Composing for Theatre


First Thought – Best Thought
When I get a call to ask if I will contribute music to a theatre piece it is the most exciting thing. The anticipation of being immersed in the adventure presented by a script, or the chance to spend time with a company in rehearsal whilst a show is being devised is thrilling. It is like taking an unexpected visit to an unknown place, a fabulous journey twisting and turning through a new universe, a reality evolving through the interaction of all involved in the creative process. Then reality hits. Will I be inspired? Will I be able to compose something? How did I ever start to compose anything for any show before? A slight sense of panic begins.

The excitement and terror of a first day in rehearsal is not for the faint hearted and is something you learn to accept rather than get used to.

Getting Started
Different companies work in different ways and the composer will have to adapt to different methods. Stan’s Cafe work through a process of devising in which everyone involved in the show is invited to contribute to its developing ideas. I find this process more interesting and more personally creative than others; it means my complete involvement in the piece. When just being presented with a script to work on cold you can feel isolated.

By being involved in the devising of a piece it becomes easier to understand what the director and the devisers are trying to do. Through this process you can absorb their thoughts and ideas and bring some logic to your own feelings about the show. Be Proud Of Me, with it’s use of slide sequences to help illustrate an ill fated European journey, had my head going round and round and off on tangents with the possibilities of what was going on and what I could add with my soundtrack.

I had to decide; was I writing for a Psycho-Drama about a brother obsessed with his sister whose mission to kill ends in tragedy; was the mission real or delusional; or was the whole thing an allegory of something quite different? As a show developed it came to have so many layers and so many meanings for different people I came to think the most important aspect for me as composer was to try and find the overall feel and mood of the piece. This was the seed I started to work with.

How To Be Inspired
Although the soundtrack for Be Proud Of Me was written to reflect the action and the personalities of the characters I saw emerging in rehearsals, I wanted to contribute my own ideas of who these people were. This meant thinking about the gaps between the actions, what happens in the imagined times between scenes, what is out of sight? I had to fill in these gaps and make a whole for myself to work with.

For example, after considering the context of a conversation or other interaction between the characters in a scene I like to look around and beyond the confinement of the viewed action to try and gain a more acute sense of the time and place in which a scene is taking place. Picture a square in St Petersburg – the characters arrange a meeting – they are sat outside a pavement cafe. From the canopy above them a droplet of water falls silently to the ground. An unknown figure stands out of eye line in a shadowed corner as a child peers from a tinted window in a passing car. The buildings standing around the scene have stood for a hundred years. The speed of their own existence or experience so much slower than the human chaos around them – a microscopic crack opens up deep in the structure of one of these buildings…. These are the kind of thoughts I try to explore to start the germ of composition for a piece.

It is layers of these thoughts as well as direct responses to the script that help me build a score which adds to the atmosphere, meaning and logic of events on stage. Only when I feel I have an understanding of the piece that I can start to strike the first note, otherwise I feel I am just not there in its true reality and will not do it justice – letting myself down and all those around me.

Devising as Stan’s Cafe gives a true sense of being part of a team. This fuels me with encouragement and confidence. Everyone develops a sense of shared ownership over the piece and people give more of themselves as they have developed a relationship not only with the show but with all those involved in it.

If you do choose or are able to sit in on rehearsals – which is always a great aid – try and write down your thoughts and impressions. Whatever you can grasp from each day. These notes will be an invaluable reference when you are walking mile after mile through the show alone in your studio seeking inspiration.

The Power Of Repetition
Once you do begin to write the score you exist for days, weeks – maybe even months wandering in the landscape of the show. It becomes like an addictive dream that calls you to sleep again and again to find and experience some element you had not noticed before. To find an end to the story, a conclusion, all those unspoken thoughts and memories the characters have tried to conceal from you.

I strongly believe in the power of repetition to build and reflect the progress of a story and a character’s development. This can be effective in two ways, either by variations on a theme or by adding depth to a repeated phrase or melody. Be Proud of Me and its sense of constant movement – traveling not only physically over Europe but also through the complex mind of the show’s main protagonist – lent itself particularly well to the use of repetition.

I also find repetition is very useful for building up tension in a show. Again Be Proud of Me needed tension building right through to its tragic conclusion. Here repetition in the score reflects the protagonist’s growing sense of confusion, isolation and panic.

Ultimately I feel that the music or score should work almost as extra lines in the script, if not running as it’s own script side by side with the show. It should suggest unseen traits, possible future connections between the characters or serve as a reminder to the audience of passed links in the chain of events.

The soundtrack should help with the logic of a show. This is particularly important with the non-linear narrative in Be Proud Of Me where the music provides keys to the audience with reminders of past actions.

You can still write Larry’s or Laura’s theme but remember you should try and find the core of the character and the truth in an action’s time and place. In fact your music should be as much as possible the distillation of all the meaning of an event and not just with a sense of the moment but also of how everything relates to the past and future too.

