Sounds From The Empty City

A picture book, then a performance, now an album (preview or purchase on on itunes) and concert of looped ukuleles. Why?

These wordless songs were composed as music first, and soundtrack second. There is a difference. A soundtrack will always be connected with whatever it’s accompanying. Music doesn’t need to reference anything else.

the-empty-cityThe Empty City began as a picture book, then entered a long period of development during which the team and I experimented with how to transform the book into a non-verbal performance combining the live and animated. Without spoken words the show would dance on the dangerous intersection of music,  image and action.

“…like any first class art or great children’s book, The Empty City expertly treads that fine line between playful ambiguity and tight thematic focus.” (The Courier Mail 2007)

Soundtrack and music are often added on at the end when everything’s been pre-determined, a passive, responsive mode. In The Empty City, music was present and active from its inception and grew with the show.

Sonic Palette

We all had multiple roles on the project. In addition to writing the adaptation, I was nominated as composer. Rather than tailor-make a soundtrack to pre-determined moments, I independently experimented with the creation of a flock of small musical pieces. I was interested in seeing how they flew and where they roosted, rather than having them born and raised in captivity.

Muzak%20catalogThe show’s structure implied two periods of crowded busy-ness bookending a period of wide open, abandoned spaces. I wanted to avoid cliché in making this soundtrack. The story shifted in and out of public spaces and shops, all of which would involve muzak: music created or selected to create a mood conducive to buying stuff. I’d have to compose this (ironic) muzac too, so there was a clear difference between the sound of where the boy was (muzac), and how he experienced where he was (music) – an inner and outer story – which could potentially combine as the story progressed.

I chose to use the ukulele because it was bright and lonely (like the story’s protagonist) and because I love the sound it makes. I augmented this with other acoustic instruments I had to hand such as guitars, accordions and a cello. I had other ideas such as playing with the noises a piano makes after it’s been struck, and using the electronic voices of a city. This involved location recordings, which I fed into my home demos. Later I was interested in bringing elements of electronica to the acoustica.

Tom Oliver in The Empty City 2013 photo: Luke Monsour

Tom Oliver in The Empty City 2013 photo: Luke Monsour

It grew organically. These pieces were initially created acoustically on the most basic digital recording set up you can imagine, and once the show went into production, was partially re-recorded,  and partially adapted from my initial demos with the assistance of Brett Collery. More pieces were composed in the studio.

Eventually more than seventy pieces of music were made for this show, twice the number used.

Conversations & Conversions

Illustration by Jonathon Oxlade

Illustration by Jonathon Oxlade

These pieces were then placed in relation to the emerging scenes, then adapted in duration, texture and progression to develop a relationship with the scene. I’d rather that music (even when it’s synced) has a conversation with a performance, an exchange that may result in surprise rather than fulfillment of expectation. Leitmotifs emerged from loops and layers, as the pieces of music talked to each other, rather than being premeditated and imposed. In picture-book writing, they sometimes talk about how text and  have the potential to interanimate each other, and this is the kind of symbiosis I seek in making music for performance.

Music frequently led live rehearsals and the creation and editing of animation.

Tom Oliver in The Empty City 2013 photo: Luke Monsour

Tom Oliver in The Empty City 2013 photo: Luke Monsour

Once created, selected, placed and adapted, as the show coalesced, the music was squeezed and segued into the continuous 40 minute soundtrack that it became. Just as I had determined in the adaptation that there should be no transitional blackouts between scenes in the show, as the composer I was clear that there should be no audio cross-fades – every decision in the assembly had to be a musical one,  and this was borne out in the critical responses to the performance.

“The original score…takes centre stage” (Borhani, 2013) “…swept up in its repetition of sounds and images, like a Bach fugue” (Zampatti, 2013)

The show opened in June 2013 and will probably tour and play again. The Empty City is not dumbed-down happy-clappy kid-fodder, so it’s a bit confusing for people who have conservative ideas about what kind of theatre children are meant to enjoy. The music’s played a big role in the piece, so to close the circle on the project, I was intrigued by the possibility of a next step: to release a recording of this music, learn to play some of it to see if it could stand as a live performance.

