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Being trapped in a closed room for three hours with your worst fears is a staple of horror movies. It also sums up Lansing-born violinist Melissa White’s experience playing solo violin on the soundtrack of Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed horror movie “Us.”
She had to sight-read much of the music while eyeing the movie on a monitor and racing the studio clock, all at once.
“I was nervous,” she said. “At a performance, I prepare and I know what all the notes are going to be. Here, I show up, and I don’t know all of the notes yet.”
White grew up in Lansing and went to Gardner Elementary and Everett High School until she left to study at Interlochen at 16. She’s now a mainstay of the globe-spanning Harlem Quartet, but she often returns to Lansing to visit her family, and was a featured soloist with the Lansing Symphony in March 2011 (to play Mendelssohn) and October of last year (to play Chausson and Saïnt-Saens).
She is also a big movie fan. One of her first jobs was usher at Celebration Cinema.
“Us” composer Michael Abels called White last October and told her he was working on something “really fun,” but couldn’t offer many details.
Abels’ first soundtrack was an essay in “gospel horror” for Peele’s 2017 zeitgeist-stabbing horror film “Get Out.” In October 2017, Steven Spielberg called Peele and urged him to use Abels again for “Us.”
“It’s like me and John Williams,” Spielberg told Peele, according to NPR. “You’ve got to use him again.”
White helped bring Abels and Peele together in the first place. Disappointed at the lack of African-American composers in Hollywood, Peele resorted to searching YouTube for his “Get Out” composer. He found a clip of the Harlem Quartet playing Abels’ thrumming piece for string quartet and orchestra, “Urban Legends,” featuring White’s vivid, slashing violin. Peele invited Abels to coffee and a partnership was born.
For “Us,” Peele wanted to sharpen the drama and asked Abels to find a good violin soloist.
Abels admired White’s playing on his intricate, blue-grassy 2006 piece “Delights and Dances,” performed many times and recorded by the Harlem String Quartet.
They scheduled a January studio session in Hollywood, where they set White up in an acoustic chamber, in front of a cluster of microphones flanking a flat screen TV.
As scenes flashed on the monitor, Abels would ask things like, “Can it be a little more haunted, and can you make the high note a bit more shrill?”
To get the effect he wanted in one scene, Abels told White to imagine walking on a beach and suddenly being jolted an electric shock.
“I was like, OK, let’s see if I can do that, with these notes that I learned 10 minutes ago,” White said.
For a scene where the mother, played by Lupita Nyong’o, picks up a picture in her son’s bedroom, White played an escalating line that ended in a high note.
With no dialogue in the scene, it was up to Nyong'o's acting and White’s violin to express what’s going through the character’s head as she slowly comes to a horrifying conclusion.
White had to draw on some new resources to deliver what Abels wanted.
“I had to turn off the idea that I should make the most beautiful, musical sound,” she said. “It was about embracing character.”
It took a lot of takes to get the timing and emphasis right. Studio time pressure was also a factor. White had three hours to finish.
Despite the stress, she would happily do it again. The chills and thrills are just too much fun, not to mention the high of reaching vast numbers of listeners around the world.
Right up until release date, Abels warned White that her violin could end up on the cutting room floor if Peele decided to take the music in a different direction.
When the first cut was done, Abels texted White: “You’re in the movie.” She was elated.
There was just one problem.
“After the scenes I got to watch while putting the music with it, even I was worried I was going to be too scared to watch my own movie,” she said. “Yeah, I call it ‘my movie,’” she added sheepishly.
Of course, she went.
“I kind of forced myself.”
With her sister in tow, she went to a theater on the Upper West Side, joined by a boisterous, communal audience that took the edge off the horror.
“We were rooting for the family, calling out where they should watch it, laughing out loud,” she said. “It was kind of a cozy way to way to enjoy a thriller, but I had to close my eyes and jumped many times.”
She nudged her sister hard every time her violin was heard on the soundtrack, and even harder when her name appeared in the end credits as one of two “featured violinists.”
“I didn’t know my name would be that prominent,” she said. “It’s on a line of its own. I took a screen shot."