The Effect – National Theatre

'The Effect'
Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill in ‘The Effect’ (photo Ellie Kurtz)

The Effect is a chamber piece – a love story set on a clinical drugs trial, possibly under the influence of mood altering drugs. Written by Lucy Prebble, it’s a play exploring sanity, neuroscience and the limits of medicine. I was composer for its first performance in 2012, directed by Richard Goold. This was a coproduction between the National Theatre and Headlong.

I created a terse, electroacoustic underscore for this play, reflecting the love affair and the arid, clinical environment in which it was set. With this in mind, I decided to compose from sounds that emerged from the play’s setting. I wanted to make music 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 sound designer 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 created music from sonified EEG data, from 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 composed some Max/MSP patches that enabled me to experiment with different sonic and musical processes.  One patch, for example, 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. 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.





The Effect was staged in the Cottesloe (now The Dorfman) where I was able to make the most of the subwoofers. In the show, a great deal of the music is laced with infrasound – extreme bass sound that’s on the cusp of perception. I’ve been researching infrasound since 2003 and am aware of its reputed, strange psychological effects. Using Max/MSP, I laced many of the audible tracks in the show with a deep, pure infrasonic note. This closely followed the amplitude envelope of the audible music so the audience wouldn’t be too aware of it. Thus, as the music played, the infrasound vibrated the seats and the auditorium, following the ebb and flow of the music, creating a visceral, discomforting (and possibly disturbing) effect. To make this effect work as well as possible in the theatre, I worked closely with sound designer Chris Shutt who ensured we deployed the in-house subwoofers to their optimum effect.


Love Scene – dovetailed cues

One of the most involved sound cues for in this play was the love scene, set at night in an abandoned building. In the player above, 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 perfectly follow choreography (from Aletta Collins), gesture by gesture.

This love scene incorporates a piano, playing in the distance. I used simple piano figures 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. If I was brave enough to step into the room and lift the lid of the piano, I’m sure it would have played.