How similar is your music to ancient Greek music?
To be honest, hardly at all. For the Medea, which was the first
play I wrote any music for, I had only the vaguest idea of ancient music at
the back of my mind, you know, things I'd picked up from studying classics
all these years; something about oboes and harps being the nearest equivalent
to the ancient aulos and kithara. And the chorus all sing together. But the
main thing I was concerned about was trying to find a practical solution to
the weird rhythms that you get in the Greek lyrics. I mean, it was an amateur
production, the chorus we had weren't all particularly good singers, not particularly
musical, and most of them didn't know a word of ancient Greek; and they were
going to have to dance at the same time. So it was really important to make
the music as singable and accessible as possible, given that I wanted to stick
as closely as possible to the rhythms of the words. Which meant writing nice,
memorable tunes, and the last thing on my mind was whether it was anything
like real ancient music. After the Medea, I thought I'd do a bit of research
into the subject. I have to admit that I went into it quite aggressively,
I mean quite skeptically. I'd come out of the Medea with some quite bloody-minded
ideas about the way metre worked, and I was perfectly prepared to take the
same attitude to theories about ancient music. The picture that seemed to
be emerging from the books I consulted was that the chorus all sang in unison,
with some kind of lyre accompaniment, maybe only playing the same tune as
the singers. No-one was prepared to state that any kind of percussion was
used, or that there was any harmonic background. The most worrying thing was
the modes and the tunings that the ancients used; I really couldn't find much
in all the theory that suggested the Greeks used anything I would really recognise
as a scale, and so much of modes seemed to be about impossibly fine distinctions
between tunings that were fractions of a semitone apart. I once tried tuning
my guitar to one of these modes, to see if I could make any practical sense
of it. I played around with it for about half an hour and gave up. In the
end the problem is that we just don't have any examples of what the ancient
music sounded like. If someone could go back two thousand years with a tape
recorder, well, the scales might fall from my eyes, and it all might make
magnificent sense, but trying to reconstruct the music from one or two fragmentary
pieces of notation, and a bunch of theoretical treatises which may not even
be particularly accurate, just seems a hopeless task. I still want to be skeptical
about those tunings, even though I feel backed into a corner by the weight
of the evidence. We're told that, say, Indian classical music has I-don't-know-how-many
divisions of the scale, but to an innocent like me the scales don't sound
particularly alien - I can comprehend them in terms of western scales and
modes. The same is true about Arabic music. It all sounds roughly the same
kind of thing, with some interesting out-of-tune moments. There are analogous
out-of-tune moments in western music too, we just don't notate them as such:
slides and bends, vibrato, the blue note in a blues scale, the way violinists
play C sharp differently from D flat. I wonder if the theorists are not just
being over-fastidious in cataloguing divisions of the scale, and cloud the
issue, even if they are more rigorous and accurate. I may eat my words. Ask
John Franklin about all this. But I want ancient music to be like this: I
hope it will turn out that the theorists really did record too many divisions
of the scale, or were too interested in the wrong kinds of scale. Just practically,
I can't see how a chorus of singers could be relied upon to slide perceptibly
between microtones. A really good soloist can do it, I've heard it (though
it sounds to me like a colouration of a tone, rather than a separate note),
but getting a whole bunch of people to be exactly in tune, to that degree
of accuracy, I just don't see it.
So you just abandoned the whole idea?
So I just abandoned the whole idea. Not that I was very concerned
about it in the first place. The basic argument would go, however this music
sounded originally, the important thing was that the audience enjoyed it;
it was familiar to them, they accepted it and understood it. That's how it
had the effect it did. So what I had to do was come up with music that would
have that kind of effect on a modern audience, and the real problem was a
simple one of deciding which modern musical language to choose, one with the
right kind of associations.
What kind of associations?
High culture, but easily accessible. Popular, but not trash.
