De Profundis is a letter written in 1897 by Oscar Wilde, whilst imprisoned in Reading Gaol. It’s never been staged until this production by David Fenton and Brian Lucas. It opens April 22. I’m making the music.
When David approached me to compose the soundtrack, he said he couldn’t ‘hear’ the show yet. He’d been hard at work adapting the piece, his head, I imagine, very crowded with the rich text. It’s Wilde, though unpolished, passionate and richly allusive.
My initial thought was that the music should be a bed upon which the text should toss, turn and luxuriate. With the spoken word leading proceedings I didn’t want to set up any kind of competition between the music and script. It was clear Brian’s performance, however virtuosic, wasn’t going to be an ‘acted’ re-creation of the ‘character’ of Wilde, but rather something much more interesting. Fenton’s concept, in tandem with Ray Pittman’s projection work was unconfined by the cell in Reading Gaol or indeed the confines of any boring old ‘Theatre’.
Lots of ideas whirled in my ears for this project. I knew the project was set up to transcend expectations so I was free to experiment. I read the original and the adaptation. Wilde’s awful experience of trial and prison changed him (profoundly) and this text captures the beauty and violence of that transformation from the inside. It navigates the heights and the depths with dizzying skill and passion. I went looking for music in it, and found this comment from Oscar himself:
“I cannot put my sufferings into any form they took. Art only begins where imitation ends, but something must come into my work, of fuller memory of words perhaps, of richer cadences, of more curious effects, of simpler architectural order, of some aesthetic quality at any rate.” Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
This ‘aesthetic quality’ Wilde suggests, is the ‘cry of Marysas’. Marysas was a mythical figure who essentially challenged Apollo to a musical duel, reached the point where he had ‘no more song’ and was vanquished, then punished horrifically.
It is this mysterious ‘cry’, Wilde says that senses in much (for him) ‘modern art’ – Verlaine, Baudelaire, and “the deferred resolutions of Chopin’s music.”
This was my clue. I’ll use piano. I don’t play piano. Perfect. Alongside the notes you’ll read below are are other artistic inklings that I shared with David F in various correspondences as the work developed. Developed. That’s the thing. Works like this aren’t planned and executed, though that’s part of the dynamic of bringing them into the world. These works must be sought, then found. The process of ‘finding’ is arduous and filled with ardour. The comments you’ll read below are ‘grabs’ from the process of making this (at the time of writing, still unfinished) work.
May 30 2014
“I’m off to improvise before i have a concept, or a very close idea of what it’s all about, often a rich little season.”
I wanted to experiment with location recording and found sounds. I booked an old church hall and spent a day experimenting with looped piano and guitar. I was more aware of what I didn’t want to do, than what I did. If I was too conscious about ‘creating musical moods’ I’d be creating muzak rather than music. I drew deliberately on my lack of skill, which is a risk. Consequently very little of what I did resembled stand-alone ‘compositions’ that were usable, but rather a set of rough-hewn resources that I could draw on as sound as well as music. I later edited, re-processed and assembled these fragments onto new pieces.
Friday, 11 July 2014
In the knowledge that these pieces are likely to be underscore I want them to be long, to unfold slowly, and sonically to have the sense that the dust needs to be blown off them.
I also played, collected and chopped up bits of Chopin, and threw pieces together quite randomly to see what happened. Then I played with looping and tuning. By now David and Brian and Ray are prototyping the work on the floor, and on the screen, and the music I’ve composed to date is being incorporated.
I’ve been thinking of Nils Frahm and Akira Kosemura and Erik Satie, and Jon Hopkins: though I can’t play like those guys, I’m working with my limitations as a pianist/violist (recording note by note where necessary) and unwittingly created a piece that resembled Fur Alina (Part) from these little Chopin fragments and the way they’re obscured by the cheap looping technology I’m using feed into the sounds.
Bu now we’re working in the room, and music is feeding into the performance as it gets to its ‘feat’.
Brian’s responses to the music are encouraging: ‘It sounds like it’s coming from another room: sounds like its simplicity is like a child learning to play’.
