We had the pleasure of interviewing Angus MacRae, a composer based in London. As well as his own solo releases, Angus has collaborated with filmmakers, choreographers, theatre directors, animators and photographers from around the world. In conversation with Angus, we discuss his original score for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, directed by Rebecca Frecknall at London’s Almeida Theatre. Scored for nine pianos surrounding the stage, and performed live by a cast of actor musicians, Angus spoke to us about his process, from piano experimentation to writing the score.
Hi Angus, how are you doing? What are you up to at the moment?
Hi, Contemplative Classical! I’m good, thanks, a little worn out from a few full on months of composing, but I’m getting as much sleep as I can and thoroughly enjoying the projects I’ve been working on.
Other than putting the finishing touches to Summer and Smoke, I’ve recently finished a score for a brilliant new feature documentary for Discovery, and am wrapping up a 60 minute score for a contemporary dance show opening in Seoul next week, so I’ll be flying out there this weekend. Between all that I’m doing my best to get new solo material written and recorded, but it’s been tricky to fit it all in over the last couple of months! No complaints, though.
We have seen that you composed the music for the Almeida Theatre play ‘Summer and Smoke’ and that this score consists entirely of pianos, is that correct? How were the logistics of this? Did it seem very achievable at the time?
Yes that’s right. It’s been an amazing, unique show to work on. The set, designed by the brilliant Tom Scutt, is a semi circle of 9 upright pianos that surround the stage. It’s tricky to explain in a nutshell the conceptual ideas behind the set’s design, but essentially it was realised that the pianos could come to represent our protagonist Alma’s inner conflicts and soul (a key theme in the play). Not only does this work on a visual level, but it allowed us to create music that could quite literally surround her and heighten her own desires, fears and insecurities.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner
The entire sound and music world is created live and from memory by the cast of actor musicians every night. The concept and design had been developed before I came on board, so my first job was to work out how to make the idea into a reality musically speaking.
Right from my first meeting with the show’s director, Rebecca Frecknall, I knew it was going to be a huge challenge, albeit an exciting one. It’s kind of a dream project for a composer, to have music so up front and centre in a show, and to be so woven into the narrative. But working out how to construct a meaningful score, sensitive to the production, and have it performed live every night, took a lot of careful consideration. In the early days, none of us really knew if it was possible to achieve what we wanted – there were so many potential hurdles and pitfalls, so I can’t say it always felt achievable(!), but through a lot of persistence and hard work, things began to slot into place. Supported by a brilliant production team at the Almeida, we gradually managed to craft our ideas into a reality.
We love this quote from your article with the Almeida Theatre – ‘Basically playing a piano in any way except playing a piano’ – what piano experimenting did you do? How did you decide on the ways you were going to play the piano without actually playing it?
Well, we very quickly learned what sounds terrible on a piano and what sounds good!
I should caveat this by saying that much of the score in the production is conventionally performed, and sounds as you would expect a piano to sound! But there are a few key moments where we wanted to explore less conventional ways of making sound and music from the pianos.
Before rehearsals began, myself and our amazing sound designer, Carolyn Downing, spent a couple of days workshopping initial ideas and seeing what kinds of sounds we could create. The whole process was a very close collaboration with Carolyn throughout and the final score is as much hers as mine. The idea was that the entire sound and music world should be derived from the pianos, with no conventional sound effects and no supplementary/pre-recorded score.
We tried all sorts of things – banging, scraping, using mallets to create these amazing low rumbles, bowing the strings, various prepared piano techniques (turns out blu-tac stuck to the strings creates this great muted effect – something we didn’t end up using but definitely one for the future!), experimenting with the pedals – anything we could think of, really. We also developed a system so that the sustain pedals on the pianos could be depressed and ‘locked down’ for certain moments in the play. This means that certain lines spoken by the actors echo and reverberate naturally in the pianos, which is an effect I particularly love.
In the show, all the pianos are mic’d, and run into an Ableton Live rig we created, running various effects – reverbs and delays, mainly. This really helps to heighten the musical world and let it fill the auditorium. We spent a lot of time experimenting with how to use effects sensitively, and this quickly became a key part of the score. Again, it’s with plenty of thanks to Carolyn and our sound technicians that we managed to make this all work in the theatre.
How was the overall process of writing this score? Did you find yourself getting lost in Alma’s world or did you collaborate a lot with the director and actors/actresses to really get stuck into the meaning behind the play?
We definitely approached the score conceptually first and foremost, and it was a very collaborative process for everybody involved. Tennessee Williams’s writing is amazingly evocative and at times very philosophical, and at the heart of the production was the idea that the themes inherent in the writing should be brought to the forefront. As the play makes clear, the lead character Alma’s name means ‘soul’ in Spanish, and it’s this idea of a soul (that cannot be seen on the doctor’s chart) that drives the conflict between the two central characters and their quest for happiness and meaning in the world.
