If you're a director or writer and want music to be a part of your next project, you have a couple options: If you're just looking for scene transitions or some light underscoring, you can probably find recorded music that you like enough already. But maybe you're making a new piece of music theater, or you want music specifically created for your show. Now you need a composer.
How do you work with a composer? That's what I'm here to help you with.
By now you're probably googling my name because “who is this chick anyway,” right? Most recently, I wrote the score for The Awakening, a joint production with Savage Umbrella and 3AM Productions at Gremlin Theatre in April 2010. I have trained as a classical violist, hold a degree in music composition, and grew up enamored with opera. These three things lead me to attend the Nautilus Composer-Librettist Studio in 2008, an intense two week workshop all about collaboration in new music theater.
I'm still somewhat new to writing for theater, so rather than relying entirely on my own experience to write this article I enlisted the help of some of my good—and far more experienced—composer friends.
Enter Kyle Gullings, who's done eight or nine shows, about half of which call for live music and half of which are electronic. His latest chamber opera, Oblivion, will premiere at Washington, DC's 2010 Capital Fringe Festival. Next is Gregg Martin, composer of scores for two documentaries, one feature film, and 10-15 shows, working mainly with electronic composition. His recent work includes incidental music for a staging of George Bernard Shaw's In Good King Charles's Golden Days, which was performed as part of the 2009 International Shaw Festival in Washington, DC. Finally, I talked to local powerhouse Marya Hart, who works only with live music and doesn't even bother to count how many things she's done anymore—though she's written at least seven “real” shows (and by "real" she means that her music was of a greater importance to the show than simple underscoring). Her most recent work in music theater is Fidgety Fairy Tales 2, created in collaboration with Matt Jenson.
Surprisingly—or maybe not—we all agreed on some important points.
First, get a composer in on your project as early as possible and include us in all the production meetings. Besides wanting as much time as possible to write and edit the music, we're a nosy bunch: a composer might not always have a lot to say in a production meeting, but being there can make a world of difference in the sounds we choose to write. For example, knowing where his speakers are placed influences Gregg Martin's electronic compositions, and he'll only get a full understanding of that information by being in discussions about set and lighting. Being present for conversations about whether the group wants the space to feel open, sparse, grand, or any other slew of adjectives also helps a composer decide how the music can aid in achieving that feeling.
Take some time to meet one-on-one with the composer and establish the roles and responsibilities in your relationship. You might think it's simple—a composer writes music, a writer writes the play, and a director directs something—but there's a lot of wiggle room in there and a lot of overlap.
If the writer writes some lyrics that are hard to set to music, is it okay if the composer suggests or at least asks for edits? Music composition and sound design are separate roles. Does your composer also do sound design, or do you need another resource for that? Do you know exactly where you want music events and cues to happen, or do you want the composer to tell you where they should be? How much of this will be a collaborative effort, and how much will be clearly separated responsibilities? What kind of involvement does the composer want, or do you want the composer to have in the rehearsal process? Who is going to act as music director? Any one of these questions, unanswered, can generate major stress over the course of a production, if not handled in advance.
It's also important to set deadlines about when things are going to be done. Not just “we need to start rehearsing songs by this date” kind of done, but “The composer or director simply can't make any major changes after this date” kind of done—which with music is probably a little earlier than other elements. I won't pretend to know what it's like for a light designer or someone fixing an unexpected problem with the set and how these changes affect everything else that has already been done, but I can tell you that when you need to make something a little longer or shorter in music, it's like changing the meter and rhyme scheme for a few lines of a poem. It's not as easy as it might seem, and if done quickly, it's often not done well.
Now, if a composer has written a piece with the idea that it might need such extensions or cuts in mind, small changes aren't so hard. Or, if it was written in a traditional format, it may not sound awful to cut or repeat three or four measures here or there. But in reality, cuts are almost always restricted to inconvenient amounts of time, and they usually take some smoothing out. Adding new material takes more effort and requires new parts be printed out for the performers. “People tend to think that you can crank it out,” says Marya, on last minute changes, “It's just not true.”
For shows that utilize a rehearsal pianist until bringing in a larger ensemble, deadlines for changes have to be a little earlier still. A performer builds up aural and muscle memory while playing or singing that is hard to undo. Making changes, even ones that might seem small, can really mess him or her up.
“It's an entirely different experience, especially for a singer, to hear music as intended and not with just piano,” Kyle explained. “[Entrances] might be incorrect because they don't know where to listen for notes.” The final instrumentalists need time to get used to cues in the show too—despite the fact that they usually have music in front of them while the actors are memorized. Even the best written cues can't replace visceral knowledge obtained only through rehearsals.
So, unless you're willing to take a lot of time specifically for music in tech week, you should rehearse with your full performance ensemble during the week before tech. Make all the changes that normally happen during tech week for any other element of production happen that much earlier for music.
Finally, don't be afraid to talk about music even if you think you “don't know anything.” I hear a lot of people preface feedback with “I don't know anything about music, so this will probably sound really stupid,” and then proceed to say really intelligent, insightful things. Sure, there's a system for music notation that not everybody knows how to read, and jargon like “crescendo,” “serialism,” and “through-composed” that non-musicians might not understand, but much of what musicians say to each other is as "made-up" as anything anyone might say about music. We talk about “hearing” colors, physical textures, and emotions in music all the time.
Give your ideas and feedback in the way you know how, and if we don't understand, we'll try to clarify it with you.
Feeling daunted or overwhelmed yet? Don't be. At the end of the day, a composer is just one more skilled person that you're adding to your team to make the best show possible. And, if you follow rules one and two especially, your composer can help you navigate these new waters, too.