As the film 12 Years a Slave opens, we see a group of slaves chopping sugar cane and toiling away in the field, and we hear perfectly synchronized to their chopping, their chorus...
When I was young
I saw the sun
Too hot for me
Too late for me
Live or die
Lay down and cry
My Lord Sunrise ...
That first stanza of the original song "My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)", played against such imagery, sets the tone for the film and is written by songwriter Nicholas Britell for director Steve McQueen's gripping cinematic recounting of the memoir of Solomon Northup, who as a free New York state black violinist was abducted and sold into slavery. Britell was the obvious choice for McQueen to compose and arrange such spiritual work songs like "My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)" based on the songwriter's background as a musical prodigy and renowned pianist, who as a high school student graduated from Julliard's Pre-College music program then went on to graduate Phi Betta Kappa from Harvard University.
In composing and arranging such spiritual work songs like "My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)" and "Roll Jordan Roll" as well as composing and arranging traditional fiddle tunes such as "Devil's Dream," "Yarney's Walt" and "Money Musk," Britell painstakingly researched this lost form of music, which was never recorded and in many cases never written out, in an effort to bring the most accurate musical representation to this landmark story.
Even the earliest written descriptions of the spirituals mention how difficult it was to notate the actual sound of the slaves' spiritual songs. Since standard musical notation from the later 1800s did not adequately capture the true sound and feeling of the slaves' songs, Britell needed to conceive of the sound that those songs might have had in the fields. The composer immersed himself in old texts from the 1800s and researched the performance practices of early America. "There are some fiddle tune recordings from the early 1900s, but imagine how different music was 60 years prior and in the places where the culture existed," says Britell about unearthing descriptions of early spirituals.
The spirituals and field songs such as "My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)", an original song which Britell wrote for 12 Years a Slave, are "influenced by the Bible and sacred texts along with elements of the struggles of the difficult work conditions of the slaves' lives. "In many cases, spirituals might have lyrics which were code for the Underground Railroad, so they had many multilayered meanings," explains the composer. Certain spirituals also served as work songs, where slaves sang to the rhythm by which they moved in the field, led by a call verse from the song leader and then a follow verse by the others who sang along in a group. "There were scenes where they were cutting cane in the film, so musically the song's driving rhythms had to match the actual swinging of the cane chopping," adds Britell.
The film also features many more spiritual songs by Britell including the songs "O Teach Me Lord" and "Roll Jordan Roll." In "Roll Jordan Roll", Britell crafted an homage to the spiritual tradition which weaves together traditional sources and the spiritual song "John" by John Davis. Britell carefully arranged the parts for this song to feel true to the atmosphere of the 1840s and created a powerful work which features prominently in the climax of the film. In addition to the spiritual songs, Britell wrote and arranged the violin pieces played by Northup, including the onscreen dance music and waltzes. Northup mentions "Virginia reels" in his book and Britell researched the types of music that might have been played by a violinist in the 1840s.
In a short time Britell has relished a successful music career as both a performer and a composer, and throughout various mediums. His scoring credits include Adam Leon's film Gimme the Loot, which won the 2012 Grand Jury Prize at SXSW and was also an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival that year. Britell has also composed music for the film New York, I Love You, written music featured in Natalie Portman's debut directorial short film Eve, the PBS documentary Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? and Saro Varjabedian's film After Water There Is Sand, for which he and Saro were awarded the ASCAP/Doodle Award for Collaborative Achievement. Together with Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Britell co-founded The Amoveo Company, a multimedia production company and artists' collective, Britell also composed the music for Millepied's dance film Bacchanale. In addition to being a recipient of the Henry Mancini Fellowship from the ASCAP Foundation in December 2012, Britell was the keyboardist for the hip-hop ensemble The Witness Protection Program (WPP), which opened for such groups as Blackalicious and Jurassic 5 in the early 2000s. Britell has been performing for audiences since the age of 10 and has played piano at such venues as Steinway Hall, the Palace Theater and the Aspen Music Festival. Nicholas Britell is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University where he earned a degree in Psychology with honors and is a piano performance graduate of the Juilliard School's Pre-College Division.