Incidental Music for the Stage

How Important Is Music to the Theatre?

James Dacre speaks with White Lies, These New Puritans, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Renell Shaw, Kuljit Bhamra, and Rachel Portman about their experiences composing for theatre.

INCIDENTAL: Music for the Stage
Various Artists
24 September 2021

James Dacre, director of the Royal & Derngate Theatres in Northampton, speaks with White Lies, These New Puritans, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Renell Shaw, Kuljit Bhamra, and Rachel Portman about their experiences composing for theatre. Seven of their compositions for the stage exclusively featured alongside spoken word performances from Amanda Seyfried, John Heffernan, Indira Varma, Giles Terera, David Harewood, Asif Khan, and Judi Dench.

Creating music for theatre is all about helping to take audiences on a narrative journey.

When asked what music has in common with storytelling, the musician Keith Jarrett responded, “Well, I don’t play music. I play changes.” I think he meant that music never stands still and that the canvas on which composers paint is time itself. Live theatre is like live music in that every moment is ephemeral and never to be repeated. Music, like narrative, is about change over time. Music can often play a central role in helping to drive a theatrical narrative forward. That’s why so many major composers have learned their craft by writing for theatre and why some of history’s most enduring composers hold storytelling at the heart of their work.

Just think of Henry Purcell, Edvard Greig, Kurt Weill, Benjamin Britten, Beethoven, Schubert, Handel, Leonard Berstein, and Philip Glass, to name a few who have been inspired by collaborating with theatre-makers.

Don’t get me wrong – unlike other art forms, it is theatre’s wordiness – the fact that theatre is predominantly about conversations and debates – that makes it the most powerful of art forms. Theatre can express language so powerfully, poetically, and politically that it improves our listening, opens our ears, accesses our emotions, and deepens our understanding of the world around us. But music specifically can do so much to serve the language of a play and to unlock the emotion of a story.

While our theatres at Royal and Derngate were closed to the public during the pandemic, I began exploring ways to keep our audiences engaged and ways to fundraise. Whether as background music to home working or to help motivate government-sanctioned bouts of outdoor exercise, it seemed that everyone was spending more time listening to music than their busy pre-pandemic schedules might have allowed. I’ve commissioned a wide range of composers over the past decade to collaborate on our productions, and these collaborations have become an important part of our work hugely valued by our audiences. Twelve of these composers agreed to contribute the music they had created for our stage to create a compilation album called INCIDENTAL. It felt essential in doing so to capture a sense of the theatrical collaborations that inspired these compositions. So, we set their instrumental music against monologues and sound design from the productions that their music was created for.

James Dacre
Photo: JAMES DACRE / Courtesy of Phantom Limb

Programming a regional theatre is always about balancing bold artistic objectives against commercial considerations and creating brave art for a broad audience; staging vibrant, popular productions celebrated for their storytelling and humanity. So, it’s no coincidence that many of the stories featured on INCIDENTAL: Music for the Stage are very famous novels and plays. I hope that these compositions and monologue recordings will explore music’s ability to cast new light upon each of these classic works and help raise awareness of the crucial role that original music plays in the theatrical process.

For example, in creating his score for our production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Charles Cave of the band White Lies observed that “music for theatre has an obligation to be considered against dialogue and plot mores than action. It is not so much there to enhance action as it is to envelop the audience in a mood already fused to the story, and to the script. It should be as poignant as a prop or costume, but never gratuitous.” His score predominantly uses piano music, which very precisely weaves around Tennessee Williams’ poetic dialogue, spoken here by Amanda Seyfried.

When scoring our production of Brave New World, These New Puritans also observed how liberating it was to be “one cog in the larger ‘machine’ of the production” and how the potential for musical range and contrast allowed them to embrace an eclectic range of different musical genres in a way that a concert or album might not allow. Their focus in that collaboration was really about the role music could play in drawing an audience into the world of the story by exploring the themes of science and technology that fascinated its author Aldous Huxley. You’ll see from the following tracks how their music captured the dizzying scale of Huxley’s imagination whilst also adding a powerful new emotional dimension to his vision of dystopia.

