An American composer who has written works for concert orchestra, film, and theater, among other varied media, Michael Abels is most widely known for his suspenseful, often-jarring horror scores for director Jordan Peele.
Recognized in classical circles for merging elements of popular music into orchestral classical pieces such as Global Warming (1991) and Delights & Dances (2007), he made his big-screen debut with Peele's 2017 film Get Out.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, and raised in rural South Dakota, Abels began taking piano lessons at a young age. He went on to study piano at the University of Southern California, following it in 1985 and 1986 with enrollment at the California Institute for the Arts, where he studied West African music. His early piece Global Warning, a commission by the Phoenix Youth Symphony, was an orchestral work honoring international folk musics. After its premiere in 1991, it was later performed by such prestigious groups as the Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit Symphony Orchestras, just to name a few. Following the election of President Nelson Mandela, Global Warming was among the first works by an African-American composer to be performed by the National Symphony of South Africa. Some of Abels' other compositions from the '90s included American Variations on Swing Low Sweet Chariot (premiered in 1993 by Doc Severinsen and the Phoenix Symphony), Frederick's Fables (premiered in 1994 with narrators James Earl Jones and Garrison Keillor), and 1998's Dance for Martin's Dream, a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. A commission for the Los Angeles Opera, Abels' opera Homies & Popz debuted in 2000. It told the story of activist Ted Hayes, who successfully organized a cricket team for L.A.'s inner-city youth.
Abels responded to the September 11 attacks in 2001 with the chorale Tribute, which was the first piece to be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra following 9/11. Works including Urban Legends and Aquadia -- a co-commission by the Chicago Sinfonietta and Shedd Aquarium for an installation -- followed in the late 2000s.
Abels' first music for a film was the score to early 2017's Get Out, the directorial debut of actor/writer Jordan Peele. The soundtrack recording arrived on Back Lot Music (digital) and Waxwork (vinyl). That same year, the composer provided additional music for the crime drama Detroit, with main composer James Newton Howard. Abels rejoined Peele for the horror/thriller Us, released in theaters in 2019, with the score also issued via Back Lot and Waxwork. ~ Marcy Donelson, Rovi