There's this story in Thucydides about some prisoner of war working in the
mines, who earned his freedom because one of his captors asked him to sing
one of Euripides's latest choruses. I think I must have read that when I was
still at school, and we had maybe read a few choruses from tragedies, and
they were very difficult, you know, really obscure, difficult language; you
could work at one for an hour or two and still not feel that you had understood
what it was about. I hated the choruses. After managing to get a bit of momentum
going on the dialogue, I'd hit a chorus and my heart would sink. So that story
made about zero sense to me. But it stuck in my mind, I guess. And what it
means to me now is, people really liked choruses. I'm still not sure how this
character in the story managed to remember the song after only hearing it
once - I guess we have to put that down to the phenomenal powers of memory
they had back then. But the songs themselves must have helped; they had to
be pretty much instantly appealing, instantly memorable. And since the make-up
of the audience was more or less everybody, the music wasn't elitist. On the
other hand, it was a big public occasion, a festival of the best the city
could offer in the arts, so it must have had music that was recognisably 'serious'.
Except in comedies, of course.
So how did that translate into the music you write?
Well, the particular style I fell most naturally into was a
cocktail of a lot of different things. Medieval and renaissance stuff, for
instance, from the beginnings of harmony before things really settle into
classical major and minor. The advantage of that was that it sounded kind
of old and deep, and in the end I didn't mind making that kind of association.
But it also has a kind of freshness and energy about it. I had been listening
to Philip Pickett's reconstruction of the Carmina Burana, and also to a collection
of 16th century Italian songs which really touched a nerve. I'd also just
come out of a long period of listening to and performing a lot of traditional
British folk music, which shares with the medieval stuff a very simple kind
of harmony, and uses the same 'modern' modes. I know the ancient Greek modes
were a completely different thing from the modes in the western classical
tradition, but I was still very attracted to the idea of using modes instead
of minor and major, as a kind of pale reflection of the original Greek modes.
The music had to be accessible, but I really didn't want it to sound, well,
normal. Just slightly exotic. I think we were quite keen to stress foreignness
of Greek tragedy. I guess there's a paradox there. But both me and Yana were
getting fed up with seeing Greek tragedies done as if they were just a rather
awkward form of modern theatre, because they're very bad if they're done that
way; so with the music too we wanted to distance ourselves from that kind
of approach. So, a lot of simple harmony, modern modes; and lots of percussion
too. And a smidgin of renaissance counterpoint. Nothing like ancient music
at all, in fact.
Except for the rhythms.
So what was your approach to those?
That's a pretty big question. I suppose the simplest way to
state the problem is that the Greek lyrics aren't, in any obvious way, regular.
If you try to figure out the metre for any part of the song, it all looks
terribly random. Plug into that the fact that we're not talking about a beat;
Greek metre is all about patterns of long and short syllables, an idea which
is absolutely foreign to English poetry. But it's reasonably easy to represent
musically. Say, a word like 'Hesperidon' comes out as long-short-short-long,
tum-ti-ti-tum, crotchet-quaver-quaver-crotchet, and it doesn't matter very
much which of those syllables you stress. When you first come to analyse the
metre of a Greek lyric, you're faced with a bewildering mess of longs, shorts,
and some syllables that might be either, and there doesn't seem to be any
particular pattern to it all. In fact, I don't think there is a pattern, most
of the time. But for some of the songs, you find that this random metrical
scheme is answered by a second verse which repeats, more or less exactly,
the same sequence of longs and shorts. Conclusion: those two verses are sung
to the same tune. And that suggests to me that the tune is a large part of
what makes the metre make sense. That seems a good way of defining what I'm
trying to do: to find a tune that makes the metre make sense. Now with these
'random patterns', if you start with the principle that all long syllables
are equally long, and all short syllables are equally short (and I do, more
or less, though I break that rule sometimes), you quickly discover that the
tunes are not going to fit into a regular beat. No marches, no waltzes. Everything
hobbles and swerves. If you wanted to divide it up into bars, you would end
up with lots of syncopation, or a constant change of time signature from 5/8
to 7/8 to 4/4, whatever. So that's the challenge.
And the solution?
A bit of everything. Whatever works. Whatever produces a good
tune and fits in with the ethos of the production as a whole. I have to say,
I really enjoy doing the 'constant change of time signature' thing. You know,
the second piece of music I ever wrote was in 5/4. I showed it to someone,
who said, oh yeah, right, just like Dave Brubeck in 'Take 5'. I felt a bit
cheated that someone else had got there before me (I must have been all of
fifteen at the time). Then I discovered the Rite of Spring, and realised that
classical composers had been playing around with weird time signatures for
years. So I never felt intimidated by skewed rhythms. Then, around the time
I came to do the Hippolytos, I suddenly discovered traditional 'modern' Greek
dance music in a big way. I'd spent a lot of time in Greece, lived there for
eight months, and during that whole time I absolutely detested the music.
