The Empty City: Soundtrack to Score 2013

This is about music’s interaction with text, screen, design and performance in the making of a new work. I’m now towards the end of creating the score for The Empty City, a non-verbal, live and animated show.  Upfront I should say that I have little interest in jigsaw puzzles: I don’t see much point in striving towards an artistic solution that’s completely pre-determined. I’m glad that someone knew what the picture looked like before it was cut and jumbled, and if I want to know what the pieces add up to,  I can just look at the front of the box.

puzzlejigThe kind of jigsaw we’re dealing with here in The Empty City is different: yes,  there’s a vision, an overall picture,  but the pieces are all up in the air, and falling. As they fall, where they join, and even the picture they create, is qualitatively changing, as each of the pieces responds to the others.

Alongside the creative team, I’m solidly in the middle of the task of determining original music for the performance as I write, so reflecting on this is quite different – the perspective is intimate, obscuring much else that hindsight may reveal. You can read more on the background of the project here.

Springing from the adaptation text, this is a complete reinvention: This is live performance,  music,  and projected moving images not just added together, but integrated. Ideally, they learn from each other.

There’s been an organic (but far from disorganized) process so far that’s resulted in moments that have surprised us with their beauty and synchronicity. Some deliberate brushstrokes,  some happy accidents: some sketchy parts. Places where the seams show.

Now, ‘placeholders’ are disappearing, and the scenes are being populated by the real thing. The men and women holding a plastic bin-lid or scrap of cardboard on a broom-stick in the rough video of rehearsals is now gone, replaced by the glowing images they were struggling to represent. 

 Part of this is how music has been leading the process a lot of the time: music has been working alongside (or underneath) the actor and director as they work to turn the adaptation text into action. It lends mood, and importantly,  rhythm to the scenes as they take shape. This work is captured on video and becomes a basis for further drafts of the scene in music, animation or performance.

I’ve got 70 pieces of music in my ipod related to this production; some are demos,  some are different mixes of the same tune,  but most of them are independent pieces. I’ve ‘placed’ a selection of them where I think they should go as I’ve worked alongside the director and actor, but that’s just the beginning of the process.

35mm_film_audio_macroWhen people think sound and narrative, they think film.  The Empty City combines animation and live performance,  so it’s a bit of a hybrid. Speaking historically, after instrumental accompaniment was dispensed with, a ‘soundtrack’ used to be  literally the  magnetic  ‘track’ on the celluloid that contained sonic information (including music) synchronized to the image.  Sometimes the soundtrack is a selection of pre-existing songs, recontextualised to in the narrative. Sometimes it’s a ‘score‘,  that is,  instrumental music written especially for the film. Variations on both approaches continue. Soundtracks will now even include songs ‘inspired by’ (read ‘cut from’) the music of a film. When this project was in development,   I mostly pre-composed instrumental songs, then placed them in the story and expanded or cut them to size. Now that music is transforming from a soundtrack to a score.

The term ‘score’ implies music in its form as written notation,  which isn’t something I can read or write,  so what I ‘write’ is audio: played or recorded, usually acoustically.

Back on the floor of The Empty City: as the actor and director turn text into action, a  scene might rocket through to its conclusion very quickly once it’s on the floor,  or maybe need more time to ‘breathe’. Maybe extra atmosphere or punctuation is required. As the play is a journey, the sense of progression and segue emerges as the protagonist of the play,  now flesh and blood,  negotiates the machines of narrative and the multiple artforms though which it will be rendered.

The diegesis shifts – it’s the ‘outside world’ as the character sees/hears within the fiction,  but it also is the embodiment of the protagonist’s experience.  It’s inner and outer.

Sweet, confusing, aesthetically rich choices abound. Every tune has developed its own name, the scene number a technical addendum aiding placement. But they must enter the machine and be fixed, not only in time, but also stretched or squashed to fit, and synchronised with each other. Freddy, our remarkable production manager, needs to know what goes where, and when to press the button to make it go. You can play music with that knowledge,  but it can’t inspire it.

So the 70 pieces include 30 we’ve re-recorded or freshly composed at higher fidelity for big theatre speakers. These, now placed, will be edited and joined into 10 segments which soundtrack the last weeks of rehearsals. These will sustain editing and changes before coalescing into 4 large ‘chapters’ that will soundtrack the show. The audience won’t hear any of this: it’s going to be 45-50 minutes of seamless music. As a writer I was determined that none of the images would ‘fade to black’: that if there was a better way to travel from scene to scene, we would do it, and so it is with the music. No fade-outs here. Sometimes this has meant going right into the guts of a mix to make sure a transition between scenes makes musical sense alongside all the other senses.

