There is a moment at the beginning of Luca Guadagnino’s new HBO series, “We Are Who We Are,” when one of the main characters, Caitlin, stands poised atop a tower on an American army base in Italy, deciding whether to jump. Her friends have commandeered the training zip line attached to the tower, and, trussed like turkeys, they’ve already made the leap.
As Caitlin approaches the ledge, the surrounding sounds fade away, and a scintillating piano progression emerges from the quiet. There’s something hovering beneath the surface in that moment — a buildup of potential energy, like a rubber band pulled taut.
The melody magnifies this tension, and suddenly, the music intensifies. A heavier synth sound rises and crests: Caitlin steps forward and disappears into the darkness.
The musician behind Guadagnino’s evocative score is the composer Devonté Hynes, perhaps best known by his most recent alias, Blood Orange, a genre-defying solo musical project that fuses R&B beats with gauzy synth overlays.
When Guadagnino first contacted Hynes, however, it wasn’t about the score: He had decided he wanted to write a Blood Orange concert into the show. Hynes was already a fan of the Italian director’s work (he had seen “I Am Love,” from 2010, twice in one week, and he was similarly smitten by “Call Me by Your Name”), so he quickly greed and traveled to Bologna, where he and Guadagnino spent a week filming and discussing music.
By that point, Guadagnino had already planned out an entire soundtrack. But after watching the show in its entirety, Guadagnino realized that there were some scenes without music — like the one at the tower — that needed more, he said in a Zoom interview last month. He asked Hynes if he would create “a sort of organic addendum” to the soundtrack.
“Dev was the only composer I wanted to create music for the show,” Guadagnino said. “I liked the ‘eclec-ticity’ of Dev. I feel seen by him. It’s not normal or immediate that people are eager to see the other, but I feel that he has that quality.”
On a sweltering day last month in Washington Square Park, in Manhattan, Hynes told me that he was inspired by artists who could “freeze moments and explore all of the corners of a situation.” Hynes excels at composing songs that hold the listener suspended in time, a quality that makes his music a fitting companion to a show exploring youth in all its bittersweet transience.
When we met, I told Hynes that “We Are Who We Are” had made me feel nostalgic for the period of adolescence when you burn so hot and so bright. “Emotions are hyper realized when you’re younger; it’s like life or death,” he remarked. “You’re devastated and then you’re exhilarated. Heightening those emotions is something I wanted to play with.”
Over the course of several hours, Hynes spoke about his collaboration with Guadagnino, his unusual scoring process, and his cameo on the show. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did Luca first approach you about this project? Were you familiar with his work before he pulled you in?
I was a huge, huge fan. And I don’t know if this is a spoiler or not, but … I’m in the last episode, playing myself as Blood Orange. Back in 2016, in real life, I played a live show in Bologna, and Luca essentially wrote that into the series. So at the end of last year, I went to Bologna and did a fake concert, which they filmed.
And how did you go from performing to writing the score?
I was in Italy for quite a while, about a week, and Luca and I got to talking about music and composers we like. I’m a big fan of [the composer] John Adams, and Luca uses so much classical music in his movies, whether it’s the Verdi pieces in “The Biggest Splash” or the John Adams pieces in “I Am Love.”
At one point, Luca very naturally said, “Do you want to try writing some music, kind of in the vein of what we’ve been talking about?” And from there it just happened. I went back to New York and started composing.
Sounds very organic.
Yeah, it was very natural. Luca is so animated and reacts to the scenes in such a visceral way. Rather than, “At zero, zero point two …,” he would say, “At some point around here, Fraser starts feeling this emotion.” And I would just go with it.
It was really refreshing for me, because I can write to cues, but this visceral process is closer to how I like to work. Sometimes scoring work can feel very technical. It’s kind of like building the frame of a sculpture. But there was so much freedom with this project. Luca uses such long passages with music, so I felt like I had more room to explore themes in my music.
How do you go about scoring a scene?
I start by watching the scene, and as I watch it, I usually know the landscape I want the score to exist in.
What do you mean by landscape?
There’s a certain world — or worlds, I should say — that I’m always trying to get to in my music. It’s hard to explain. It’s a musical place that essentially mixes the things I grew up with, like classical music and popular music.
Do you typically watch the scene as you compose the score?
I can make music in any capacity: watching films, even reading sometimes. I can just section off parts of my brain. I work in my head a lot, and once I have it, laying it down becomes purely physical. I’ll have the scene up in front of me, and then I usually start with piano and improvise while watching the scene. I tend to just lay it out in one go.
How many times do you watch the scene while you improvise?
Maybe, like … twice. I’ve always been like that. Even with tracking vocals, I just do it twice, because I often feel that if I do it a couple more times, then it’ll never end. I’ll start obsessing.
I usually have a place where I think the song should be, but then I’ll arrange some stuff around it — cello, synth, horns, additional piano — to give the directors more options. With this score, I stripped almost all of it away so it was back down to piano and some textures.
Were there any moments in the show that were particularly enjoyable or difficult to score?
One piece that was really fun to write was the music accompanying a love scene. It’s based around a Schubert piece, but I did it completely on synthesizers.
I think parts of it don’t really sound like me, which is cool because a lot of my music sounds too much like me. I can’t really escape it.
When you were watching the show and composing simultaneously, did you feel free to play exactly what you wanted to hear in those moments?
With this show, that’s definitely what I was doing. It was a rare treat. Though honestly, nearly everything I make is selfishly for my own enjoyment. I’m always trying to put a feeling across without naming the feeling. I’m always trying to evoke something a bit more complex. I think the moments when we’re feeling purely one emotion are extremely rare; there are usually a lot of things happening, which is something I try to convey in my work.
The main character in “We Are Who We Are,” Fraser, is going through so much, and it could be easy for someone to strip him of his emotions or think that they aren’t justified. But everything he’s going through is so significant to him — it’s his entire world in that moment. So I just played to that.