The Effect – National Theatre

The Effect

National Theatre, London

“Some pain is cocooned by Sarah Angliss’ music – electronic dongs of the kind that madden while they are supposed to soothe”

Susannah Clap, The Observer

“haunting music”

Henry Hitchings, The Evening Standard

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, a coproduction between the National Theatre and Headlong, directed by Rupert Goold.

I created a terse, electroacoustic underscore for this play, reflecting the love affair and the arid, clinical environment in which it was set. I composed the music almost entirely from sounding objects found in a clinic – pill bottles, MRI scanners, metal vessels, tubular chairs and so on. I felt this would enable me to make music that seamlessly blends with  the live action. In many instances, you couldn’t tell where naturalistic sound design ended (background clinic noises and other sound design was created by Chris Shutt) and my music began.

My source material for The Effect included sonifications of EEG data provided by Dr Leun Otten and 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.


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 fascinated by its reputed, unnerving psychological effects.  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 it would never be foregounded but added a subtle sense of dread to the room. I worked closely with sound designer Chris Shutt on the deployment of this effect over the Cottesloe sound system.


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 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.

  1. Weight on the mind - neurons Sarah Angliss 0:40
  2. Waiting room calm Sarah Angliss 0:50
  3. Third dose: intoxication Sarah Angliss 0:39
  4. Memory - we've met before Sarah Angliss 1:56
  5. Darker memories Sarah Angliss 0:57
  6. Playing truant Sarah Angliss 1:10
  7. Pacing the clinic floor Sarah Angliss 0:36
  8. Love in an abandoned building Sarah Angliss 6:12
  9. Sting Sarah Angliss 0:24

Top photo: Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill (photo by Ellie Kurtz)