But a few years after, I came across this CD of traditional Greek dances,
and slowly fell in love with it. And the way some of the styles use asymmetrical
metres, in this immediate, energetic, and utterly unselfconscious way really
excited me, and plugged immediately into the music I was doing for Hippolytos.
The chariot scene, for instance, was directly inspired by one of the dances
on the CD, a 9/8 bar made up of 2+2+2+3. But I have to add to that that the
solution is sometimes just to syncopate; I mean keep the basic pulse regular,
and let the tune go where it will against that. I've done a lot of pop and
jazz, so again, this kind of approach seemed very natural. If you put me up
against a wall with a gun to my head, I'd admit that I find that a less satisfactory
way to go. It's probably a lot less like ancient music, and there's more danger
of unhelpful associations: I wouldn't want it to sound too much like pop music.
I think the finale of the Hippolytos (the hymn to Aphrodite) gets dangerously
close to sounding like a pop tune. But in the end it was so beautiful, it
was worth it. And I did muss it up with some classical counterpoint.
Do you ever cheat?
Yes, of course I do. But not much, and I can usually justify
it. My settings of the Medea were sometimes a bit loose (after all, I was
still finding my feet); but I remembered from Aristophanes' Frogs that Euripides
was ridiculed for singing the same syllable over a number of notes, 'el-el-el-el-el-el-el…'.
From which I deduced that it should normally be one syllable to a note, but
sometimes more than one. The very first lyric I set went 'Erechtheidai to
palaion olbioi' and I immediately changed it to 'Erechtheidai to palai-to
palaion olbioi', which actually makes some kind of sense in Greek. I used
the same trick of repeating bits of text in the Oedipus, but not at all in
Hippolytos. Except that I'll sometimes sing two or three notes on one vowel.
I got more rigorous as I got more confident. But I think Euripides cheated
too. There's hardly a single chorus in which the metrical correspondence between
two stanzas is 100% exact. Did he change the tune, or just fudge it, like,
sing a short syllable as a long?
You said something about fitting the ethos of the production.
Does that mean that you make the music Indonesian if the production is Indonesian?
Not really. Or not overtly. The Medea was choreographed by an
Indian classical dancer, really fantastic stuff, but I don't think I made
any effort to reflect that in the music. The Hippolytos was Indonesian, but
the music was quite Greek. I think the original suggestion from Yana was that
I should do gamelan music, but I killed that one dead in its tracks. Frankly
I don't think I would have been capable. But I did use a lot of tuned percussion
-- glockenspiel, marimba, finger cymbals, gongs -- as an allusion to the gamelan
sound-world, and had a recurrent melodic figure which was based on one of
the standard gamelan scales. And of course all the in-between bits, where
we had narration and mime, all that was done in a very Indonesian style. Not
actually gamelan, but percussion and chanting. The Wealth was a different
story. We did that as a traditional 19th century Greek puppet show, and the
music was pretty much in that kind of style. Or at least, my version of that
style. The ethos of each production was more, for me, about light and shade:
about colour. About what the production was trying to say. Our productions
have been basically very bright and colourful, and I've generally come up
with very bright, colourful music.
Even though the Hippolytos and Medea are tragedies?
Yes, exactly. I mean, that's exactly the point. You think, this
is a tragedy, so it ought to have really doomy gloomy music, full of foreboding.