His focus is securely in the moment of performance as he renders this very complex piece with his body, voice and mind. For the sole performer, as the sounds gradually enter the world we’re creating, ‘it’s there but it’s there before we’re aware that it’s there’. That works for me.
July 13, 2014
Deemphasizing melody. As spoken word takes primacy: also floating scraps of melody, like recurring ideas, or looping memories: I’m in that delicious place where I haven’t grasped it fully, and I’m out on the edge of my abilities with the new instruments and techniques I’m playing with.
I find a big wooden room and a piano that’s actually in tune and record some improvisations on that. Working with the borderline obsolete digital technology at my disposal gives me the ‘dust’ I’m looking for, despite the quick and dirty approach, there’s a sonic richness to the sound of a grand piano in a room that’s impossible to recreate any other way. I look so serious in this footage it makes me laugh, but I genuinely don’t know what notes I’m going to play next. Resolution is not only deferred, it’s not an option. If I feel resolution coming on, I look away from the keys.
In the knowledge that the spoken word is key, I’m creating pools of sound that it can float in, and while motifs have emerged, nothing’s fixed at all. As such these have a musicality to them, but are made of wefts and sounds that can be folded out, slid around and lengthened/shortened at will. I want it to be non-era specific, but with a feeling that you have to blow the dust off the soundtrack to hear it.
2 October 2014
I continue experimenting with sound art and chasing glitches. I’m playing with the pops and scratches of antique wax recordings as well as more contemporary buzzes and loops. As it takes shape, this soundtrack is resistant to ‘concepts’. If it sounds like I’m trying to make a point, or render an idea sonically, it doesn’t seem to ‘sit’, so I desist. In addition to this, as usual, it’s hard to come up with something that ‘sounds wrong’..that sounds right.
There’s a distinct mix of the sacred and profane in the emerging performance that deserves a musical response. I experiment with composing around latin text associated with Profundis, and layering up multiple male voices, all sung by my friend David Kidd. I might distort, pile up, or bury these sounds, but i like what I’m hearing.
I borrow a viola and start to work that sound into the mix. I’m terrible at playing the viola, but it takes me to some interesting places, though not this time. A significant factor in any soundtrack is also made up of the stuff that’s not in it. Things you’ve discarded or mutated until it’s unrecognisable. At the moment it sounds too much like ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’, but the chords came to disguise my unskilled viola playing, which I’ve since pitch-shifted, reversed and re-rendered as sonic shadows of reverb. This thing below is a rough mix: if it ends up in the show it won’t know itself.
April 2 2015
By now there have been a couple of work-in-progress showings, and the tapestry of sounds, video, performance has started to be woven in significant detail. My initial ideas for the soundtrack hold: that if it’s too obviously like ‘music’, (which is usually used in theatre as emotional lubrication and narrative signpost) it won’t work, and if it sounds like avant-garde sound-art, it’ll be too grating. There’s a sweet spot inbetween that I think I’ve found, and that’s partly due to David Fenton’s curation: he’s determined which compositions to incorporate and which to omit, and it’s my turn to respond with elaborations and variations on these selections.
David F and I spent a day working with video and timecodes to establish and extend his placement of the compositions, as well as to set a lengthy ‘to do’ list of new music that will slot into the existing action, as shifting as it is. Motifs have emerged, rather than being contrived by me.
I keep returning to the sonic congruence of the hissing sibilances of the sea, theatrical applause and the crackle of antique recording devices (which had just been invented in Wilde’s time), as well as working with wefts of sound which will orbit around Brian’s virtuosic performance. Things that if I do them right, won’t be noticed.
You might expect a blog post like this to be more resolved, but I’m right in the middle of the job, and there’s stuff I don’t know. Resolution is deferred. There are a lot of really interesting pieces of music in progress, but they’re up in the air. Where they fall depends on lots of things, especially how they converse with performance and image. That’s the intermedial spirit of the thing.
The show opens on April 22, and there is much to do.