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Percussionist Evelyn Glennie: Listen – immersive sound opens up amazing theatrical possibilities

Evelyn Glennie. Photo: Philipp Rathmer

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie has made her first foray into theatre with the RSC’s Troilus and Cressida, creating a sound world integral to the production. The experience, she says, shows the thrilling potential of such collaboration

Performing as a soloist with orchestras all over the world never ceases to be enlightening, challenging and at times a little terrifying. And so you would think that being asked to compose a theatre score would be relatively safe territory.

But when Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Compan [1]y, asked if I’d like to score that titan of a play Troilus and Cressida, I was thrown completely out of my comfort zone, with no experience in the environment of theatremaking. But the hook, the opportunity to create a narrative journey in music, with creatives as inspiring as Greg and the RSC team, was too good to miss.

The culture of the RSC was evident from the start. From the read-through onwards, the company’s enthusiasm and vision was infectious and I have relished this experience of ensemble work. Orchestras have to move as one body and be sensitive to each others’ every sound. But in theatre, I feel there is more of a trial-and-error extroversion to the process and more room to fail if necessary. Like a sponge, I have observed, listened and asked a lot of questions.

While hearing people listen with their ears, I listen with my whole body. Listening is an action whereas hearing is a medical condition. I am profoundly deaf. Profound deafness covers a wide range of symptoms, although it is commonly taken to mean that the quality of the sound heard is not sufficient to be able to understand the spoken word from sound alone. In my case the amount of volume is reduced compared with normal hearing but, more importantly, the quality of the sound is very poor.

Listening is much more immersive in theatre because of the many disciplines involved: the spoken word, movement, space and where sounds can come from, on and off the stage. Sound designer, sound technicians and sound mixers are all involved in the outcome of what I compose. Listening is as much a used word and action for myself as a deaf person as it is for a hearing person.

It’s important for me that many of the sounds in Troilus and Cressida are felt throughout the whole body, which is why the types of live sounds played and the many pre-recorded sounds we made from my home are extreme in dynamic and frequency range. This is a play based on sound scales more than melody.

The ‘Mad Max’ approach to the sound design is ideal for the shapes, sounds and execution of percussion. With such a strongly visualised production, it was a joy to see the set elements echoing Shakespeare’s words and to then, in turn, reflect these in the music.

I have worked extremely closely with the musicians to experiment with the sounds they are creating and the chosen instruments, bearing in mind they don’t have so much space for large set-ups.

There are also logistical positional things to think about regarding monitors and intercom between musicians on ‘cheese pieces’, which are platforms for members of the band, and those in the band room. In this production, the percussionists on the cheese pieces are mobile and venture on to the stage to play on oil cans and a homemade instrument from my collection called a barimbulum. The musicians in the band room include a keyboardist, a singer, a wind player and an electric guitarist.

I have to give my trust over to the sound mixer in controlling these sounds in all parts of the theatre. Every person in a production is crucial to its function and success. Continued open discussion with all parties is fundamental for each element of a play to improve.

Metallic sound-worlds complement the hardness of the costumes, large containers, motorbikes and the rest. Percussion also brings out the more romantic, soft aspects of metal. The whole set, in fact, becomes an instrument, producing sounds that are direct and surprising. The actors’ reactions to instruments was particularly fun. They want to play with everything. They can’t stop touching and tapping the instruments.

Troilus and Cressida is not definable as sitting in any one genre. It’s a bit of everything – tragedy, romance, comedy – and so the music can leap from one mood to the next. There are no rules.

Troilus and Cressida review at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘inventive but uneven’ [2]

In a way, myself and Dave Price, the co-composer and sound designer, are able to reinvent the play through music as the actors are constantly reinventing the play through interpretation. Writing a score in such an organic way, in parallel to the rehearsal process, is very liberating as the door to new ideas is open and you are immersed in the experience.

Specifically, the production has two main sound worlds – that of the Trojans and that of the Greeks. The Trojan’s world is more refined, with larger phrases that are more sophisticated, harmonic, and organised. The Greeks’ world has harder sounds, is more ‘bitty’, more chaotic and less refined. Some characters have their own themes but always with a twist. The main love song, sung by Pandarus, will be accompanied by an eclectic sound world or kalimbas, small cajons and other odd sounds on top of a timpani head.

Another unexpected element of the process has been the digital aspects of sound creation. There is an extra kind of magic in observing a team of sound technicians take what I have composed and mix the sound in conjunction with all that is happening on stage.

In a way, listening is so profound because we are ‘listening’ to all the nuances of every aspect of the production; my music is not just about the notes on the page and having an audience listen to only that element, but about how it relates to the entire play. There are definite parallels with making TV, where you have a team of editors working to combine different shots for broadcast.

As it happens, the RSC Live team will broadcast Troilus and Cressida to more cinemas in November, with a video of my music-making process being transmitted in the interval. The way technology and performance are moving closer together never ceases to amaze me and it’s exciting. This whole experience has given me the impetus to embark on more work for theatre.