French-born jazz harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet, a Washington, DC, local, talks about his role in shaping the eerie original score for Martin Scorsese’s 2023 film, Killers of the Flower Moon, about the Osage Indian murders from the 1910s to the 1930s.
What is it about the harmonica that draws you toward it?
There are two things. Even as you grow old, there’s still a little boy living in you. There’s something magical about the nature of the harmonica. It’s so small, it fits in your pocket. You can carry it anywhere; you can even play your instrument stuck in traffic. There is also the texture of the sounds that you can create with this instrument. You can sound like a trumpet, a violin, or a percussive instrument.
The harmonica I play is the diatonic harmonica. They come in every note you see on the piano, so naturally a diatonic harmonica player would have to carry at least 12, at least one in each key. Think of it as if I was a painter. I have different brushes in different sizes and textures. I can spread the colors, which would be the music in different ways, on the canvas.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, your harmonica becomes associated with evil and greed. Was this something you ever expected the sound of a harmonica can do?
Absolutely not. All my intentions with music are to make people feel good and make them forget about their issues. The first time I met [Martin] Scorsese, I did ask him, “What is it about my harmonica that makes you want to kill people?” We had a good laugh about it. He explained he was inspired by a French movie from the ‘50s called Touchez Pas au Grisbi where the harmonica is very prominent.
Without spoiling, do you have a favorite scene in Killers of the Flower Moon that best expresses the emotion of your score?
There is a moment where Lily Gladstone is learning the most gut-wrenching news, and you can literally hear my harmonica underlining every one of the emotions that is going through her face. Martin Scorsese confessed he edited that scene himself. It’s stunning.
When you were scoring it, did you know it was going to be used for this scene?
Both the film and the score are being shot and written at the same time. When Scorsese has both of those materials and gets in the editing room, that is basically where the magic happens, where the story writes itself, and where the music fits.
How do you see the harmonica evolving in film scores or even contemporary music moving forward?
The only challenge I have been facing is the preconceived idea that people have about the harmonica. Most people think of it as a pocket instrument as a toy, something you pick up at the toy store, or maybe at a gas station. But when you really spend some time with the instrument, and when you really listen and study it, you realize that there is so much more potential.
Feature image by Carla Sims, courtesy of Frédéric Yonnet
For more stories like this, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine’s News newsletter.