Setting out to score Harriet, composer Terence Blanchard was inspired and driven forward by the iconic subject of Kasi Lemmons’ drama—Harriet Tubman, the slave-turned-abolitionist who repeatedly risked her life to save hundreds of other men, women and children from the horrors of an inhuman institution.
Marking Blanchard’s fourth collaboration with Lemmons, Harriet called for a sweeping score capable of capturing the faith, courage and strength of this singular individual. “The thing about it for me, in terms of trying to create a sound for her, was trying to find a balance between that, and her compassion and dedication. It took me a minute to find where that was, and most of it just happened to be with dynamics, not having the brass overplay in certain areas, so it wouldn’t be deemed like any other action film,” the composer explains. “Because I think Harriet’s story is a very special one.”
To Lemmons and to Blanchard—as to so many others—Harriet Tubman was nothing short of a real-life superhero. The challenge, then, with the score was to capture the essence of this force of nature, along with all the melancholy, tragedy, beauty and hope she experienced along the path she paved.
Receiving his first Oscar nomination last year for his BlacKkKlansman score, Blanchard is currently back at work alongside Spike Lee, on his anticipated follow-up feature, Da 5 Bloods. Below, the composer discusses the process of crafting his Harriet score, his latest outing with Lee, as well as an opera he wrote with Lemmons, which will soon be produced by the New York Met.
DEADLINE: Your collaborative relationship with Kasi Lemmons goes back to the ’90s. How did you first start working with her? What have you enjoyed about this collaboration?
TERENCE BLANCHARD: I started working with Kasi on Eve’s Bayou—I think that was the first film—and as soon as we started working together, we just had an instant connection. She told me she loved opera; I didn’t know how significant that would be until later years.
But it’s been a great working relationship. Kasi’s very smart. She’s brilliant and she’s a visionary, you know? She always stretches the bounds of creativity with everything that she does. You know, we did a lot of great work, man. Talk to Me, I think, was a classic. I don’t think enough people have seen it, but I thought that was an amazing movie. And it’s great to see her get the attention that she deserves, basically, with this film—because this film shows her talents, man. She knows how to relate with the actors and actresses, she knows how to get her point across, and to get what she needs to help tell her story, and I think it shows on the screen.
DEADLINE: Why was Harriet a film you had to work on?
BLANCHARD: Well, it’s a project I had to work on because it’s Harriet Tubman, and also, it’s a project I had to work on given what’s going on in our country. It’s a long overdue story, obviously, but it’s one that’s timely right now. Because she was a heroine, and this is one of the few times where we’re seeing an action hero female that’s not fiction. This is a real person. So, I was attracted to the story because of that.
DEADLINE: Were there other aspects to your early conversations with Kasi, in terms of what you both felt was right, musically, for this film?
BLANCHARD: We knew we wanted orchestra. We knew we wanted that, because we wanted to have those big, sweeping moments—the walk to freedom, and her crossing the river. The rest of it was just a matter of whittling away at it. I didn’t go out and find historically correct instruments, or anything of that sort.
I looked at it as being a very universal story. I want everybody to relate to this. I think sometimes, it’s an interesting notion to see how people who are not connected to a certain story will react to it. My thinking was to try to reach out to everyone, because it’s a powerful story for everybody to experience. I think the inspiration that I can draw from Harriet’s story is the old saying—it’s a cliché, but man, it really applies—how it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. “Give me liberty or give me death.” Those are some powerful statements that she made.
The one that I love is, “I go to prepare a place for you.” That’s a woman who had a strong belief in her faith. The thing that’s really beautiful about her story, and the thing that I love about this film that a lot of people haven’t really picked up on, is that there’s no need to go through all of that slavery stuff, being beaten and all of that stuff. There’s no need for that. We’ve seen that enough. This movie is really about her strength of character, and the beautiful thing about it is that through all of her efforts to free all of those people, she still got a chance to live a full and fruitful life until she was 91 years old. That’s a beautiful thing.
DEADLINE: What were your first thoughts, as you sat down in pursuit of your main themes, and a suitable sonic palette for Harriet?
BLANCHARD: The thing about it is, I knew I wanted the melody to ascend at the beginning, because it’s supposed to be uplifting. Then, I wanted to try to find some harmony that had very powerful voicings, that showed strength. It took me a minute, because I tried some things and I kept going, “No, that sounds too masculine. That sounds too obnoxious. It’s not that. It has to be something else.” At first, I tried something in a minor key and I’m like, “No, that’s too dark. It needs to be uplifting. It needs to pick people’s spirits up, because that’s what this woman did.” Like I said, her story is not a tragic story, whatsoever.
DEADLINE: Did your work start at the piano?
BLANCHARD: That’s where I always start, sitting at a piano, trying to play through some melodies, some harmonies. And at some point—I forgot about this—there were some moments where I even tried to create some rhythmic palettes and stuff like that, that I didn’t use in the film, because I didn’t think they were appropriate. One of them, I was using my voice to create a rhythmic bit underneath, but then I didn’t dig it because it was a male voice. [Laughs] I’m like, “That’s not going to work.” I had to move away from that idea.
DEADLINE: Could you elaborate on the kinds of instruments present in your score?