Aldous Huxley predicted that the future would be an “Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and the noise of desire” arguing that “all the sources of our almost miraculous technology” will be thrown together in an “assault against silence”. He talked of a technology which “penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions… news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemies”.

Huxley viewed music with suspicion but also with great respect, believing that when composed meaningfully, “after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” So, These New Puritans’ challenge was also to argue for the ways in which music can suffocate, quashing human creativity as well as nourishing it. Take the following track, which has a hypnotic, deadening effect, conveying how Huxley’s World State uses music to sedate its citizens.

This ability to explore a range of different styles and genres is thrilling. One of the spaces that I’ve found it most thrilling to collaborate with composers is at Shakespeare’s Globe, where I’ve staged both Shakespeare’s plays and new work. Once the site of bear-baiting and brothels, that theatre continues the Elizabethan tradition of blending the sacred and profane, the rowdy and profound, loved for its sense of carnival, macabre and chaos yet offering harmony. It is a theatre with its head in the clouds and its feet in the clay, the perfect place to stage Shakespeare’s epics unafraid of asking big questions about the way we live our lives today. Valgeir Sigurðsson captures something of this alchemy in his prologue to The Tempest featuring Giles Terera. He says, “Shakespeare’s magical verse comes alive in Caliban’s dream speech, which captures the hypnotic, enchanting and surreal qualities that I was drawn to in The Tempest perfectly.”

Renell Shaw, who composes for Rudimental and recently won an Ivor Novello for his debut album, agrees that “theatre has always been where the magic lives”. Rachel Portman concurs that the “delicate balancing act of collaboration that is all about an exchange of ideas” is what makes working in theatre so unique. For Renell, composing for Shakespeare is particularly inspiring because of the musicality of his verse, “the music practically writes itself.”

Renell that when an audience gathers in the stalls and eagerly awaits the start of a production, it can have the electricity of a great gig or music festival. That’s a thrilling prospect for a composer because it provides a vast canvas for them to work across – and enables them to shift between genres and styles with such versatility and ease. Renell describes how “writing music for the stage is like scoring a living film, it’s immersive, and it’s different every night, that’s the beautiful thing about it.” Here’s a composition from his score for Othello, featuring David Harewood in the titular role.

Sometimes the impact of music on stage comes from its liveness. Kuljit Bhamra, for example, argues that “we all listen to recorded music when we need to uplift our mood or if we need a soundtrack to underscore whatever we are doing. However, I firmly believe that the true and full power of music can only be experienced when it is performed live directly to the listener. When this power joins forces with storytelling, drama, and stage set design, the result is pure magic.” He performed his score to our production of A Passage to India live, becoming a central member of the ensemble.

Bringing audiences back to a live theatrical experience and demanding their total undivided attention throughout without recourse to a dependence on social media is perhaps the most radical and progressive offer theatre can make today. That, for Rachel Portman, is what’s so thrilling about “writing music to accompany live performance” and what will always allow theatre, for composers, to exist “a long way from composition for the screen”.

Take Rachel’s score for “A Tale of Two Cities”, which aimed to “assimilate an audience within the play’s setting, soaking them in its world, helping them to step inside its story”. For Rachel, “the music was an engine for the scenes”, helping to capture their scale in a way that can otherwise be challenging onstage. “We don’t have the sense of visual scale in theatre that we do in film, so music has to be used in really interesting ways to create drama, adventure, and danger,” she says. When it’s done well, the audience is often unaware of the music but takes it away, and their experience is very different. For example, in her prologue, she uses “uncomfortable rhythms that never quite fall into the groove you expect them to” to create a sense of unease that captures the sense of foreboding so key to Dickens’ iconic opening words.

Incidental composer headershots
Photo: Composers from INCIDENTAL project / Courtesy of Phantom Limb