DAY FOUR: Let’s talk music.

How is it Thursday already?!

We’re one day away from our industry showing and we’re incredibly excited to share what we’ve been working on during our week of R&D at the Arcola Theatre.

In reading over my previous posts, I began to feel like I’d neglected our incredible music team a little. The musical elements of our workshop process have been so unique and inspiring, I decided I had to sit down with our cellist, Laura van der Heijden (BBC Young Musician 2012) and composer Milton Mermikides to chat about their vital involvement with this project.

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NATHAN: Hi guys!

MILTON: Hello!

LAURA: Sorry, I’m eating so I’ll be talking with my mouth full.

NATHAN: Don’t worry, I won’t mention that when I type it up.

LAURA: Perfect!

NATHAN: So how did you both first come across The Invisible Man?

LAURA: I actually discovered it through doing this project. I just finished it a few days ago! I took the book on holiday with me and I couldn’t put it down. Obviously we’d done a bit of work on the prologue earlier in the year so I was familiar with that, but I think it’s really important to also read the novel because it puts the whole thing into context and deepens your understanding of the piece. Then, of course, Clarence’s performance only makes it all the more gripping.

MILTON: I first encountered it as a teenager. I thought I was reading the H G Wells version – it took me a while to realise my mistake, but I loved it! I was an awkward teenager – so hard to imagine now! – and I moved homes a lot; I completely connected with the idea of being unseen and I always felt like I fell between cultures and identities. I find Ralph Ellison fascinating; not only was he a novelist and a jazz trumpeter, he also studied symphonic composition with William L Dawson, one of the most important African American composers in history. So everything is a contradiction with Ellison; he doesn’t quite fit into any specific category. I really resonate with his work, so when this project came along I was thrilled; the opportunity to work with this breadth of musical styles and approaches was just perfect.

NATHAN: So how did the conversation arise to pair this story with a classical instrument like the cello?

LAURA: Well it’s important to remember that we’re not really playing classical music. Milton is composing a lot of it, we’re improvising bits, etc.

MILTON: And one would have never expected Ralph Ellison to be a classical composer, so we’re playing with those assumptions! The idea of pairing symphonic orchestral instruments with jazz and electronics is actually very Ralph Ellison, in my opinion.

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NATHAN: Is this process of pairing live music with theatrical performance something that you’ve done before?

MILTON: The theatre work I’ve done previously has had a more conventional ensemble underscoring the action or performing interludes – less interactive than what we’re doing for this project. I have done a lot recently with electronics and performance, which I suppose is somewhere in between sound design and composition. It’s interesting because it’s almost like live film scoring that allows for all sorts of unique interactions that weren’t possible 10 years ago. Also, the cello is such an amazing instrument – it’s so broad in its timbre and range – you can do wonderful things with it. Then pairing it with Richard Olatunde Baker’s percussion is just stunning; it’s that last element of Ellison – hearkening back to the African motherland.

LAURA: This is all incredibly new to me. What I’ve really been enjoying is the creative liberty this process affords you. In the classical music world, your creativity comes through your interpretation of a pre-written work. Of course Ellison’s prologue is written, but everything we’re adding to it isn’t, and a lot of our own original ideas are going into the piece. It’s really exciting but also challenging, which is why it’s been great to have Milton on board because he has much more experience in this field than I do!

MILTON: It’s been nice to have a variety of approaches in the room. Sometimes you can only get what you need through a more traditional writing and composition process, but other times you do need that spontaneity. That’s why this is the perfect environment; there’s flexibility and room to play but we also have the time to hone and finesse the work.

NATHAN: Great! So in summary, has there been any particular challenge you’ve overcome this week? What moments have really inspired you?

LAURA: The biggest challenge for me has been finding how to support the text in the most effective way. It’s such a strong piece of writing on its own; you don’t want the music to distract, you want it to support. You also want it to be an entity within itself but it has to interact with the text. Striking that balance has been difficult! Again – Milton has been an amazing help in that regard. The most exciting moments have been when it feels like that balance has improved; in those instances, both elements truly come alive.

MILTON: The challenge for me has been the fact that we have the text but very little else; it’s quite daunting when you have so many options open. Also, the text is a prologue so making a structure out of that has been fairly demanding – I feel much better about it now than I did at the beginning of the week. Yesterday’s session was brilliant; it really felt like things were clicking. We had the right amount of prepared material alongside the improvised elements and it’s very moving when those moments of real interaction between the music and Clarence’s performance occur.

NATHAN: Brilliant. Thank you guys!

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So, that was Laura van der Heijden and Milton Mermikides. It was a fascinating opportunity to open a window on their processes. All I can say is: the result of their hard work is simply stunning.

Make sure you visit the blog tomorrow because I’ll be coming at you from our industry sharing. Exciting times all around!

– Nathan

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