Releasing music-alone

In releasing this music as “music-alone” there were a number of decisions to be made. Do I release the thing as one long track? Simply compile every music cue? Arrange selected tracks in order of appearance in the story? Compile a collection that’s listenable as an ‘album’?

The musical curation I’ve done is closest to the last option, and has involved editing out much of the material that was dependent on a visual element, and much of the muzak, as fun as it was to make. There were many versions of these pieces. This collection can’t possibly be definitive. It finds the tunes at a moment poised between their fullest iterations as music and their full incorporation into a soundtrack for a piece of visual theatre.

Lucas Stibbard's feet in The Empty City 2013 photo: Luke Monsour

Lucas Stibbard’s feet in The Empty City 2013 photo: Luke Monsour

Even though a listener isn’t experiencing this music through the prism of a (live) performance, it’s pretty rare for music to land in your ears context-free. I’ve re-titled some of these tracks: not to prop them up, but so they can stand on their own, liberated from a fixed narrative.

Performing Live

I wanted to test the idea that this music could stand on its own. To do so I needed to curate and release it as an audio recording, and take it into the realm of live performance unhindered by a fictional context. I’d need to learn how to play it. These pieces were composed in the studio, built up in loops and layers, then sculpted by the mix. It would be pointless and beyond my means to try to reproduce them note for note.

Instead I took the main musical idea of certain pieces, alongside some other elements such as mood or timbre and learned to play them as a solo performer, using a loop pedal, mini-synthesiser and an occasional drum loop. This far from a forte – there’s the risk of it going very wrong. But there’s a congruence between the function of a loop pedal in building up layers in a live performance, and my own compositional techniques that makes it seem worth following through.

Rather than try to master these wordless songs, to impose myself on them, I allowed each composition to instruct me. In combination with my technical and musical limitations, it quickly became clear which tunes might best comprise a set of ‘live’ interpretations of the soundtrack. Reinventions.

The only way to know whether this is going to work is to get the performance in front of an audience. It’s been a long time since I’ve performed purely as a musician, with no other elements to shape or frame what I’m doing. It’s natural for me to consider how the music might be enhanced with projection, or even spoken word inbetween instrumental performances that ‘explains what I’m trying to do’. (Just like this blog post). So I’m resisting those temptations in the service of presenting these tunes live, just as themselves.

Sounds from The Empty City is available for purchase online. It’s the original soundtrack to the live and animated theatre production of the same name. Composed and played on ukuleles by David Megarrity and recorded and mixed by Brett Collery, it encompasses everything from meditative electronica to joyful acoustica, and will appeal to lovers of Shugo Tokumaru and Penguin Café Orchestra.

Instruments include: ukulele, 12-string guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, diddley bow, piano, percussion, keyboards, Wurlitzer electric piano, animoog and many more.

Composed and played by David Megarrity except where noted

The EmptyCity (stage adaptation) The Human Company/MAPS for Artists (Finalist, Queensland Premier’s Drama Award, 2012/3) Premiered Brisbane Powerhouse, June 2013

Artists: Produced by: METRO ARTS and The HUMAN COMPANY
Director: David Fenton
Writer/Composer: David Megarrity
Performed by: Tom Oliver & Bridget Boyle
Illustrator/Designer: Jonathon Oxlade
Animation/Film Maker: Luke Monsour
Associate Director/Performer: Lucas Stibbard
Managing Producer: Katrina Torenbeek
Production/Stage Manager/Lx Design: Freddy Komp
Sound Production & Additional Music: Brett Collery

Based on the picturebook  The Empty City by David Megarrity and Jonathon Oxlade (Hachette, 2007)

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