8Over the last few years I have had the privilege of working with and becoming friends with the lovely folks at How It Ended Productions. The delightful co-artistic directors Eva Sampson (firebrand director) and Teresa Burns (deepwater writer and dramaturg) are a perfect foil for each other and they make work which can be quirky, a bit dark, but ultimately always with a strong heart. I met them when I answered one of the (admittedly very few) 'Composer Wanted" ads on Artsjobs about four years ago. I had just started out on my professional career (I call it professional because that was my intention of what it would become, rather than what it was at the time...) and I was delighted to find out that they wanted to interview me for the role of composer on their new piece of theatre for The Edinburgh Fringe. I remember meeting them out at The Hat Factory in Luton (my first time) and enjoying meeting them and talking about the show.
A few days later I received an email from them thanking me very much for meeting them but that they would be going with someone else. It was clearly a personal email written with a great deal of thought and care, referencing my work in detail. It was my first official Composer rejection letter and I remember it stinging, but I also remember the difference that personal touch made. It softened the blow, it made it feel like my work and time was appreciated and it felt like I wasn't wasting my time. As a result of this I thought 'Well that's a shame, but it's encouraging none-the-less and given how nice they are, I would defintely want to work with them on something in the future."
At the time I didn't know that the future was just around the corner and about a month later I received an email from them saying that the current collaboration with their composer wasn't working out and was I still interested. I was and that's that. Since that time I have collaborated with the folks at How It Ended (and their contacts Scamp Theatre) on three projects and we are making plans for a fourth. It's the third one that I'd like to talk about today:
Emily Hughes wrote and illustrated a book called The Little Gardener about a tiny fellow who loved his garden but was just too small to make it grow. How It Ended won an outdoor play commission to adapt the book based on a brilliant greenhouse concept and they commissioned me to write the music for it.
The first step was to read the book, then talk about the concept with Eva and Teresa about how music could help the storytelling. We considered the possibility of using recorded narration to narrate the events of the book, we considered using lyric as well to make some songs and we considered using just music and sound to tell the whole story. We chatted and I noted down in my brain the phrases that Eva was using to describe her take on the story to see if they might provide an entrance to the musical world. The general theme that came out of everything is that anything is possible with a little bit of love.
With these considerations in mind and having talked about what sort of feel we wanted the music to have, including instrumentation (we really wanted some violin in there). I went away and started writing sketches.
The first song I wrote was called "A Little Bit of Love" it had lyrics and a wishful melodic theme. Because we had very little time, I sent off my first draft. It's always a nervous moment. You don't know whether what you have done has wandered off track or whether it's going to make them wonder why they hired you in the first place. I've come to accept that this is part of my role in the industry and how you react to that feeling is vital to whether or not you are able to carry on.
Fortunately in this case, the piece was liked very much and whilst adjustments would be made to the structure, tune and yrics, it was clear that the basis for the musical language of the piece had been unearthed. It's always the hardest part of any production, your instincts will inevitably lead you down a natural path and if those instincts marry up to the directors vision then you are away laughing. If however, they do not, that is when the really hard work begins.
In those cases you have to work for your inspiration.
That may seem like a contradiction in terms. But like most things in life that appear to be contradictions, it is also true. What I mean when I say "Work" for your inspiration is that if your initial musical instincts aren't solving the problem then you will have to go digging for something else. It might mean immersing yourself in completely different types of music, or different environments, it might even mean writing music that you don't like or don't believe is right for the piece. But if you remember that these imperfect writings are only stepping stones towards the final product rather than the final product itself it will give you the drive to carry on.
I have been rather unfortunate in that my instincts have been pretty good and I've rarely come up against these larger sort of problems. "Unfortunate?" I hear you cry. "What does the ass mean? Unfortunate? Surely it's a good thing and he's been lucky!"
Let me wander off down a metaphor to show what I mean: A singing student has a naturally good voice, one day her teacher gives her a musical passage that (despite her ability) the student cannot sing. The student cannot understand why she is having difficulty. She becomes frustrated and tense. As a result her singing becomes worse and the solution to the problem slips further and further from her grasp. At this point she has a choice:
1. She can give up on that particular passage and go back to singing those things that come naturally to her. It's possible she will have a good career (although limited in its scope).
2. She can make the harder choice and explore why she cannot sing it. Through research and a deepening knowledge of vocal anatomy she can discover what is physically occurring in her body that is resulting in this difficulty. And once she has found out what it is, she can painstakingly train herself to overcome it. She will still have her naturally brilliant voice, but she will also be armed with the knowledge and technique to overcome other problems she may face in the future.
The more often we are presented with these challenges, the more likely it is that we will be able to overcome them. Of course, it would not be good for them to become the rule, as our confidence to create would be shattered, but a little misfortune in the life of any creative can only be a good thing.
As readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, I have recently been on the receiving end of this "misfortune" and whilst I must say it has not been a particularly pleasant time, the whole experience has led me to write and achieve things that I did not think I was capable of (regardless of whether they ended up being right for that particular job). Misfortune is the door to possibility if you choose to make it so. Easier to see in hindsight than at the time...
Anyway... I was talking about The Little Gardener, where my instincts served me very well (or badly depending on how you look at it). Once the musical language was discovered, it was simply a matter of being in the rehearsal room for four days and recording in the studio for one day with a couple of very talented musicians (Anne Marie Piazza and Hannah Morgan). There is no subsitute for being in the room and making music with those whose piece you are working on. Your music will grow and react to the collective vision and will be unable to help being right eventually. If you can get in the room. Do! And if people don't want you in the room explain why you should be. If they still don't want you in the room after your explanation, perhaps steel yourself for a good old learning experience and know that it will serve you well in the long run.
I'm very pleased to say that after a short tour The Little Gardener will be playing today 8th August 2016 at The Royal National Theatre on the London Southbank's River Stage. It's on at 3.45pm. It's free! Please do come down and say hello, bring your small ones to watch, it's a beautiful day for some theatre!