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How ‘Succession’ composer Nicholas Britell captured the HBO series’ gravitas and absurdity

Brian Cox plays media mogul Logan Roy, pictured in the second season of "Succession." (Peter Kramer/HBO)
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The piano is remarkable for its ability to act as a chameleon, composer Nicholas Britell recently mused, noting that it can produce light, poetic sound as easily as it can transform into a more intense, powerful instrument. Tenderness can emanate one moment, passionate anger in the next. Such melodies are present throughout “Succession,” the HBO drama that last year marked Britell’s first foray into television score and that, more recently, earned the two-time Oscar nominee his first-ever Emmy nod.

Before recording the nominated main title theme, which returned Sunday night to households that hold fast to appointment television, Britell de-tuned the piano to “make it a little stranger.”

“You can draw any symbolism from that,” he joked, days before the Season 2 premiere. “But I actually prefer listening to music that isn’t perfectly in tune. When things are perfect, they lose a little bit of their humanness. What I love most about hearing musicians play music is that they’re real people with individual sounds and a set of emotions. When things are too perfect, you lose that.”

Britell layered the title theme’s piano melody over a hip-hop beat, abandoning the tinkering tune for roaring strings about 15 seconds into the 90-second track. The melody returns close to the end. The results are dissonant but radiate gravitas — fitting for a sometimes absurdist show centering on the dysfunctional family of an aging media mogul. The scheming Roys consistently snipe at one another, as do the piano keys, but all of that gives way to loud, sweeping drama from time to time.

The first season of “Succession,” for instance, concluded on a darker note — with the onetime heir apparent, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), who struggles with addiction, winding up in a Chappaquiddick-like incident on his sister’s wedding night. Kendall had planned to rebel against their manipulative father, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), to gain control of the company, but must now return to the family’s side with his tail between his legs after Logan gets his people to cover up the fatal accident.

Britell works to ensure his music feels “like it’s somehow woven into the fabric” of every project, he said. The second season of “Succession,” which picks up a couple days after Kendall’s accident, features foreboding strings in the very first scene.

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“I was actually talking to some of my colleagues, ‘What if I imagined the score for Season 2 as almost like a second movement of a symphony?’ We’re going somewhere else, but it’s completely connected at the same time,” Britell said. “I’m still exploring a lot of the same instrumental and tonal universe, but the music itself, I hope, feels like a next step in the story.”

The “Succession” score almost serves as a secondary character, adding weight to the narrative but bending to the Roys’ every whim. Logan, a snarky and intimidating force, felt as though he would prefer “this very dark, sort of quirky classical music,” Britell said, whereas it is established at various points that Kendall listens to hip-hop. In collaboration with creator Jesse Armstrong and executive producer Adam McKay, the composer also aimed to juxtapose the “seriousness” of wealth and power being so concentrated with the “crazy moments and absurdities of the story.”

Among the first pieces Britell played for Armstrong was an experimental “combination of weird bell sounds and out-of-tune pianos and these huge hip-hop beats that I was making.”

Armstrong “kind of does it all,” Britell continued. “The show has this very complex set of tones, there’s this darkness but there’s also this humor. The hope was that the music would capture both of those, and wouldn’t step on either one of them too much … I found that whenever something was funny, if I made the music even more serious, it helped the humor. That was an interesting artistic discovery.”

After attending the pre-college division of Juilliard, Britell studied psychology at Harvard — alongside Natalie Portman, with whom he’s worked since — where he wrote music for and toured with a hip-hop band called the Witness Protection Program. (“The WPP,” he said, laughing.) He spent hours making beats each day, cementing a love for the genre that, before “Succession,” manifested in the chopped-and-screwed elements of the score to Barry Jenkins’s best-picture winner “Moonlight,” for which Britell earned his first Oscar nomination. (Jenkins’s next film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” earned Britell his second.)

Before composing full-time, Britell traded currencies — an apt gig in hindsight, given how arithmetic music can be. He first collaborated with McKay on “The Big Short,” a 2015 film about the lead-up to the financial crisis that, while different in subject and tone, shares the calculating quality of “Succession.”

“Adam’s first question to me was, ‘What is the sound of dark math?’” Britell recalled. “I had this idea of layering all these pianos on top of each other, and seeing if there was a way to create something that occasionally would line up and feel very stable and in between those moments would feel very unstable, kind of a metaphor for the financial markets.”

Having established a relationship with McKay, Britell knew going into “Succession” what their process would be like. But the series posed a new artistic challenge for the composer, given how much more real estate there is in television. Britell had to stretch his vision of a score’s architecture — where to introduce certain ideas, where they might return, what emotions to trigger in viewers, what the show wants to say symbolically — to fit 10 hours of material, as opposed to the two-ish hours of a feature-length film.

“There’s always this question of, what is the music supposed to say? How is it supposed to feel?” he said. “I have this philosophy that there’s an infinite number of possible scores for something, and you end up finding one of them. You chart this path where, for you, it just feels right.”

It seems to feel right to most fans of the show, too, as the striking title theme has become a vital component of “Succession” discourse online. Lots of people have gone so far as to remix the track, according to Britell, who added that he has “seen a few people lay some rhymes on the beat as well.”

“It’s amazing, honestly,” he said. “The dream of any artist or any composer is to be able to share music in the first place — that’s the primary goal, I think. But the true hope is that people hear it, and it moves them, and they dig it.”

The soundtrack to the first season of “Succession” is now streaming online.