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Building the score for 'Glass Onion'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The soundtrack to any good murder mystery must have some suspense.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "THEME FROM GLASS ONION")

CHANG: But what if the story is also funny and absurd and even a little tongue-in-cheek? Well, that was the task for composer Nathan Johnson, who wrote the score for the film "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery." Johnson sat down with Robin Hilton from NPR's All Songs Considered podcast to peel back the layers of the soundtrack, starting with the main theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "THEME FROM GLASS ONION")

ROBIN HILTON, BYLINE: When I listen to this main theme from "Glass Onion," I can tell you are trying to thread so many different needles all at the same time. Tell me how you navigated that - you know, because so many filmmakers will tell their composers, you know, it's got to be really fast, but slow, you know?

NATHAN JOHNSON: Yeah.

HILTON: And it's got to be really funny, but, you know, horrifying, and whimsical, but crushingly sad - and, you know, how you get to all those different things in this film - in this one piece.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, it's funny. I think the main theme actually took me the longest to crack. So I was in Greece, working, just kind of - at that point, it's just starting with almost, like, theme explorations. And the main theme was the one that I was trying to crack. And it kind of took me a while because - I think exactly because of what you're saying. It sort of needs to hint at all the different things that are to come.

And I guess I thought about it as an overture a little bit in a way, you know? It kind of wants to do that thing where it invites us all on a fun journey with this very melodic statement, but also very much sets the stage for the mystery that's going to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "THEME FROM GLASS ONION")

JOHNSON: You know, the thing that I've come to realize is, obviously, I mean, these are fun movies, and they're mysteries, but it's very much about tapping into the protagonist. How did we make sure we're connecting with Janelle Monae's character?

HILTON: Andi is the character that she plays.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

HILTON: I want to play a bit of her theme. It's just called "Andi's Theme." It's one of my favorite pieces, and it recurs maybe the most often as a motif throughout the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "ANDI'S THEME")

JOHNSON: You know, we think about these movies as - obviously, they're mysteries. And with this one, we really wanted it to be fun. But I think the thing that I realized is, if we don't care about Andi as our main character, the whole movie falls apart. So for her theme, it was - you know, and I think very much based off Janelle's portrayal of this character - it's so layered. And, you know, she starts the movie as a total outsider and a mystery. By the end of the movie, she's very clearly our protagonist.

So for her theme, it was something that needed to be able to kind of keep morphing and to not be too prescriptive. You know, there wanted to be levels of ominous in there, but also beauty. And it needed to be vulnerable, yet powerful at the same time. So it was something - I knew, with her theme, we needed something that could kind of keep being reinterpreted as we keep learning new things about her character through the whole movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "ANDI'S THEME")

HILTON: Let's hear another cut from the record that stood out to me. This one is called "Lights Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "LIGHTS OUT")

HILTON: One of the things I like about this one is that there are moments where I'm not entirely sure what I'm hearing. I don't know if it's maybe just some unusual percussion techniques, or...

JOHNSON: Yeah. So with "Lights Out," you know, this was kind of this part of the score where we dip into more of that ambient world. So these are - a lot of the percussion is happening on the string instruments. One of the sounds is a very amplified rubber ball dragging across the head of a drum. There's also these spider-like sounds, which is all the string players tapping the wooden parts of their bows on the strings col legno, but not together. So we're having them do these kind of cascading runs that are very purposefully not in line with each other. And that's a really fun thing when you get to sit down with the players and say, show me what you can do with your instrument that might surprise me.

HILTON: Right.

JOHNSON: So there's a lot of overblown winds in there. And it's - yeah, it's just kind of amazing what you can pull out of an orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "LIGHTS OUT")

HILTON: There are these very intricate puzzles that play an important role in the story that kind of set everything in motion. Let's hear the song that you did for that called "The Puzzle Box."

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "THE PUZZLE BOX")

JOHNSON: With "Puzzle Box" particularly, I think this really shows the amazing recording engineers that I get to work with, Pete Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley, who are just legends. And part of that is you feel like you can hear every player in every section. And it's very much not a wall of sound. It's all these interlocking parts. And when I was talking with Pete and Kirsty about this, they were saying, it's almost like I'm approaching this like the quartet but for the orchestra. So it's very much popcorn elements and interlocking lines from the different sections.

So yeah, I just feel so fortunate to get to work with Pete and Kirsty because they're changing their whole approach to how they record an orchestra when we work together so that we really get all of that definition...

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "THE PUZZLE BOX")

JOHNSON: ...Hearing the breathing in the winds, hearing the scratch in the strings and really dancing in a human way with the performances. And that is something that I've just always grown up loving in music. You know, my favorite singers have voices that wouldn't be considered perfect voices. But to me, I think that's, like, the humanity that we grab onto. And I love trying to evoke that with an orchestra because you have amazing, adept players, but it just feels very rewarding for me to not gloss it out, but to really leave all of those little imperfections for our ears to grab onto in the performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "THE PUZZLE BOX")

CHANG: That was composer Nathan Johnson talking to Robin Hilton from NPR's All Songs Considered podcast about the soundtrack for the film "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery."

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN JOHNSON'S "TIME TO FINISH THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Hilton is a producer and co-host of the popular NPR Music show All Songs Considered.