A Show Versus Its Soundtrack
One great difficulty and vital element for composing any piece for theatre is that you should never allow your music to impose its own personality on the show. It is the job of the music to tease out and enhance the dialogue, action and fine details in a scene, not to overshadow them. It is a process of finding a balance where all the elements have their place and work together as a whole to bring the piece to life. Finding this balance is sometimes easy but usually it is a matter of working on a scene and refining until that correct balance is achieved.

Another essential lesson you soon learn when working in the theatre or film is not to be precious about your work. Almost inevitably the day will come when you have written what you consider to be your finest, most appropriate and perceptive piece of music for a particular scene. You have never felt so content with the universe until…… The next morning you arrive at rehearsals to find this scene and your music that went with it have been cut as no longer necessary or even relevant!

All this is almost an inevitable part of developing any show, you just have to get used to it. Come to terms with the cut and move on.

Each day in rehearsal takes you on a roller coaster ride of thrills, laughter, frustration, tea, coffee, tea, coffee, tea and sometimes tears. Often for me it can be sheer panic when I realise I have not got a clue what is going on. This is due either to limited brain-cell access, too much alcohol, or too much rubbish telly; more usually it is when a scene, with the director and performers in total creative sync, takes a quantum leap. As everything moves to a different level of awareness I am found to have been gazing out of a window, anticipating how beautiful that minor seventh change will sound as the lighting changes from harsh white to grey blue in what is now ‘the previous scene’.

My advice in this circumstance is not to panic, just make another cup of tea and tease out of everyone what is going on while you scoff the remainder of a second packet of Hobnobs.

How to contribute in rehearsals is a matter of balance, whether to make observations and suggestions directly or later. If you have a musical idea you think could work in a scene but is really really ‘out there’, I suggest that rather than discuss this out of context or in a rehearsal, work the piece up and then bring it back. Ask for the scene to be run whilst the music is played – everyone will then know if it works or has the possibility of working with the action. I recorded a song for the close of Be Proud Of Me which I introduced in this way. I think if I had asked in advance if writing a song would be a good idea the response would have been lukewarm at best. How and when to contribute through the developmental process is simply a matter of learning through experience, it does tend to be easier when working with a group you know and feel comfortable with.

If you really believe in a piece stick by it and never be afraid to argue its corner. Remember that, as with all the other elements in the show, the script, the performances, the lighting and set, your music should have an equal value and importance in the final production. This is much easier for the composer when working with a company who share this believe from the beginning, but sometimes you have to prove this fact through your composition and contribution to a show.

Go Out There!
Many shows I see utilise tried and tested Formula Music using expected musical motifs and idioms. Although you should remain aware of conventions when considering a setting for a piece, it is important to try and avoid resorting to cliché. Some companies will be more open to experimentation with a score than others. Again, it is a matter of experience and knowledge of a group’s work that will guide you when presenting your ideas or pieces.

Working with a group such a Stan’s Cafe is always a pleasure, because they work in experimental theatre they are more open to ideas and pushing barriers than some ‘safer’ companies. Stan’s Cafe give composers open brief and trust them to present their own ideas on a show. This has its advantages and disadvantages, it gives you endless scope but at the same time the ‘pressure’ can be on to create something new, different and exciting. When a brief is so open, using the core of what you feel the show is about and your understanding of the ‘mood’ of the piece will provide an invaluable grounding and basis for the working form.

Everyone will find their own working process and some will prefer a more contained, direct brief to work with. Each show will present it’s own challenge and each company’s way of working will set it’s own tests for the composer. Sometime the same company will work in different ways on different projects.

The first Stan’s Cafe show I worked on was Ocean Of Storms. In this case i was given the abstract idea for the show with no script, synopsis or physical action to respond to. I was told the show would require 70 minutes of continuous soundtrack and was told the company wanted to rehearse from early on with an initial mix of the music. In this case I took the original idea I had been given and imagined it further, relating it to my own identity and my own experience of the world. I resorted to my tried and trusted maxim: First Thought Best Thought (reckless some might say, but a powerful tood). I stood in the imagined universe of my single first idea. I felt it, invaded it, I flew about it, stood close and watched it from afar. I orbiting round and round it for two months all the time writing new elements from each further response. Eventually I ended up with 70 minutes and more of multi-track music and sound. From this I gave Stan’s Cafe three different mixes for the rehearsals. They then devised the show from within this musical environment. My music was within the show as well as around it.

Really Get Out There!
I always try to use deconstruction as the basis of my composing. For example, Suspension, was created for Be Proud Of Me, by writing an orchestrated piece of music which I then recorded in two versions each at a different pitch. I then ran both pieces simultaneously, extracted the consequent harmonics and this became the final piece.

This approach can either be an exhilarating experience or a disaster. Don’t be afraid of dispensing with the ‘rules’. Stand up from the comfy armchair and slippers of anticipated scores. Take a look out of the window into the new air of music you may never have imagined.

Exploration is the key to understanding both the music you are trying to create and the show you are working on. When working with Stan’s Cafe it is as though the process itself is the challenge, constant refining and change until the end product (which is still subject to change) is born, a child of all those involved.

Once the show has settled down out on the road then it is time to let go and move on to your next journey of exploration. Once again the fabulous journey begins – the anticipation, the thrill and of course those moments of panic.

Nina West, November 2005