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Sound designer Jon Nicholls: ‘I could never sit in a room alone writing a symphony’

Jon Nicholls. Photo: Patrick Baldwin Jon Nicholls. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Whether he is adding electronica to Elsinore or recreating the bustle of Naples, Jon Nicholls’ soundscapes are much in demand. He tells Nick Smurthwaite why he loves the collaborative nature of theatre

Composer and sound designer Jon Nicholls would pick the bustle and urgency of the rehearsal room over the solitary angst of the composer’s den every time if he had to choose. “I need deadlines and pressure and the stimulus of a concerted effort to get it done,” he says. “I could never sit in a room writing a symphony.”

Nicholls is much in demand, with three shows in, or coming to, the West End, and one set to open in Edinburgh later this month. He has a knack of impressing directors with his dedication to a project and the ingenuity of the soundscapes he creates.

Melly Still was one such director, who pointed out that when street sounds were needed for her show My Brilliant Friend – based on Elena Ferrante’s bestselling novels set in Naples – at the Rose Theatre in Kingston in 2017, Nicholls went to the Italian city to record its bustling streets for authenticity. That show, along with its authentic Neapolitan sounds, will be coming to the National Theatre in November.

My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre, Kingston (2017). Photo: Marc Brenner
My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre, Kingston (2017). Photo: Marc Brenner

Still and Nicholls also worked together on Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, currently playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre. “He comes to a lot of rehearsals and sits there quietly with his computer absorbing what’s going on, then he starts to implement his musical thoughts and ideas,” the director says. “Together we evolve a score that weaves into the text.”

Still continues: “Sometimes I send him a playlist of things I’ve been listening to for a project, and other times he sends me a playlist. We nudge each other in different directions. It’s a constant dialogue. Now we’re beginning to share a language.”

Though he works across all media, Nicholls’ career began in theatre in the mid-1990s, after he’d trained at the London College of Music. There he had studied under the composer John McLeod, before heading to Dartington College of Arts in Devon, where he specialised in electro-acoustic composition.

On completing his training, Nicholls sent out 100 demo CDs in the hope of securing commissions. He received two replies. One was from Channel 4, which led to a job writing the music for a documentary, and the other was from Jonathan Holloway, artistic director of Red Shift, “one of those rare beings who believes in giving young people a break,” Nicholls says. “He commissioned me to write the music for a production they were doing of Hamlet: First Cut. I turned up at rehearsals with a whole CD of original music.”

Alex Mugnaioni and Mary-Williams in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Photo: Marc Brenner

While trying to kick-start his theatre career, Nicholls had to subsidise his early work with spells as a postman, factory worker and teacher of English as a foreign language. Along the way he also managed to gain invaluable experience with touring companies Theatr Powys, M6 and the Oxfordshire Touring Theatre Company, which he found as enjoyable as it was educational.

“You had a real sense of people having been doing this for centuries, rocking up in a cart, or a van in our case, and doing a show for a small rural audience or at a local school. In those situations, where resources are limited, the opportunities for music and sound are always interesting. We did some actor-musician shows that I loved. I learnt so much during that time.”

As his reputation started to grow, Nicholls received commissions from Theatre Royal Bath, Theatr Clwyd, Nottingham Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic and eventually, in 2010, the National Theatre, with the double bill Young America – two early plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill – directed by Laurie Sansom. He says: “Obviously it’s great to have on your CV that you’ve worked for the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and you get wonderful support because of their resources.”

His first job at the RSC was Simon Godwin’s extraordinary reimagining of Hamlet in 2016 with Paapa Essiedu, in which Elsinore was relocated to a present-day West African country. “I was brought in as musical associate to the composer, Sola Akingbola, whose day job is percussionist for Jamiroquai, and the sound designer Chris Shutt. We spent a lot of time in the bowels of the RSC rehearsal rooms in Clapham developing electronic tracks, with me recording Sola playing various instruments on looping software that allows for instantaneous capture, editing and manipulation of live audio samples.”

Hamlet review at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘Paapa Essiedu soars’

The final score for Hamlet ranged from thunderous percussion played live by Akingbola and Sidiki Dembele, edgy electronica and soaring ensemble choral numbers. Hamlet highlighted not only how music could transform a production, but also the benefits of bringing together a number of musicians gifted in different areas.

