On this production of Macbeth I am presented with the challenge of reconciling my usual style of composing – folk-influenced, melodic, usually vocal – with the decision to work with a glorious rag-bag of homemade instruments which demand a different approach, concentrating on sound and texture rather than melody and harmony.
Most music is melodic and harmonic (Monteverdi, Charlie Parker, the Pogues) and some is melodic but not harmonic (Indian ragas). But some (the singing of Tibetan monks) is about the exploration of a sound, and some (mid-period Ligeti, Xenakis) is about the exploration of texture. In fact twentieth century classical music showed an increasing interest in texture, and a decreasing interest in melody.
The rationale for using homemade instruments is the mis-en-scene of the production. The action takes place in the aftermath of a catastrophic civil war which has left the country in a state of chaos. The environment has been destroyed. What is left is, mostly, plastic.
Faced with Simon Allen’s amazing instruments, I need to rethink. There is no point in writing any music in advance, as it is impossible to know whether or not it will work. It is more a question of auditioning the instruments, finding out what they are capable of, and then trying to reconcile these possibilities with the needs of the play. We are working with two excellent players: Sarah Homer who plays clarinet and bass clarinet and is a wonderful, fearless improviser, and Letty Stott, who plays French horn and is less experienced but willing and full of ideas. The instruments are, essentially, lengths of tubing into which we can plug either a clarinet (or bass clarinet) mouthpiece or a French horn mouthpiece. So either player can play any instrument. A lot of gaffer tape gets used. The way the tubing responds to the different mouthpieces is hugely variable. One mouthpiece usually works better than the other. So we begin to settle on particular instruments for each player.
Most of the instruments play only one note and its harmonics (like a didgeridoo), so the melodic possibilities are limited. But the texture of the sounds is complex and interesting, and there is plenty of scope. One of the best instruments consists simply of a length of plastic drainpipe, bent round itself to form a kind of bass snake. We call it, simply, The Beast. It sounds like a cross between an electric toothbrush and a plumbing disorder, in a good way. We decide to associate these instruments with the witches, aiming to produce a kind of voodoo music, which seems appropriate since the stage is populated by mutilated dolls.
A few of the instruments, including the Homerphone (named after Sarah) have fingerholes, and are able to play several notes. These notes are fragile, unpredictable, difficult to control, but since the play is about a man gradually losing his mind, that seems a valuable quality. The Homerphone has three registers: several gentle bass clarinet-like low notes, some fragile and beautiful duduk-like mid-tones, and some totally unpredictable high squawking tones which we describe as the ‘damaged angel’. We decide to associate the instrument with Macbeth’s mental deterioration, so it makes its first main appearance in the murder of Duncan scene. Later we use it in the Lady Macbeth sleepwalking scene, which is an echo of the earlier scene.
Marc Tristchler the new Music Associate at the National Theatre, is nominally the music director of the piece but is actually far more than that. He is an excellent composer with a much more experimental approach than me. The project is perfectly suited to his sensibility. He is hugely helpful, and ends up composing some of the music, including an amazing anarchic trance track for the party in Act One, and a beautiful weird Miles Davis-like transition into the sleepwalking scene.
It is 7pm, half an hour before the start of a performance of Macbeth. Last night was press night. The actors are buoyant, pleased with the performance. The reviews haven’t yet come out. I am wandering around one of the exterior balconies of the theatre eating a sandwich, when I’m suddenly confronted with Rufus Norris, the director of the play and the building, who is standing, alone, almost hidden, in a brutalist concrete doorway, smoking a cigarette. We have a perky conversation – we’ve both enjoyed working together again after a long lay-off – during which he says, I expect a couple of the critics will have a go at me. And I say, Let them, we’ve done a good job.
I walk back into the foyer and bump into the director Richard Eyre. I have recently read an article about the difficulty of directing Macbeth in which his 1992 production with Alan Howard was presented as a shining counter-example. I mention this to him, and he says, Actually it was terrible. It is the reason that Macbeth hasn’t been done at the National for twenty-five years.
Next day, the reviews come out, and it’s carnage, one of the most savage sets of reviews I’ve ever seen. All the critics have a go at Rufus. It’s not possible to think, that’s just the opinion of one or two people – it is the opinion of everyone. The music gets off lightly, but that’s only because the critics have used up their vitriol laying into everything else.
