‘Black Panther’ composer discusses global influences, performs

On Tuesday night, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts hosted a conversation and concert by film composer Ludwig Göransson (right), who was joined for a finale by Donald Glover (left). (Photo from IMDb)

Guitars, pianos, microphones stands and African drums were scattered across the stage of Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night. As the lights dimmed, Grammy-nominated film composer and USC Thornton School of Music alumnus Ludwig Göransson took his place in one of two chairs.

Nothing about his appearance or demeanor indicated just how important of a year he just had. After spending years composing for shows and movies such as “Community,” “New Girl” and “Fruitvale Station,” he finally has received worldwide recognition for his original score in the blockbuster success “Black Panther” and for his work on Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover) Grammy-nominated album “Awaken my Love!”

Göransson said that he felt “enormous responsibility” when creating the score for “Black Panther.” To maintain authenticity, he embarked on a 16-hour flight followed by a 20-hour drive to a small village in Senegal to learn about local musical traditions firsthand, especially the drumming. He said it was there that he recorded many of the drums and vocal samples that would make their way into the film.

Göransson said the hardest part of creating the film score came later.

“Western music is focused on harmonies, whereas African music has a much heavier focus on rhythm,” he said.

Blending the modern hip-hop and other cinematic sounds while ensuring West African music was front and center proved to be an exciting challenge forthe composer.

“I’m so happy people all over can hear music they otherwise wouldn’t,”  Göransson said.

The rest of the evening was broken up by a series of live performances showcasing drum patterns and voices featured in the film. The music — drumming in particular — was sharp, commanding and entrancing. As each performer took the stage, Göransson would shift to the side of the stage, smiling and nodding his head, completely captivated.

He talked in detail about the different types of drums and the meaning of each rhythm he used in the film. Furthermore, Göransson discussed his use of themes and motifs when composing the music. He said the West African drumming pattern for royalty follows the protagonist T’Challa from the very first time that he appears on the screen to the very end of the film.

“It’s a theme he has to grow into,” Göransson said.

Göransson admits much of his music is melancholic. He places the blame, at least in part, on growing up in Sweden.

“It’s cold and dark all the time. There isn’t much to do but sit inside and make music,” he remarked.

Just as important as his musical prowess is Göransson’s knack for finding and cultivating lasting friendships and partnerships. Since meeting Ryan Coogler at USC, he has gone on to compose for all four of his films.

Donald Glover, whom he met on the set of “Community,” is another longtime friend and collaborator.  Göransson reminisced about the first time they met, which was also the first time he expirienced an earthquake.  

“I went over to [Glover’s] loft and we were at the top of this skyscraper, which are designed to sway when there’s an earthquake,” Göransson said.

Panicked once the earthquake began, both Göransson and Glover ran down 21 flights of stairs that night.

“Maybe that’s what bonded us,” Göransson said.

Since that day Göransson has worked on all of Gambino’s projects and is credited on every track of his latest album, “Awaken my Love!”

Almost as if it had been foreshadowed all along, Donald Glover walked out to a bright orchestral rendition of “Redbone,” sporting his now-iconic large beard, glasses and, similar to Göransson, a dark red velvet Adidas tracksuit. Glover took the microphone as Göransson moved to the side of the stage and grabbed his guitar. The orchestra continued, backed by a rhythm guitar and beautiful piano. Göransson looked giddily at the other instrumentalists as Glover delivered a live rendition of the song.

As the pair exited the stage, the audience jumped to their feet. Considering his multiple Grammy nominations, contributions to the highly anticipated Kanye release of “Yandhi” and many other exciting projects on the way, it seems that  standing ovations are something Göransson will have to quickly grow accustomed to.