“Music isn’t just what’s on the page. It’s every element of the
experience; it’s every element of style; it’s every element of
the sonic character, down to even the way the violinist is
holding the instrument.”
— Nicholas Britell
By Sarah Vukalovic
Phi Beta Kappa member and Harvard graduate Nicholas Britell has been lauded as one of the most promising young musicians in the industry. As a pianist, Britell’s work has made a splash among the media. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Vogue, which praised him as among “the most talented young artists at work.”
Somewhat of a child prodigy, Britell fell in love with music at the age of five. In fact, it was film music in particular that inspired his first musical endeavors upon hearing the theme song of the 1981 British film Chariots of Fire. The young Britell immediately attempted to play the song by ear and insisted on piano lessons. Ironically, his local music school believed he was too young for formal lessons, and instructed him to wait another year before pursuing classes.
Britell went on to play the piano for events and performances throughout high school. At Harvard, he played in an instrumental hip-hop band, Witness Protection Program.
“I always wanted to do music somehow,” Britell explained in an interview with Kickstarter broadcasting channel DP/30. “I don’t think I knew in what way…I think I felt that the structures of the pure classical concert piano life were just a little too great for me.”
Britell still gives piano performances often but has garnered much attention for his artistic expertise as a composer and film producer. At 33 years old, he has already scored a number of significant films including Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot, New York, I Love You, and Natalie Portman’s directorial debut short film, Eve.
Most recently, Britell has collaborated with iconic director Steve McQueen on the critically acclaimed soundtrack for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave. After scoring Gimme the Loot in 2012, Britell became well acquainted with producer Jeremy Kleiner, who introduced the young composer to McQueen.
“Steve immediately knows when something is right,” Britell noted. “You immediately know you can do your best work, and do your homework, and you know that if it’s right, it will succeed and it will work.”
The film, set in the 1840s, required careful research and attention to detail in order to achieve an authentic sound. Britell collaborated with McQueen on broad level ideas, from history to spiritual hymns of the time, to capture a sound that might have existed in the late 19th century.
“Music isn’t just what’s on the page. It’s every element of the experience; it’s every element of style; it’s every element of the sonic character, down to even the way the violinist is holding the instrument,” Britell insisted.
Britell’s diligent research and commitment to authenticity has undoubtedly paid off. The critically acclaimed soundtrack was universally well received.
Britell lives and works in New York City, where he co-founded a multimedia production company and art collective, the Amoveo Company. Additionally, he is the Chairman of the New York-based Decoda Ensemble. The cutting-edge classical ensemble includes graduates of the Carnegie Hall/Julliard “Academy” program and performs regularly for large audiences.
Sarah Vukalovic is a senior at the University of Dallas majoring in Philosophy. The University of Dallas is home to the Eta of Texas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Photo at top: Nicholas Britell at the premier of 12 Years a Slave at the Toronto International Film Festival.