Our universal surprise seems to confirm that if you’re involved in a project, you don’t know anything……
RINGING THE CHANGES
Ringing The Changes, in collaboration with the artist David Ward, will be centred on a performance at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Charminster, Dorset.
The performance will have several strands: a new set of peals; a set of choral pieces to texts by David Ward about the relationship between bells and war; and the projection on to the interior and exterior of the church of images of bell-casting and bell-ringing, making visible activities which are normally invisible.
In the West, is bell ringing considered music? I have a feeling that, generally, it isn't. I suspect that most people think of it simply as an overall undifferentiated sound (in rather the same way as most people see the countryside as a green blur, in Richard Mabey's words). Of course that sound conjures up complex feelings of loss and nostalgia, like the sound of a foghorn. Nostalgia for a lost world, in this case a world in which religion, in particular Christianity, was pre-eminent, in fact the organising system of society.
The idea of bell ringing as a sound is, in the context of most Western music, not far from the truth. I would describe it as a sounding music: the musical exploration of a sound, the realization of the potential of that sound. This is similar to many Eastern musics, and significantly different from most Western music, in which development and change are paramount, particularly harmonic change. Western music is, usually, about starting in one place and making a journey to another – an odyssey. Eastern music, and bell ringing, are about starting in a place and examining that place with great attention – a meditation.
Are bell peals the nearest thing that Western culture has to trance or meditative music? It’s true that since the 1960s Western composers (La Monte Young, Philip Glass) and bands (Sunn O) have been inspired by and have appropriated Eastern trance musics; but bell peals are different – they are indigenously Western. And certainly, the act of ringing the bells is a meditative act, an act of extreme concentration.
At the same time it is pure mathematics.
Covid choral music has two manifestations: the Zoom choir rehearsal and the virtual choir. Ingenious, frisky, worthwhile. But. For the members of amateur choirs, a million miles from their normal choral experience, and a zillion miles from what made them join a choir in the first place. What a choir offers in the normal world is the chance to sing in amongst people who are singing what you’re singing, feeling the confidence that comes from their support, knowing that your contribution is important but that if your singing is not perfect it’s not the end of the world – your voice is subsumed in a bigger sound. You are a cog in a machine. That might not normally be a pleasure but here it is – the choir makes a sound that you can’t make yourself.
In the Zoom choir rehearsal the choir director demonstrates a line, and the singers sing it back to her. But the director will have muted all their feeds, otherwise the sound would be demented. So she can’t actually hear what comes back. She has no idea if they’re singing the right notes, or if they’re in tune. It’s probably an ideal situation for some choir directors – no need to listen to that racket! - but this is a class of directors who’d rather not be with an amateur choir – they dream of being in charge of a fabulous professional choir. But since 99% of choirs are amateur, the dream is hard to realise.
And what is the Zoom experience like for the singers? There is an agreeable feeling of taking part in a cooperative and sociable event, a feeling that’s hard to come by in lockdown, but this is undermined by the sense of being on your own, singing solo in your kitchen or bedroom (might be better in the bathroom for acoustic reasons). No support from your mates. A choir of one.
For the virtual choir, the director plays you a backing track which you listen to on headphones, you sing along, record yourself, send the recording to her, and she assembles the contributions into a choral piece. There is a result – you get to hear yourself as a contributor to a bigger sound, you sense yourself as a cog in a machine. But the task of recording yourself is, again, a solitary one.
So, you are grateful for the online possibilities. They’re better than nothing. But you’re longing to get back to how things were. Hmm. That’s not going to happen for some time. Choral music could not be more incompatible with social distancing. In a choir you want to be – you need to be – as close together as possible. How to solve this problem? I wish I knew. Singing in face masks? Heck. Singing while spread out is possible, but requires immense skill and concentration. Singing outdoors is the beginning of a solution. Singing outdoors while spread out is fearsomely difficult. There is a possibility of using technology – each singer has a microphone and headphones as if in a recording studio; the sound goes to a mixer and back as foldback to the headphones so that everyone can hear each other. Expensive. And still, actually, very different from singing acoustically.
The nearest I’ve been to a solution so far has been the Stoop Choir. In our street we’ve been singing pop songs after the NHS clap on Thursdays. Outdoors, spread out. Gloriously sociable, enjoyable and hilarious. The singing quality? Ho hum.