BLANCHARD: It’s a full orchestra, combined with me playing African percussion on some of the chase scenes. I layered maybe six or seven different drum parts to create those loops. Then, we had Fabian Almazan, who is the pianist from the E-Collective. He normally does a thing where he would run his piano through some effects. For [Harriet’s] visions, Kasi said she didn’t want to have just sound design. She wanted to have something that was musical, and we brought Fabian in to do his thing with his effects. It’s subtle; we didn’t try to hit you over the head with it. But I thought it worked very effectively in the film.
DEADLINE: Fabian was responsible, then, for any elements that had an electronic feel?
BLANCHARD: Yeah, the piano on all of the visions. He’ll strike a note on the piano that will trigger some effects in his computer, so that’s what you’re hearing.
DEADLINE: What kinds of percussion did you turn to on this project?
BLANCHARD: I had two different-sized djembes, and then I had some other ethnic percussion. I had some doumbeks, and then some congas are in there—and then just some regular toms.
DEADLINE: Can you give an example of how you arranged certain instruments within your score, or utilized certain techniques, to achieve a specific emotional effect?
BLANCHARD: A lot of it is in the voicing, is the way you voice the harmony, because you can get full sounds from the brass and the strings. There were moments in time when I wanted things to be strong, have strength to them, but not overpower, so I would double the lower brass with the lower strings, bring in the French horns sometimes, to kind of create a haunting effect. The French horns have a distant sound to them, because that’s the way they were meant to be heard. Then, [I’d] bring in the trumpets for more of the dramatic stuff.
But it’s a combination of things, man. It’s knowing when to use upper strings to create more of a lush thing. Sometimes, with the same harmonic progression, you can use it with just lower strings, and it creates a lush feel—a lush, warm bed underneath. Then sometimes, you don’t need the lower strings. You just use the upper strings, but not having them placed so high, and they can have a musical presence, but not overpower dialogue. It’s a combination of things like that.
DEADLINE: How did you approach the task of underscoring tensions intermittent throughout the film, as Harriet Tubman makes her runs back and forth on the Underground Railroad?
BLANCHARD: Well, those moments man, that’s the film, you know? That’s the superhero part. A lot of what I did there was just general film scoring, but using those themes that we decided to use for her. When they’re on the run, there were moments where it just needed to have action music—not heavy action music, but music with motion—and that’s where the percussive stuff came in. We don’t really get into serious action stuff until later on in the film, when she has the shootout. But even with that, since there wasn’t a lot of that type of action music in the film, there’s no need to change it up at that point. You still want to carry the melodic themes, those areas. But for me, I just followed the performances. I thought they did a great job.
DEADLINE: Your score contains so many emotional colors, hitting on tragedy, melancholy—and ultimately, beauty and hope. It must have been difficult to balance all these elements, but you seemed to hit on a sweet spot that evokes them all.
BLANCHARD: It’s a matter of just sitting down with the film and going through it. Because you have all those things at your disposal, you know? Harmony, rhythm, sound, color, all of those things. And you just go through it. When you start to work on it, and you listen back to it, you go, “Eh, that doesn’t work.” I can’t remember the exact scene, but there were moments when I went in the opposite direction, when things were just a little too snappy. Like “No, that’s not Harriet.” That would be some of the conversations Kasi and I would have. “That’s not Harriet,” or “That’s Harriet.” That’s the way we spoke.
It’s hard for me to even put it into words. I just know it’s a balancing act between the orchestrations, and the articulations that you write for them, and the dynamics that you write for them. A trumpet can be haunting, but a trumpet can also be very aggressive. Same thing with the French horns. It’s literally a matter of being in the room and whittling away at it, piece by piece. The funny part about it is that you whittle away, you whittle away, you whittle away, and sometimes you can’t see it while you’re whittling. You just know it doesn’t feel right.
There’s a friend of mine that I’m getting ready to work with in the film business, and he always says, “Man, I’m not a director. I’ve just got a bullsh*t meter.” He says, “I know when it’s bullsh*t and I know when it feels right.” And that’s a similar thing. That’s kind of what I feel like.
DEADLINE: After receiving your first Oscar nomination for your work on Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, you’ve reteamed with the director on his upcoming feature, Da 5 Bloods. What can you tell us about that film, and your experience scoring it?
BLANCHARD: Spike is a visionary, man. He has a very unique cinematic style, and when you combine that with the great acting that we have, with Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters and Chadwick Boseman, it just makes for a very inspiring mix. Then, when Spike starts to edit his films, the way he tells stories, nobody does it like him. Nobody.
I’m always reminded of that when I see his films, you know? And this is another one. You know, people have been asking about it and I said, “Well, he did it again. He made another great movie.” I can’t wait for people to see this one, too.
DEADLINE: What can you share about other projects that are in the works?
BLANCHARD: Well, me and Kasi did an opera called Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which is about Charles Blow’s life as a kid. It just got picked up for the New York Met. They haven’t put it on the schedule yet, but they just announced that they’re going to produce it—and the thing that I didn’t know [is that] within their 136-year history, I’m the first African-American composer to have a work produced by the Met.
DEADLINE: How did that information hit you?
BLANCHARD: It’s a mixed bag of tricks. It’s a very powerful, overwhelming feeling. At the same time, you go, “Man, I know I am not the first person who was capable of having their work produced.” So, I’m standing on some very broad shoulders, man. Kasi wrote the libretto to the opera; she did an amazing job.