How do you write music for a love affair that blossoms in the arid setting of a clinical drugs trial? And how do you portray the head rush you experience when you fall in love or swallow a stimulant drug – that sense of heightened awareness and those feelings of excitement and panic that flood the mind and body? What sounds conjure the anxiety and visceral pain of depression or a dark, shared memory? This was the brief I had to answer in autumn 2012 when I was invited by playwright Lucy Prebble and director Rupert Goold to write music for The Effect, Lucy’s fascinating new play.
The Effect is a chamber piece – a love story set on a clinical drugs trial. A witty, surprising and moving play, The Effect explores sanity, neuroscience and the limits of medicine. A co-production with Headlong, it opened at the National Theatre (Cottesloe) in November 2012.
For this production in the The Cottesloe, I was asked to create a pre-recorded score. I knew I wanted to work with sounds that emerged from the play’s clinical setting. My aim was to create something poetic that seamlessly blended with the live action, so you couldn’t tell where naturalistic sound design (spot sound effects, background clinic noises etc – provided by Chris Shutt) ended and my music began. Almost all of the sounds you hear began as samples of scraped metal, struck glass vessels, shaken pill boxes and so on. I’ve also sonified some EEG data (kindly supplied by Dr Leun Otten) and processed field recordings from the inside of an MRI scanner. The MRI sounds were captured at University College London, on a fascinating trip to the lab of Professor Sophie Scott and colleagues.
Rather than work with notation-based music, I started by sourcing machines and objects with promising sound timbres. I also deployed some waterphone strikes as I was keen to add melodic material that felt slightly mishapen. I created some Max/MSP patches that enabled me to experiment with different combinations of these sounds, layering and repitching them and stringing them out in simple, aleatoric, rhythmic sequences. One patch chopped sounds into random cuts, as it repitched them – you can hear this at work in Playing Truant. My Max/MSP patches were quickly assembled affairs, but they enabled me to experiment with music on the fly and change its nature radically. With this approach, I could work rapidly, creating diverse sound cues which bore a family resemblance to one another, so they sounded as though they belonged in the same play. There are one or two exceptions, such as the measuring sequence and love scene, both of which were more conventionally melodic in character. Overall, I don’t know if you’d call the finished result music or sound effect – I like to think it’s somewhere between the two.
One of the most involved sound cues for in this play was the love scene, set at night in an abandoned building. I’ve presented it as one piece but actually it’s a series of 13 cues, each just a few seconds long, which dovetail each other. This dovetailing enables the music to follow choreography (from Aletta Collins) that varies in length from performance to performance.
This love scene incorporates a piano, playing in the distance. I used a piano, simply, because I was trying to write something sweet and lyrical. Its treatment is inspired by a walk in the Sussex woods a few years ago. Just outside Lewes, I stumbled on an abandoned hospital, ramshackle but still standing. In the middle of the hospital grounds, was the social hall, built in the 1950s, now overgrown with weeds. Paint was peeling from the walls but you could still see old health posters, a portrait of the queen and the twisted remains of tubular metal chairs. There, in the middle of it all, stood an old upright piano, its lid down, dusted in plaster from the ceiling which was about to collapse. It I was brave enough to step into the room and lift the lid of the piano, I’m sure it would have played.
You can find out more about the play, the cast and the creative team on the National Theatre website.
Thanks to Matthew Scott, Director of Music, Mike Winship and his fellow sound crew and Chris Shutt, the sound designer – all of whom worked with me closely throughout the project. Chris, a veteran of War Horse and countless other shows, knew the production process very well and was able to guide me though this – my first foray into sound for theatre.
Chris and I were also able to share source material, ideas and expertise so our work blended together. We also made use of the Cottesloe’s subwoofers and turn them up to eleven, creating a suitably disconcerting effect.