Nicholls says: “You’ve got to fit in with what’s happening with the whole. I never enter a rehearsal saying: ‘This is my thing.’ You have to know what the other creatives need from you. You must be agile, flexible and adaptable.”

He continues: “Theatre is so multidimensional. You’re involved with the actors, the director, the designer, the lighting people, movement, everyone. Being present in rehearsal is the best possible way to achieve what you need. Sometimes I just sit there with one headphone on and one off, getting a sense of the actors’ voices. Because I’ve worked a lot in radio drama, I can often work out how the music or sound is going to be by the pitch and timbre of the voices.”


Q&A Jon Nicholls

What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in the record shop Beggars Banquet in Kingston-upon-Thames.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Music for Hamlet: First Cut.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it’s okay to ask for help.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
When I was a child, my grandfather, Maurice Dean, who was a vicar and a very good organist. When I was starting out, the director Jonathan Holloway.

What’s your best advice for aspiring theatre composers/sound designers?
Try to do something musically creative every day, hook up with like-minded people, and don’t be shy about asking more established people for help and advice.

If you hadn’t been a composer/sound designer, what would you have been?
Radio producer.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like to play through the whole score before press night and I try to remember to buy the number one sound operator a drink.

Perhaps his most challenging project to date was director Tom Morris’ acclaimed 2018 production of Touching the Void, which arrives in the West End in November. Based on the life and near-death experience of mountaineer Joe Simpson, the story appeared to defy theatrical realisation.

The eerie, atmospheric, heart-stopping score proved to be one of the show’s greatest strengths when it played at the Bristol Old Vic last year before touring. “We started with the proposition that it was an absolutely crazy idea to try to do a stage version,” says Nicholls. “A big part of my job was to create that relentless psychological pressure inside Joe Simpson’s head, not knowing whether he would live or die. The music helps transport people imaginatively from the big metal climbing-frame set on stage to the inner reality of the characters.”

Josh Williams in Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vi. Photo: Geraint Lewis
Josh Williams in Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vi. Photo: Geraint Lewis

He continues: “I don’t think we realised until quite late on in rehearsals how important the music was in delivering the drama. I’d be in rehearsals all day, then go home and work all night, building dense musical structures, then take what I’d written into rehearsals the next day. It is continuously through-scored, so very cinematic in that way.”

Nicholls worked as sound designer again with Morris on Scottish Opera’s Breaking the Waves, based on Lars von Trier’s 1996 film, which opens at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh later this month, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. The rising US composer, Missy Mazzoli, enlisted Nicholls’ skills to introduce an electronic dimension to her heroine’s inner world.

Switching from composer to sound designer to musical associate is something Nicholls seems to thrive on. He says: “There is an agility you acquire through being both composer and sound designer that makes working with other sound designers and composers very easy.

Sydney Mancasola and Duncan Rock in rehearsals for Breaking the Waves. Photo: Julie Howden
Sydney Mancasola and Duncan Rock in rehearsals for Breaking the Waves. Photo: Julie Howden

“I’ve always tried to stay as open as possible to different opportunities and avenues. I think one of my strengths is being able to adapt quickly to all sorts of different work situations. A key aspect of working in theatre is that people need to feel comfortable with the prospect of spending nine weeks cooped up in a room with you, especially when the process is likely to be creatively unpredictable.”

CV Jon Nicholls

Born: Kingston-upon-Thames, 1969
Training: London College of Music (1992-93); Dartington College (1994)
Landmark productions:
• What I Heard About Iraq, BBC Radio 4 (2008)

• Young America, National Theatre, London (2010)
Idomeneus, Gate Theatre, London (2014)
Mermaid tour, Shared Experience (2015)
Pink Mist, Bristol Old Vic (2015)
• Earthsea, BBC Radio 4 (2016-18)
Good Canary, Rose Theatre, Kingston (2016)
• Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (2016)
• My Brilliant Friend, Rose Theatre, Kingston (2017)
• Touching the Void, Bristol Old Vic (2018)
Dear Elizabeth, Gate Theatre, London (2019)
Agent: Amanda Evans at Scott Marshall

Breaking the Waves is at King’s Theatre from August 21-24. Details: scottishopera.org.uk. Captain Correlli’s Mandolin runs at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre until August 31

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