This made a great leaping off point for me and my first job was to develop a number of core themes and motifs that could recur throughout the play to symbolise these themes. I also developed smaller motifs that came to represent some of the key supporting characters, and this music develops throughout the show and becomes entwined within Alma’s own motifs.
The process of writing the score was always collaborative. There were a lot of conceptual conversations between all of the creative team, to ensure we were all working towards a common goal. The actors brought a lot of ideas to the table, too, and obviously brought the music to life with their own musicality.
How much training and preparation did the actors do to incorporate playing the pianos at various times throughout the play?
I am indebted to the talents of the actors for bringing so much to the music, and we spent 5 weeks in the rehearsal room working together to create the music in the show. We were fortunate to have all of the pianos in the rehearsal room throughout the process, so we had an exact replica of what we would have in the theatre. Without this, I’m not sure it would have been possible!
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner
It was a unique challenge to not only write the score, but teach it, and I was always aiming to write to the actor’s strengths. Many of them had some existing knowledge of the piano, which was great, and a couple of them were very accomplished pianists in their own right.Those with less experience had an abundance of enthusiasm, which more than compensated for any gaps in their knowledge. They all brought an innate musicality to the table and believed in the concept from the off, so it felt truly collaborative throughout.
Most of the music was drafted outside of the rehearsal room, with a broad framework in place and the core musical ideas established, but we would then all work together to figure out how to build it into the narrative and ensure consistency in performance night after night. All the music is performed from memory, which is incredible given the nature of theatre – things are always being tweaked and changed, and often music needs to change and be rewritten at the last minute to reflect this. It’s testament to the actors’ musicianship that they all managed to adjust and adapt to these changes so quickly.
To take one example, perhaps the biggest challenge was developing the prologue to the play, which is a fragment of a childhood memory that we see played out on stage. It is 5-6 mins in length and underscored throughout by 6 pianos, each sharing motifs back and forth, and needs to be absolutely synchronised with the text being performed by our two lead actors. This was a huge logistical challenge, not least because the musicians can’t see each other, and are each tasked with performing delicate fragments of melody in perfect synchronicity. It was the first thing we tackled as a company in the rehearsal room, and seeing how quickly everybody picked it up gave me a great deal of confidence that we would be able to make the whole thing work.
There are six performing actor/musicians in the company, who each play (often multiple) roles in the show, too. Not all of the pianos are played simultaneously throughout, and much of the music could be scored for a solo piano – often for me the interest was in breaking open the music and hearing different fragments emerge from different sides of the stage. There’s something fascinating about this kind of three dimensional performance that is only possible when performed live. The actors are on stage throughout, dipping in and out of the shadows to perform and then moving between the various pianos to play in scene changes and to underscore certain moments.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner
How was this process compared to your solo work? Was it a big learning curve?
It certainly was a learning curve, but I’m fortunate to have had plenty of experience writing scores for theatre productions in the past, and working directly with actors and musicians. As it happens, for Piano Day last year I was commissioned to write a score for 6 grand pianos, which was performed by the fantastic Piano Circus at the Barbican, so I had already learned a huge amount about the logistical challenges of writing for multiple pianos before I took this play on.
One highlight of the project is that it really allowed me to explore new avenues musically. The music needed to strike a balance between driving the narrative, providing emotional support to the text, and teasing out the subtext of a scene. As such, much of the music is ambiguous and unresolved (since the narrative is more often than not unresolved too) – lots of modal harmony and whole tone scales, amongst glimmers of more lyrical motifs. I would broadly describe the music as impressionist, which is a genre of music I am fascinated by, particularly the works of Debussy and Ravel. It’s a musical language I have fleeted with and sought to explore and develop in my solo work, but never quite managed to embrace or develop as I would like. This project has given me a lot of new ideas about directions I could explore in my own solo work in the future.
Would you recommend others to go and see it?
Music aside, it is a fantastic show – unlike anything else I’ve seen on the London stage. It is beautifully directed, with constant creativity and fresh ideas, and the lighting by Lee Curran is truly stunning (including lights within all the pianos). First and foremost though, the performances by Patsy Ferran (Alma) and Matthew Needham (John), and the supporting company, are truly mesmerising. We’re still in previews, so having watched the show every night for the last couple of weeks, I’m still in awe of the nuance and subtlety in their performances. I’m still finding plenty that’s new in the writing even now. It is always the aim of any composer to support the actors and help heighten the world that they are inhabiting, so I’d always say go for the play first, and the music second! In an ideal world, you won’t even notice the music’s there.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner
Take a listen to Angus’s solo work here –