For Nick Britell ’04, creativity comes when its least encouraged, and inspiration goes hand in hand with procrastination.
“You know those nights when it’s just awful—you have three papers you have to write, it’s three in the morning, you just took some No-Doz to stay up, you don’t know what to do, and you’re at a point where you have to write these papers? That’s exactly the moment when I start writing film music or putting together a beat.” He laughs. “If you’re going to procrastinate, you might as well focus your procrastination towards something productive. So I think for me, that’s one of the greatest assets—I get really cracked out, I get really on the verge of delirium and then all of a sudden you’re writing cool beats, and it all comes together…that’s definitely a Harvard thing.”
Britell has been composing and performing music since he was eight, when he began training as a classical pianist in his hometown of New York City. Later he attended Julliard pre-college, and took a year off after his freshman year at Harvard to decide whether classical piano was his calling—his quest took him from playing in cocktail lounges to studying at the Aspen Music Festival, and back to Cambridge.
When he returned, Britell joined The Witness Protection Program, an instrumental-hip-hop band. He spotted their potential in the backyard of the Fox his sophomore fall. “They needed a keyboardist,” he says. “When I started doing stuff with them I started basically composing a lot of hip-hop beats and just a lot of music in general. Composing was something I had done when I was a kid, just for fun, but I never really approached it from a serious vantage—that fall I sort of set up a studio in my apartment and I started recording a lot of beats... That was just total serendipity—just meeting your friends and realizing they were also interested in the kind of a band that you were also interested in.”
Britell’s penchant for burning the midnight oil resulted in his next project. “One night I was out drinking with some of my buddies and we got to talking,” he says over a mimosa at Daedalus. “These guys came over and they liked some of the beats I’d done, and they were interested in having me write some of the music for the film they were making.” He ended up writing the score for a film (now in post-production) made by Nick Lovell, Nick Kuhl, and Chris Garrison ’03. “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt I would have done any of this. I have so many interests that being here at Harvard actually allowed me to meet these people who are actually like-minded.
“One of the great things about Harvard,” Britell says, “is that you can live any way you want to while you go here. There are people who are going to get caught up in going to class everyday and all these things, and that’s great….” He continues, “But there’s also a way to live here which is, you know, you don’t have to go to class everyday, you go to class when you want to learn some stuff, but there are periods when your music is more important to you, you know?”
He says his academic work has sometimes supplemented his creative work.
“I have been able to take some great classes which have allowed me to self-reflect on a lot of these things.” Harvard’s environment readily provides the catalyst for his creation: He considers his muse to be “delirium, in any form.”
“For me it’s usually just exhaustion that turns out my best stuff,” he says. Luckily for him, his muse of choice is one of Harvard’s most abundant assets.