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Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'

Desert Dancer 12 Dec 13 - 10:54 AM
Ernest 12 Dec 13 - 11:08 AM
Gibb Sahib 12 Dec 13 - 11:34 AM
Desert Dancer 12 Dec 13 - 12:56 PM
Desert Dancer 12 Dec 13 - 12:56 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 12 Dec 13 - 01:49 PM
Dave Ruch 13 Dec 13 - 03:32 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 13 Dec 13 - 04:29 PM
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Subject: Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 12 Dec 13 - 10:54 AM

'12 Years a Slave' Composer Reveals the Challenges of Re-Creating Authentic Slave Songs

by Alexa Girkout
The Hollywood Reporter
12/9/2013

"The process was starting with that question: 'What would Solomon Northup have been playing?' " says Nicholas Britell, who tells THR how he had to glean what scarce information he could find since such songs were never recorded.

12 Years a Slave is a film rich in music. Its protagonist is a violinist forced into slavery, and he and his fellow slaves sing spiritual songs to make it through their arduous work in the fields.

Such songs were never recorded, so it became composer Nicholas Britell's job to use the scarce information he could find to re-create authentic music to guide the characters in the film.

Britell studied at Harvard University and grew up playing classical piano. He has written in a variety of genres, including jazz, film musical, hip-hop, spiritual and gospel tradition, but his experience couldn't have prepared him for the challenge of writing the authentic violin pieces and spiritual songs for the film.

Britell was charged with re-creating what the fiddle would have sounded like in the 1840s, at least 60 or 70 years before it was first recorded. This sent him to the library, where he pored over primary texts and the memoir of the enslaved violinist on which 12 Years a Slave is based.

"The process was starting with that question: 'What would Solomon Northup have been playing?' " Britell tells The Hollywood Reporter. "What would an African-American violinist have played in New York in 1841? Very specific questions to start with."

For each scene, Britell picked traditional fiddle tunes to rearrange or determined that he would write new music made to sound like it was from that era. He learned that a violinist from that time would have held the instrument lower slung on his shoulder and tuned it differently than he originally thought.

"There were many things that went into it to really capture the essence of what we imagine the sound would have been," Britell says. "Ultimately, we'll never really know but that was our best effort to imagine that sound."

Once he determined the musical composition, Britell had to come up with the lyrics for the spiritual songs that the slaves sang as they worked. Spirituals from the 1840s weren't documented during that time, and slave songs only began to be notated during the Civil War.

"This isn't music sung in the church; there's no piano to accompany people," Britell says. "This is music actually done to get through the day that's used to coordinate your movements while you're performing a physical activity."

In the opening scene of the film, a group of slaves learn to chop sugarcanes. Britell says it was important to match the flow and movement of the opening scene with his music.

"I felt such a huge responsibility," Britell says. "Not only did I have to imagine the lyrics and the music properly, but the rhythm literally had to be matched to the activity."

In writing the lyrics for "My Lord, Sunshine," Britell imagined the influences that would help slaves get through their work in the fields. He says the lyrics came from two omnipresent elements: the biblical influences that would have been passed on to the slaves through their owners, and the sun.

"It was the same approach for all that music," Britell says. "That really was an homage to the whole spiritual tradition to represent the moment when Solomon had essentially begun to resign himself to his fate."

Britell rearranged or wrote the spiritual songs and the fiddle pieces that Northup plays through the film. "My Lord Sunshine" is being submitted for Oscar consideration.

"Roll Jordan Roll," on the other hand, is a piece that Britell rearranged to fit the film.

"It is such a famous lyric and concept, so I started with that and wove together many different sources and musical elements into that new version for the scene," Britell says. "It was very important to create a world that was very unique."

Britell wrote the songs "My Lord, Sunshine," "Cotton Song," "Yarney's Waltz," "The Old Promenade," "O Teach Me Lord" and "Roll Jordan Roll." He arranged another four songs.

The composer says the experience of writing for the film was both wonderful and challenging, but that it was an honor to be a part of reimagining the music of the 1800s.

Says Brittell: "This is certainly the most challenging project to get right that I've ever been a part of and that I felt the most true sense of responsibility to really imagine it and re-create it and reconceive it as best as possible."
--

I haven't seen the movie yet. Any reviews of the soundtrack from those who have?