But I'm really against that. I'm against the general idea that tragedy as
a whole has to be so dark, for a lot of reasons -- number one, some tragedies
have rather jolly plots, and number two, it's dramatically exhausting to keep
pushing the same button, dark dark dark and then more dark. But just keeping
to the music, I've always been fascinated by the way music can appear to go
against the grain of the words: how a song in a minor key can be funny, or
uplifting, or comforting, and a sweet tune in a major key can be emotionally
devastating. Particularly the latter. Just off the top of my head, Dowland's
'come again' -- a really beautiful song in a major key, it's about unrequited
love, the poet says that he is weeping and fainting and dying, but the music
stays impassively lovely, and I can't hear the song without crying. Bob Dylan's
'Don't think twice, it's alright' is another example. If you want to affect
people emotionally it doesn't do to batter them with gloom. I did the Oedipus for King's -- nothing to do with Thiasos -- and that was a very dark production,
and I was asked to do brutal, primitive music. Which I did; but honestly,
I can't say I liked the music very much. I was listening to it the other day
in fact. There are some good things in there, some things I wouldn't mind
rescuing, but overall it's very hard going. I don't get much pleasure out
of it. The piece I enjoyed the most was the one where the chorus start fantasizing
about how things might turn out really well after all, and I allowed myself
to write something quite chirpy. But that whole experience convinced me to
stick to my guns in the future.
You've talked a lot about your music for tragedies. What
about the Wealth?
Well, that was a very different kind of project, mostly because
the chorus doesn't have such a big part to play. There's only one song in
it, which I did, as usual, in Greek, but the rest of the music is just short
instrumentals to introduce the characters onto the stage and see them off
again. That was an idea we took from Karagiozi, the Greek puppet show, and
it worked like a dream. I don't know what it is, but having the music to frame
the performance, and to frame the individual scenes, really lifts the whole
production, really adds to the atmosphere we're trying to create. I was very
much into the way the actors did some little dance as they were coming in,
a dance that portrayed their character, but usually had no relevance at all
to the plot, nothing to do with what they were supposed to be feeling. It
just made it all so wonderfully calculated and artificial.
And what attracts you to that?
Good question. I'm really not sure, it's just an instinct I
have. Maybe it's because if you keep a distance between the audience and the
players, if you use devices like this to show that what is happening on stage
is not real, it gives the audience room… room to breathe, room to feel and
be genuinely affected. To experience the frisson of being on the outside and
entering in. And if they don't, it's still quite fun to watch from the outside.
But I'm not a theorist. Ask Yana. It's just that there's something kind of
stifling, embarrassing almost, about 'realistic' performances. Realism works
well in the cinema, because there's a distance created by the fact that you
know the actors aren't really there, and won't mind if you don't react… But
I love those really stiff performances you used to get in old movies. You
know no-one really behaves like that or talks like that, but you can still
relate to it; 'of all the gin-joints in all the world, and she walks into
mine…'. There's class there, pride in an artefact being an artefact.
All of your songs are done in the original Greek. Is that
also something to do with distancing the audience?
I hadn't quite thought of it like that. But maybe. The plays
at King's college London are always done completely in Greek, and coming from
that background, deciding to do anything in English seemed a pretty momentous
step. And I know that the purist Greek thing can work, even if the audience
doesn't understand the language. Probably the most powerful performance of
any Greek tragedy I ever saw was a Greek-language Bacchae, done in Cambridge
in the late eighties. But I did know the play very well, I'd acted in a film
version of a different production, and I knew some parts of it inside out.
So perhaps that's not a fair test. And King's and Cambridge can rely, more
or less, on a devoted following of insiders who have some emotional investment
in seeing productions in the original Greek. For Thiasos, we wanted to have
a broader appeal, and that meant doing productions in English. But there are
pros and cons to that. It's the same double bind that you get in opera. If
you do it in a foreign language, it all sounds magnificent, but there are
long stretches of impenetrable monotony. If you do it in English, people understand
what's going on, but it begins to sound dangerously banal. I remember seeing
a video clip of some tragedy production, and the chorus were sort of chanting
'Blood… blood…', and I thought, this is ridiculous, just awful. So we came
up with this compromise: the songs would all be in Greek, but everything else
would be in English. Just on the grounds that you've got the music to carry
you through the Greek bits, but you need to know what's going on the rest
of the time. I guess in an ideal world I'd find a way of doing really convincing
translations of Greek lyrics, but I just haven't been able to yet. And in
the meantime, yes, the songs sound kind of mysterious and unearthly, and that
might work because of some sort of audience-distancing. But like I say, if
I could find a way of doing them in English without sounding banal and ridiculous,
I would. I think it's really important to be able to understand.