Michael Abels

What does 19th century Norwegian composer Edvard Greig have in common with west cost Hip Hop group Luniz? That would be composer Michael Abels, the genius behind the score to the 2019 psychological thriller Us.

This is the second time Abels has worked together with writer/director Jordan Peele, the first time being Peele’s 2017 debut full length feature film Get Out.

The collaboration between Jordan Peele and Michael Abels is a modern day Cinderella story that shows the value of pursuing your passions and preparing for opportunity to come knocking.

Michael Abels was born in Phoenix and raised by his grandparents on their South Dakota farm. He has spoken in several interviews about how, when he was young, he would listen to Edvard Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ and scream in fear. This gave Abels an early introduction to the power of music to affect emotion.

Michael Abels studied composition at the University of Southern California scoring student films during his time there prior to graduating in 1984. His student film scores didn’t lead him to a career of film composing straight out of study, however he continued to compose and by 2017 he was running the music department of a private school in Santa Monica, where he would receive a phone call that would change his life.

It’s 2017 and Jordan Peele is working on his directorial debut film, Get Out.

‘Get Out’ is inspired by the feminist horror film ‘The Stepford Wives’ and the ground breaking race relations film ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ Get Out is about a young white woman bringing her black boyfriend home for the weekend to meet her parents. Peele wanted a black composer, someone who would understand the feelings being conveyed. So Jordan Peele turned to Youtube, and there he found Michael Abels composition “Urban Legends” and got in touch.

“I got a call and a voicemail from the post production supervisor at Blumhouse. It started with “Hey Michael, you’re probably not expecting this call…Have you heard of Jordan Peele? So Jordan Peele is directing his first film for us and its a horror movie – He would like to talk to you about scoring for the film and would you like us to send you the script?”
I got sent the future Oscar winning script – and it was just as good on paper as it was on film”  –
Michael Abels
– The Podcast: Michael Abels went from a K-12 classroom to Hollywood

Get Out had such a clear horror concept, and when Michael Abels and Jordan Peele met for the first time, they discussed what creates fear in sound. From the concept of a city boy being scared of the country – something that farm grown Abels didn’t realise – to the sounds of slavery, it was determined the genre of the soundtrack would be something along the lines of “Gospel Horror”

This deep dive into the symbolism of the story and the perspective and emotional states of the main character is part of what makes Michael Abels a masterful composer. Michael Abels is a master of known in musical circles as  ‘affect’.

What is Affect?

Affect is the word for how music can make you feel emotions both consciously and unconsciously, liminal and subliminal.

Those goosebumps you get when you listen to an amazing song, that song you cannot help but always cry to? That’s affect in action.

Music and its ability to affect us as human beings is actually a controversial topic in the intellectual circles surrounding music theory.

The controversy seems to be along the lines of – we might call a song sad, but the song itself is not a sentient being – so how does it have a feeling? How can we be changed in our mood by collection of sounds when those sounds don’t have a mood? It boils down to trying to understand just exactly how does music function in order to impact our emotions?

Whatever the case may be regarding the understanding of affect in music, one thing is for sure – Michael Abels has it figured out already.

Elements of Get Out Theme

Ghost Sounds

Peele wanted the music to have the voices of slaves warning the lead character Chris to Get Out. He advised Abels that ghosts speak to us in shadow and dreams and metaphor.

Sang in Swahili

Swahili is a musical language. The translation is “listen to the ancestors” “run” “run far away” “protect yourself”

Blues Wail

Abels said he inserted a blues wail to represent an African American ghost wailing.

Elements of Us music for trailer

Whereas Get Out had a secret supernatural Swahili message warning the lead character of the danger he is in, Us is more about self reflection and understanding of the current situation and how we got here. Us is about the dichotomy between the self and the other, shown via a family that is terrorised by their doppelgangers.

For this film, Abels wanted to create a sense of duality and contrast. For the trailer Abels has sampled the 1995 hip-hop hit by Luniz ‘I Got 5 on it’, and mixed that into it a song by the classical composer Tchaikovsky.

Another element of the trailer music for Us is the bass line melody sampled from the Club Nouveau song ‘Why you treat me so bad’. Abels has changed the bass line from a predictable time signature to a more irregular time which creates the sense of unease. By changing the time to an irregular pattern, Abels creates sound that defies expectations and leaves the listener in a suspended state, wondering when the tension will be resolved.

For me personally, this creates a strong sense of affect, and I always – ALWAYS – get goosebumps. Check out the song below and see how you go with it.

Michael Abels is a supremely gifted composer, and we are lucky that Jordan Peele is as innovative as he is, looking to Youtube for talent that otherwise would be relegated to a more localised audience.

Michael Abels’ extensive musical knowledge, creativity, empathy and talent is now being shared to the world, and I for one am so grateful to hear it.

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