Music has conversed with this production right from the beginning, rather than nodding along at the last moment like a sycophant behind a politician. It’s had a lot of airtime, and more power than usual – it’s not just because the writer’s the composer (in this case)  – it’s because the project’s been set up so the artforms learn from each other. Now, however,  as production week nears,  the play is telling us what it needs,  and those demands are increasingly technical.

Mostly unrelated to the content of any ‘scene’, each piece of music has developed its own life. The delicate filenames I’ve given each piece of music will be forgotten,  like the names of kids in your first grade class: it’s no longer music-alone, it’s music ‘together with’,  destined to be bound up with a set of intermedial referents. The name of this piece was ‘Crockery’, but now it’s called something like  SC 17 ee, part of RF 3 (if anything). But it doesn’t matter what its name is, it’s how it performs that matters. 

The soundtrack: that is,  the individual instrumental ‘songs’ are now a redundant matrix:  the birthplace of what I could call the ‘score’.

Having taken a position of refusal in relation to the clichés of cinematic music, I’ve spent some time attending to the creation of muzak and leitmotif.

The protagonist enters a number of commercial spaces: naturally, the post-modern western city has muzak. Muzak was actually a trade name of a company in the states,  but the term now denotes background music a range of contexts,  usually designed to elicit moods conducive to spending money, or for other purposes,  such as calming someone whose call has been placed in a queue. Now carefully curated pop music playlists public spaces, but it does the same job. (Radiohead help you buy a dishwasher.)

The cliché here is that elevator music is bland and cheesy, and to quickly evoke a range of different locations onstage in TEC, I’ve created a few original pieces of muzak specifically for this purpose. The boy and his parent march past these stores,  each blares out its own soundtrack, like a huge bird in a forest,  squawking its presence and identity.  The twist is that when the boy actually enters the stores,  we ‘go inside’ the music as well. An upbeat reggae tune goes dub. The latin percussion of department-store muzak dissipates, leaving only gentle, lonesome Enya-esque wefts. There are many types of cheese.

road1Road signs are important. We need them to orient us in our journey and make sure we don’t get lost, confused or crash into objects we weren’t expecting. They’re a contextual necessity,  but they’re not that interesting in themselves.  So it is with much music in performative or cinematic narrative. It’s there to do a job. It’s a sign,  not a symbol, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be art.

If you’re a collector of common species of cliche, nature documentaries are a top notch habitat for spotting the musically obvious. If the narrator says …“danger approaches”“laboriously builds a nest”“performs a comic mating dance”“flies across a desolate landscape”…you can probably hum the tunes  running behind the hapless animals yourself (and name the instruments they’re likely to be played on). Though nobody watches nature documentaries (or mainstream cinema) for its musical innovation, the screen has powerfully shaped what we expect to hear when we’re watching something fictional. Which nature documentaries are. So you can’t ignore tradition.

Rosalie Gascoigne Lamp lit 1989

Rosalie Gascoigne ‘Lamp Lit’ 1989

Leitmotif refers to a constantly recurring phrase, a bit of music that has some kind of significance in a composition. It has a role in music-alone,  but joined with story it may signify character, place, event or emotion. Certain motifs have emerged in The Empty City’s music, but they’re come from process,  not premeditation. One percussion sound in the piece emerged from me tapping a rhythm on my knees when no other instrument was available in the rehearsal room. A place-holder. The actor ‘played along’ and suddenly that sound belongs to the character. To privilege and discuss the ‘happy accidents’ isn’t to dishonour the careful thought myself (and later, Brett) have put into the music, but you must leave room for surprise – not only for yourself,  but for your audience. At times the boy ‘plays’ the Empty City like an instrument. Audiences love this.

crummy pianoWhen I was experimenting with playing the piano I improvised a slow and simple tune,  which morphed into something played on pitched  kitchenware, which then worked its way into various other pieces. It’s migrated (perhaps as a creature might in a nature documentary) across the soundtrack, and remains a nomadic leitmotif. To attempt to improvise on piano with both hands simultaneously is at the edge of my abilities. I recorded this risk on minidisc (love those obsolete formats). While what I played in that deserted rehearsal room on an out of tune upright won’t enter the annals of musical history it became a component of what I’m working on now. The risk bore fruit.

The choice of the ‘bright and lonely’ sound of the ukulele as part of the sonic palette may mean we associate this series of five notes with the protagonist,  but maybe we won’t. If it sounds like I’m trying to ‘make a point’ – to achieve with music what text might do,  I will disallow it. After all, this performance is for children, who are amongst the most sophisticated audience a performance could ever enjoy.

No matter how we try to describe it, music says so much more than words could ever try to. That’s what I’m trying to say. That’s what I’m in the middle of. If you can’t come and see it, share it.

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