun. We get to make more scary, ugly sounds.”

If that tangled thicket of string sounds is one of the through lines between his three collaborations with Peele, Abels approached the choral parts for the “Nope” score in a slightly different way this time.

“That goes to the sense of awe and wonder that’s needed, even in the moments that are terrifying. And nothing really does that quite as well as a wordless choir,” Abels said. “Normally I’ve used lyrics, but we decided on using shifting vowel sounds. It’s a very subtle effect that you’re not really aware of, but the the choir is not just singing ‘ah’ or ‘oh.’ The vowels are evolving, which gives it this otherworldly presence. I wasn’t sure it was going to work but then when it did, I was very happy.”

Having a less defined vocal component in the music makes for a perfect pairing with the growing collection of eerie screams coming from people scooped up by “the Entity” (a term that Abels used throughout his conversation with IndieWire). There’s a melding at a number of points throughout the movie where everything you hear is woven into the same layer. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell exactly where a whinnying horse ends and a musical instrument begins.

Johnnie [Burn], the sound designer, was brought on very early in pre-production, because that’s how important sound design as part of production is to Jordan,” Abels said. “It always has been, but I think in this film even more than the others. So we were working more closely than I have with ever with a sound designer. ” Abels said. “I always like for silence to be a part of the score. The tension between the negative space and the music is actually part of the music. Leaving room for the sound design, even when there’s a cue playing, was an important part of the way I approached it. A lot of times in the scariest parts, especially in the earlier parts of this film, you’re listening to what you hope you’re not going to hear or what you thought you might have heard. The stillness allows you to freak out in that way.”

Like any heroic epic, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em’s (Keke Palmer) rides down into the valley trap during the climactic Entity battle are backed by some grand, sweeping music. It’s here that Abels really unveils that Wild West brass, a type of instrumentation he’s using for the first time in a Peele film. (“It’s been predominantly strings and voices because both those instruments really speak to Jordan’s aesthetic,” Abels said.) The specific cue “The Run (Urban Legends)” is a synthesis of all the disparate musical elements that have been floating around for the previous two hours, arriving as all the elements of the Haywood team’s plan are coming together. That music existed well before that plan could even be set into motion.

“That was music I wrote that Jordan listened to when he wrote this script, actually,” Abels said. “I think he imagined this scene with that music. I was a little skeptical — I was afraid that it would be too much fun. But when he temped it in, we were both amazed. It just shows how great he is at visualizing his entire finished product, even when he’s just typing it out for the first time,” Abels said. “It was really important that that the audience could feel the thrill of OJ risking his life, that it feel legit and real and earned and realistic. Including that music goes to how fun it might be to be scared. That’s the thing that this film provides that you don’t think you see often.”

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