~ Becky in Long Beach


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Subject: RE: Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'
From: Ernest
Date: 12 Dec 13 - 11:08 AM

Just saw the trailer when I been to the movies last time, but didn`t remember anything special about the music.

The article itself is a bit contradictory about "Roll Jordan Roll" - either it is written by Mr. Britell or just arranged.

Since many old english ballads survived in the rural south I`d imagine that the spirituals being collected by earlier musicologists would have been around for some time before the civil war. Maybe Mr. Britell found a way to get his original music into the movie by claiming spirituals recordd were different from earlier ones?


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Subject: RE: Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 12 Dec 13 - 11:34 AM

I've seen the film, thought it was good overall, but some aspects were heavy-handed. Inevitably, at times the filmmakers let their present perspective affect the way they portrayed the past.

One moment I thought was weak was when they had a White overseer taunting slaves with the song "Run, N*****, Run." It was my distinct impression that, while I believe this was a song often sung by Black slaves among themselves as a form of encouragement or warning, the filmmakers thought it was a song sung by vicious and racists White people to terrorize slaves. I think the filmmakers became aware of the existence of the song and decided to include it because they *thought* it would enhance the callous persona of the overseers. They no doubt modeled it from the "hillbilly" recording by the Skillet Lickers, and perhaps envisioned a vibe of redneck racists entertaining themselves singing racial slurs. Knowing better about the song, the seen fell flat for me.

Northup's book contains some indication of songs, including a sort of patting juba scene (if I remember correctly) with what seems to be the antecedent to the chanty "Hog-eye Man." This music was overlooked, instead creating a subtle impression that the music of Black people was all spiritual kind of stuff.


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Subject: RE: Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 12 Dec 13 - 12:56 PM

Yeah, I wondered about that Gibb Sahib.

~ B in LB


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Subject: RE: Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 12 Dec 13 - 12:56 PM

Yeah, I wondered about that, Gibb Sahib.

~ B in LB


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Subject: RE: Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 12 Dec 13 - 01:49 PM

Agreed, Gibb.

Overseers, responsible to the plantation owner, treated the field slaves in such a way that their work would yield satisfactory results. Order and discipline was required, but callous treatment of expensive labor would yield inferior results.
Recalcitrant slaves were punished, often severely, and sold off to itinerant traders who sold them into the worst kinds of labor.

Slavery is a terrible part of our history, but those portraying those times often twist events and practices to add "punch" to their productions.

Seldom does one see the cycle of plantation farming- it looks like cotton picking was year-round; tilling, seeding, care during plant growth and other aspects of the cotton cycle are ignored, Corn, sugar, rice, feed crops, etc. also were important in different parts of the south.


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Subject: RE: Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'
From: Dave Ruch
Date: 13 Dec 13 - 03:32 PM

It's too bad Nicholas Britell didn't poke around NY history and folklore circles a little bit - he would have been pleasantly surprised to find some (though not nearly enough) documentation of early black fiddle playing. William Sidney Mount, the Long Island painter, fiddler, and fiddle tune collector, notated many tunes he'd learned locally from black fiddlers in the early-mid 19th century, including from one Anthony Hannibal Clapp, or "Black Tony" as he was known. Alva Belcher was an African American fiddler who was called for "far and wide" (Delaware County over to Kingston NY) in the 19th-century, according to his obituary. There were The Billy Brothers in Central NY, Jack Lawyer and Jack Zielie of Schoharie County, and on and on. Lawrence "Larry" Older played a tune called "Juba 'Round the Kettle of Fat" that he'd learned from an older fiddler in the area - perhaps a "white" creation, but perhaps not. It's fun to play some of the music these fiddlers played, though we have no idea what it really sounded like in their hands. It seems that by the age of ethnographic and folkloric field recordings (1930s-present), there weren't many black country fiddlers still plying their trade, OR, the collectors weren't as interested in them.


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Subject: RE: Music for the movie '12 Years A Slave'
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 13 Dec 13 - 04:29 PM

Black fiddle players were known in North America from the 17th C. on.
Pere Labat wrote (1694)- some slaves played the violin well.
"In Virginia as well, slaves were valued for their fiddling prowess by the 1690's." Pp. 80-81, and many other references.

See Dena J. Epstein, 1977, "Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, Black Folk Music to the Civil War," University of Illinois Press


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