The Effect – composition for the National Theatre

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 rushes 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 last autumn, 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 witty, surprising and moving play – a piece exploring sanity, neuroscience and the limits of medicine. Without giving too much of the plot away, it’s a chamber piece set on a clinical drugs trail, a modern love story. A co-production with Headlong, it opened at the National Theatre (Cottesloe) in November and will be running until the end of February.

Found sounds

As the play would inhabit the entire space of The Cottesloe, leaving little room for live musicians, 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.) 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 some field recordings from 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 threw in 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, even during the tense period of the tech rehearsals, in the lead-up to the opening of the play. 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 (excerpt here) 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.

Composing for theatre

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

This – my first foray into the National Theatre – was a tricky brief as required me to write music for a medical clinic, a setting that doesn’t readily lend itself to lyricism of any kind. I needed to write music that was contemporary, that reflected the coldness and visual austerity of the lab, but still conveyed human emotion. And then there were the nuts and bolts of writing music for a play. For a composer, music for theatre brings some particular demands. The music is rarely foregrounded. It must be subdued enough to keep attention on the actors when it underscores live action. But it must still have sufficient character to serve the emotional message of the scene. Sounds mustn’t be too busy under dialogue and actors, of course, will vary the time they take over any scene so all the music has to be flexible in length. Then again, it mustn’t fade – a scene needs a definitive ending. It might even require a sonic ‘button’ to punctuate the end and co-ordinate sound and light changes. Sometimes sounds are simply there to cover a scene change. And if that scene change grows or shortens in time during rehearsals, your sound will have to be edited accordingly (usually in your lunch hour!). When you’re composing for theatre, musical ideas are chopped, stretched, cut, reinstated, spliced and otherwise reworked many times over, on the fly, as the director pins down the details of the play. It’s more like working with Plasticine than music. Various members of the team will have their own opinion on the music but struggle to find the language to describe what they want to hear. And everything you do must be written fast – and rewritten even faster.

Love Scene

One of the most involving 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 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 and there happened to be a piano in my workroom. 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. Contributing to The Effect was an immensely rewarding job – it was fascinating to see so many talented set designers, front of house staff, actors, the writer and the director come together to bring a brand new play to life.  The cast, Tom Goodman-Hill, Anastasia Hille, Jonjo O’Neill and Billie Piper, really do weave a spell.  I hope it transfers to another theatre so more people can get to experience Lucy’s wonderful writing.

'The Effect'
Tom Goodman-Hill (photo Ellie Kurtz)

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 is a brilliant artist – a veteran of War Horse and countless other shows. He knew the production process very well and was able to guide me though it. Chris and I were also able to share source material, ideas and expertise so our work blended together very well. We were both delighted to make use of the Cottesloe’s subwoofers and turn them up to eleven (something I wrote about in an earlier post), creating a delightfully disconcerting effect. I’m so thankful to Chris, Mike and for sharing their know-how  – and for helping me to keep to deadlines using my stimulant drug of choice (tea, a dab of milk, no sugar).