How the Haunting Score for 'Passing' was Made
Dev Hynes wears a dark shirt and furry dark hat. He has a mustache and hair to his shoulders.

The Score

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou and Devonté Hynes create the aural world of Passing.

Opening image by Ciesay
3 December 20214 min read

The haunting at the core of Passing is a slow, quiet one. In Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, an adaptation of the classic Nella Larsen novella of the same name, childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) are living worlds apart when they first encounter one another again: Irene has been residing in Harlem with her husband, Brian (André Holland), and their two sons, an uptown life that is rich in its ordinary Blackness. But Clare has taken a wildly different path, passing as a white woman by hiding her racial identity from everyone.

The initial meeting between the two women ends after a jarring moment: Clare’s husband (Alexander Skarsgård), an icy white man, affectionately calls her “Nig” as he waltzes in the room. The tension between Clare and Irene hangs in the air, and eventually, Irene politely exits the gilded twilight zone she’s entered. The next sound viewers hear is no less layered and loaded: Following her home to Harlem is a stunning, mournful piano composition by the musician Devonté Hynes, the British singer and songwriter many know as Blood Orange.

In working on the score for Passing, Hynes drew heavily from the music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian nun whose bluesy, jazz-inflected piano playing has earned her a cult following outside the Ethiopian Orthodox Church where she first found artistic inspiration. 

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou sits at a piano in a black and white nun habit.

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

Gali Tibbon

As Clare and Irene change one another, so too does the music of Passing build on, and add new depth to, Guèbrou’s prior compositions. “It is kind of incredible that the piece of music that’s written by this woman in Ethiopia a decade after the story was written fit so perfectly [with] a film adaptation made so many decades after that,” Hynes says. “To me that’s so beautiful and incredible.”

Hynes had been experimenting with the pianist’s music even before he was brought on to write the film’s score: Thompson, a friend of his, asked Hynes to give her music she could play between takes on set to stay in Irene’s heady, anguished internal world. Reading the novella as his friend filmed the adaptation, Hynes found himself blown away by the original story, a tale that captures the tumult of its era while somehow also being ahead of its time. Once he was officially brought on to score the film, Hynes’s goal, he says, was to create a subtle sonic experience that would accentuate the performances. 

There’s something magnetic about hearing Guèbrou’s timeless, otherworldly stylings as the viewer traverses the physical boundaries between Clare’s taut white bubble and the limber Black world that Irene and her family inhabit. Hynes’s compositions both convey and deepen Irene’s anxieties. The sparse accompaniment underscores the life-altering intensity of the women’s brushes with one another and ultimately charts their infatuation. 

Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson) walk past beautiful brownstones in this black-and-white shot.

Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson)

Hynes’s goal, he says, was to create a subtle emotional experience that accentuates the work of Hall and the actors, who were tasked with conveying inner turmoil onscreen. “When I write music, I’m usually writing about how we’re never just sad,” Hynes explains. “When we’re sad it’s usually because there is some anger, or maybe there’s jealousy, or maybe there’s a longing. [Sadness] is kind of the umbrella emotion, and there’s so much more underneath it. What I relate to and what I really love about this story is that beyond Irene, every character is going through a million emotions.”

In the Passing score’s virtuous chords we hear Irene and Clare’s descent into near-obsession, but the music extends past the characters themselves. The sound carries the range of Hynes’s inspirations: artists like Guèbrou, of course, and Nina Simone’s singular artistry, as well as counterpoint, a musical technique that sets divergent but harmonically interdependent melodic lines against one another, forming something greater than the sum of its parts. “The duality and the split of these two melodies that are blaring up in different ways so relates to the film.” To Hynes, counterpoint parallels the relationship between Clare and Irene: conflicting but not discordant. 

Hynes hopes that Passing’s impact will reverberate among audiences. “I honestly think it will challenge people. I mean that word in its purest form, because I think some people look at it and think it’s a film about race,” he says. “And I think clearly it’s about so much more than that. You need things that you have to concentrate to look at, and watch and take in, and maybe have to watch multiple times.” Art that provokes, that changes, that asks questions of viewers and of itself, feels just as prescient now as it did when Larsen first published her story.