Jules Maxwell and I were in London’s Jerwood Space coffee shop talking about how he was first introduced to composing, creating music in general and his recent role as the composer for The Lost Thing, a reimagining of Shaun Tan’s story co-produced by Candoco Dance Company and the Royal Opera.
Could you give a brief introduction about how you started composing in general…
Ok, so, I came in through the back door of composing. I studied music at school but not at university. I did a Political Science degree at Belfast. I have always been interested in drama. To this day, I still think I’m more interested in drama than I am in music. I think music is one of the most dramatic tools you can have and it interests me. When I went to university I became involved in the drama society making plays and that was my first opportunity to make music. Over the course of university life, I composed for a dozen or more plays. My background began with making music for theatre and playing piano for bands. After university, I did a course for composers, dancers and musicians; I was invited as a composer and this was my first introduction to working with dance. From that I met a few people and made my first gig as a dance composer for a company in Limerick. One thing leads to another and if you do a good job you get invited for more things. I worked with Wayne McGregor on a project he was doing in the mid 90s and then he invited to work with him in London. I came to London in 1996 and began working with different theatre and dance companies around London.
How did you become involved with The Lost Thing?
I had worked with Ben Wright (Artistic Co-Director of Candoco Dance Company and Director of The Lost Thing) on a project in Sweden called Spectrum. When the opportunity came for a commission with the Royal Opera, we were searching for an appropriate book to adapt to dance. We finally decided on The Lost thing. It’s a beautiful book! It’s quite simple. I like the fact that it’s clear and simple. There’s nothing much to it. Boy meets thing, can’t find anywhere for it to belong and takes it to a place where it does belong.
It has a lot of underlying meanings to it as well if you look deeper.
Of course, it can be fleshed out deeper in dance and music terms whilst keeping that simple story really clear for the audience. I found out The Lost Thing is studied in primary schools. So, in an attempt to find a book that works for a family audience, it can exist for 6, 7, 8 year olds but still have a resonance for parents also.
What research did you do for composing? Any influence from the book itself? Anything that stood out when researching?
Obviously, I looked at the book. We looked at it in a lot of detail. There’s a lot of detail that’s not completely obvious. In the illustrations and also in the text. All this stuff is fascinating, even the blurb. Its written in a certain way with all sorts of detail. There’s one of the pieces that we called The Capitalist Machine Song that brings these details in. Even the biography of Shaun Tan at the end of the book ties in. Although this isn’t in the book, this is part of the story. There’s a lot in the book that I find inspiring, interesting and very compelling. There’s also something about the makeup of it, in a dystopian world. There’s a sadness of it that has an impact of musical textures in terms of instrumentation and the instruments I wanted to use.
That moves us on to what I wanted to ask. Did you have specific sounds you wanted to use? Did certain characters have a sound in your mind?
I had a sound world in my mind. The way I work, I’m not a normal classical composer who sits and scribbles notes. I’ve got to create an audio composition. I would try different instruments and change them if they didn’t sound right. I then developed a palette of instrumentation. I knew I wasn’t composing for an orchestra or one instrument. I knew I was composing for 5-7 instruments. I did a project at the Globe Theatre with a similar line up: cello, bass clarinet and percussion – they sounded beautiful together. I’ve always been interested in percussion. I’m quite interested in the vibraphone. It has a slightly jazzy tone with a sad sympathetic feel and I think because of the jazz, it sounds slightly retro.
You can hear the jazz influence in parts of The Lost Thing music from what I’ve experienced in rehearsals. Although it’s a children’s story, it’s quite gloomy, isn’t it?
If you look at the front cover it’s quite gloomy but then again, it’s quite bright. The bright light casts shadows. We were trying to work out whether it’s set in the past or future. In some ways, it’s quite retro and seems to be a communist world with steam punk. I think it’s also futuristic. I looked at the book with Ben a lot. I was involved with conversation with Ben, the director and Jude, the dramaturg, on how to present The Thing. I had previous experience on song choices and textures and the line of musicians they wanted to use. We have had multiple periods of research for finding material over the last year.
So, the entire piece is aimed at families and children. Have you ever composed pieces targeted at families before?
I think I’ve always been interested in music that’s accessible. I’m interested in melody and harmony. There’s a lot of contemporary classical music to listen to. Its challenging, deliberately, musically and compositionally. I have always been more interested in melody, which I think is more accessible to younger audiences and adults. I’ve always been interested in the tension between melody and discord. The simplicity is quite helpful. When a melody disappears, it becomes quite difficult to listen to. I’m not a terribly sophisticated composer, I didn’t train as one. My palette is restricted a little bit but that’s not necessarily a disadvantage. I think when you have fewer choices, you can sometimes have more.
I’m hoping this piece will appeal to an opera audience, dance audience and to an audience who interested in theatre and music in general. It’s not a pure opera. It’s eclectic and difficult to categorise. It’s not pop, jazz and opera. It feels like a combo of all those things. It shifts quite a lot. Hopefully you never get bored.
You mentioned that the pauses were episodes/ islands and almost like turning a page. How much of it physically being a book inspired you?
I think if you set out to make anything into something, you’ve got to split it into small sections. So, when I began working through the story, sections began to develop.
