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'Get Out composer talks career, race and LGBT developments
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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In advance of its 2019-20 season, the Chicago Sinfonietta will perform a live concert screening of Jordan Peele's smash hit film Get Out—conducted by openly gay score composer Michael Abels—at the Auditorium Theatre.

Life has taken some twists and turns for Abels since he last talked with Windy City Times in 2009—including composing the Peele horror films Get Out and Us. He discussed his achievements, the LGBT community's achievements and what guests can expect at the Sept. 21 show.

Windy City Times: How did the collaboration with the sinfonietta come about?

Michael Abels: I've been collaborating with the sinfonietta for about two and a half decades. [The orchestral group first performed one of his pieces, Global Warming, in the early '90s.] When I decided to do this in concert, [this group] seemed like the logical presenter for that and, so, I wanted them to know about it right away. I reached out to them last year to let them know this [concert] was something I was working on; I thought the sinfonietta would be a great choice.

WCT: Regarding Get Out, is it true that you didn't believe it was Jordan Peels calling?

MA: Well, he didn't call me personally; he had the production company, Blumhouse, call me. But, yeah, lots of people in L.A. say they're producers and you don't necessarily believe that. [Laughs] So I consulted IMdB, but then I called a friend who see if the caller was legit—and it turned out that if I was being punk'd, someone had taken the time to make a very elaborate IMdB profile. [Laughs]

WCT: The last time we talked, we discussed the aspect of race and your exploration of your Black roots. [Abels, who is mixed-race, was raised by a white family in South Dakota, but explored his Black roots in L.A., including working with the legendary Rev. James Cleveland.] Was part of the reason for working on Get Out was to further connect with the African American aspect of your heritage?

MA: That's interesting. So I've spent a lot of my life recovering my Black identity—and that has happened amazingly and beautifully since I last talked with you, although it's happened in stages. It wasn't so much that I did Get Out for that reason; but I wanted to … represent. This was for me, as a Black person, wanting to reach out to the rest of the world.

In my first meeting with Jordan, he said two things to me. First, he said the music has to be scarier than shit. [Both laugh.] But he also said, "I want the African American voice, both literally and metaphorically, in this film." So we instantly starting talking about voices and he said, "The thing about African American music is that there's always this thread of hope that runs through it," and I thought, "What an insightful, brilliant comment to make." But then he said, "You have to drain all hope out of it." [Laughs] I then said, "I think you're talking about 'gospel horror,'" and he said, "Yeah!" So that was the catchphrase I took away from our conversation. I went home and wrote a couple demos for him; one of them—"Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga" [which means "Listen to the Ancestors" in Swahili]—became the main title track of the film.

Looking back on it, I received the future Oscar-winning script for Best Picture. It was so brilliant constructed. So that—combined with the fact that Jordan is smart, funny and nice—[compelled] me to work with him. I'm very honored to be a part of it.

vWCT: I thought Get Out was a great horror film and a brilliant social commentary.

MA: I still think it's the best social commentary about understanding race relations that I've ever seen. I just can't believe it.

WCT: Did the success of Get Out surprise you at all?

MA: Yes! Jordan said he didn't think it'd be released. Many things can happen from the script to a film opening, so I was just thrilled about the nature of this project. My only goal was just to complete the film and make a contribution. And while I didn't know if it would be successful, I knew it'd be very polarizing. So when it opened at number one at the box office and took off like a rocket, I was stunned. To see so many people respond to it and get all the layers to the film was beyond my wildest dreams.

WCT: Of course, that led to the collaboration on Us.

MA: Yes—and Jordan said he definitely did not want this to be Get Out 2. So it's a very different film; it was a huge, fun experience as well.

By the way, with [the 'Get Out' concert], we'll be doing the source music—which is music that wasn't used, for different reasons—so we do that creepy song "Run Rabbit Run" and the Childish Gambino song "Redbone." And the song "( I've Had ) The Time of My Life"—the song that's playing on [Alison Williams' character's] earbuds—we do that live. It's so much fun.

Also, there's a way in which you're not really supposed to be aware of the music; it taps into your subconscious. So when the music's live, you become aware of the contributions the music makes. And we encourage the audience to respond; if you want to talk back to the screen, it's encouraged. [Laughs]

WCT: Lastly, since the last time we've talked, a lot of things have happened regarding the LGBT community, such as same sex marriage and transgender rights/visibility. Has anything surprised you?

MA: Yeah, for sure. I was surprised and elated that we won our marriage equality rights; growing up, I never thought that would happen. I'm equally surprised by how severe the backlash has been and how much we, as a country, tend to backpedal. The progress we've made in the past 50 years has been pretty dramatic—but things can turn around even more quickly.

The Chicago Sinfonietta concert with guest composer Michael Abels will take place at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr., on Saturday, Sept. 21, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit .

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