Exclusive Interview: Michael Abels Tells Us How He Approached Scoring Jordan Peele’s Get Out

Listening to the Ancestors: Composer Michael Abels discusses his approach to composing the musical score of the 2017 Oscar winner, and how music can affect social change.
Jordan Peele Writer and Director of “Get out” with composer Michael Abels – photo courtesy of Michael Abels

“Get Out” Soundtrack to Social Change

In an exclusive interview with The Scope Weekly, composer Michael Abels talked about everything from scoring Get Out to the way music can affect social change.

When it comes to Get Out, he initially thought the offer he received couldn’t be real.  “The call came from a producer,” Abels said, speaking with The Scope Weekly during an exclusive interview. He added with a laugh, “It went to voicemail because it’s L.A., and you don’t answer your phone.”

Convinced it must be a fake or a prank, he reached out to a friend with an IMDB account to investigate.  As Abels put it, “what I learned was if I was being punked, it was a good one because the guy, in fact, was a producer, with a profile that matched his name.  So I called him back, and he asked me if I had heard of Jordan Peele.  When I said yes, he explained that he was going to direct his first film, and would I be interested in reading the script, as Jordan had told them to track me down and call me.”

What Abels wound up reading was eighty-five percent of the finished film that is now Get Out, acclaimed 2018 Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay.  Even then, Abels knew that what he was reading was special, and not something to be taken lightly.  “It was the most unique, brilliant script ever,” he said.  “I just couldn’t believe it.  So, of course, I said I would have lunch with him.  And he’s just the greatest guy ever.  Not only is he funny and self-deprecating, but he is also the smartest person in the room.  But in a way that you only notice if you’re paying attention.”

For Abels, his hiring to work on the film proved a significant change from his typical work.  He initially worked as an orchestral composer, and as the music director at the New Roads School in Santa Monica, California.  It enabled him to combine his knowledge in academia with his passion for music, as Peele was looking for a specific sound for the film.  “He said very clearly he wanted the African American voice both literally and metaphorically in the film,” Abels said.

“So what I said is, it sounds like you’re looking for gospel horror music.”

The phrase stuck and continued to influence the way Abels realized the score’s arrangements and completed the Get Out movie soundtrack.  Peele was adamant that the score reflects the film’s approach in telling the story entirely from the eyes of its lead protagonist.  In the spirit of achieving this effect, the first track Abels composed included a choir singing verses in Swahili, the only word sung in English being ‘brother.’

“The title of the track, Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga, means listen to the ancestors,” he explained.  “I wrote those words because the idea is these voices are the ghosts of the departed, of slaves and lynching victims, and they’re trying to warn Chris, the main character.  But ghosts speak in shadow and metaphor, so it couldn’t be in English because that would be way too obvious.  I needed a musical language the singers could speak, so I did some research, and interestingly most slaves didn’t speak Swahili.”

Abels told us that he used the language nevertheless with artistic license, the lyrics themselves coming from phrases he would write on a sheet and translate.  The one word he didn’t translate, however, was brother.  “That word needs no translation,” Abels stated.  “When black people say brother, it’s understood.”  He went on to elaborate, “these are black voices talking to black people.  And we may not understand what they’re saying, but we know there is a message, and we know who it’s for.”

For Abels, the fact Get Out was both a box office hit, grossing a worldwide 255 million, and won Jordan Peele the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay is a sign Hollywood is starting to be more open-minded towards stories unusual to its standard fare.  “I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been about that,” he said.  “I think that the success films with black directors have had since Get Out came out, has really put the old paradigm of ‘this can’t be done’ to bed…For the first time, I think people are not shutting down diverse ideas.  There’s more of a sense of possibility now, rather than problems.”  For him, this correlates with the impact music can have.

“Artists are always at the forefront of social change,” he said.  “But unlike words, music allows a story to be what the person who hears it believes it is.  I write music, but the journey it takes you on is your own.  And that is the power that it ultimately has.  Because no matter what the story is that I think I’m telling, you are participating in what the story is when you hear it.”

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