When you see the chunks of sentences in the book, do you see chunks in the music?
I went through it and began to chop it into sections or songs. Ben and I talked about islands and how there are 16/17 islands in the piece. It was useful for me to see them as islands because we created our own vocabulary. Sometimes they correlate to turning a page. You have these islands and you have to work out how to get to the second island and so on – you need to build a bridge or swim across to it. That still remains a question to me. Do the sections overlap? Are they too close to each other? Is there space between sections? I think at times we will need space between sections because of practical reasons: Change of set or the musicians have to change instruments and then another question arises, how do we make it into a positive?
When composing, did you think of the movement the artists on stage would be creating?
I think that’s why it’s good to have a long time before you go into rehearsal space. You have periods of research and development where I can propose a piece of music. Ben can propose a piece of movement and try and put them together. See whether it works. We both adapt depending on what we see.
Are you involved in any other projects at the moment? If so, how do you manage your time and balance each one?
At the moment, there’s nothing immediate. I’m starting another dance project with Charlotte Vincent in January and then work with a band called Dead Can Dance who are currently doing a world tour. In April 2020 we tour USA, South America and Australia. I have an album of work coming out March/ April 2020 but those things don’t immediately impact this work. Whilst on tour with the band earlier this year, I was composing The Lost Thing but I can combine things as a composer because actually all I need is a computer – you don’t need a studio.
When you compose, do you have to do any kind of warm-up to get into the creation zone?
I find my music is generated by where I am, what I am and who I’m listening to. There was a podcast I’ve been listening to over the summer which was influencing me. I might find it interesting and then go on the piano and make something. Originally it originates with podcasts and whatever music I listen to at any particular time has an impact. I find work that I use for a project has actually been generated a long time ago and was made for another project which wasn’t used. There’s a lot of things I’ve made for this that will get used for something in the future. It’s like a sculptor – finding bits of old clay used for a previous sculpture. That’s how it works for me.
I can find the same thing when choreographing dance. You realise it’s not working out with certain music and a style but say to yourself ‘I’m going to hold onto it’.
I think that’s great and as it should be. We were living in France for the last 6 years, so some of the music has been inspired by that place but then we moved to London in the summer, so some of it was influenced by moving. I think if you can connect your work with your life, it’s a very rich resource.
Is there anyone/ anything that’s inspires you? Or, is it more audio or visual things that inspire you?
The things that inspire me at the minute are multi-faceted. It could be a film director, actor, singer, composer or painter. I don’t really listen to a lot of music. I listen to people talking on the radio.
I feel what/who inspires you changes every day. You could be walking down the street and something takes you into ideas.
Yes. There is very little that doesn’t inspire me. I was involved in a little dance performance on Saturday. There were other dance pieces I was watching and I found inspiration from them. Things in this room inspire me. I have quite specific musical inspirations that go back a long way. Certain composers I feel I can aspire towards. I’ve enjoyed following their journey so feel connected to their work.
Like writers having writer’s block, do you ever get this and how do you cope?
My biggest block is laziness. If I can get to my desk or piano, it starts to happen and can last hours. A friend who is a swimmer was describing his challenges of training is to actually get to the poolside. If he has done that, he has done the hard work. Another problem is getting into a block of repeating patterns. For me, I get to the piano and find I’m stuck in the same groove. As a composer or musician, if you move to another instrument, you can get into new ideas.
It’s similar to choreography when people have their own styles of movement and try to get out of that box of repetition and predictability.
If you can obstruct and limit your way, that can really produce work and ideas that are much more exciting and interesting. These breakthrough moments come in very unexpected ways and that’s really interesting to me. I’m likely to get an idea when washing the dishes instead of sitting at a piano. I’m also likely to have an idea just walking down the street. There’s something about when you’re moving your mind works better. When I’m in a room of people, ideas flow quicker, even if the people aren’t involved in my task – just to feel part of that group. The other big thing about how music in The Lost Thing is developing is working with Tim, the Musical Director. He literally makes my music better by changing little things, adding detail for musicians and singers – even the musicians and singers are positively altering it too.
The Lost Thing is already a book and a short film. What do you think Candoco Dance Company and the Royal Opera are adding to the story?
Well I would love Shaun Tan to see this as he was involved in both the book and film. It would be interesting to see what he thinks of it.
In the book, The Thing looks machine-like, it’s interesting that Ben Wright has brought the environment to the story.
Ben is very committed to the notion of adapting the book to include a message around the environment. It’s new and great! The utopia scene where The Thing goes to utopia will just be the sound of the rainforest for six minutes and that feels like a very radical music decision, but my conviction is if you actually listen to the rainforest, it’s very musical, sophisticated and dense with sections of instruments playing with one another. There are rhythms, melodies and it is as sophisticated as any western classical music. You just need to listen to it to understand. That’s what we are trying to do, to get the audience to listen to that. I think it’s an interesting idea and I’m really curious what Shaun Tan might think of it.
Do you have any specific hopes as to how people will experience this piece?
I’d like everyone to feel something, to be compelled and drawn to the story and the love of Shaun – the main character. I’d like the adults and children to be moved by the story, surprised and find bits funny. It’s not a long piece. I hope the critics will like it as a piece of work. It’s got substance!