August is often a quiet month in terms of performances and it certainly turned out to be so in 2015. But ‘behind the scenes’ there is plenty to do: I have been very busy completing scores and tidying up loose ends, and also speaking with performers, promoters and publishers about the exciting possibilities for the months ahead, some involving new pieces, others promise welcome repeat performances of work already completed. Frustratingly, little is yet finalised but things are gradually starting to fall into place.
‘Pandora’ is a project I’ve been working on for some time and I’m now in the final stages of completing it. The history is complex but goes back to 1994 when I composed the incidental music for a production of Franz Wedekind’s ‘Lulu’ plays, presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by ACTS Theatre Company. I was pleased with the music and wanted to develop what I had written into something freestanding and independent of the play, possibly a piece of small-scale music theatre. I knew the opera by Alban Berg, of course, and a couple of years later I ‘discovered’ the film of the plays by GW Pabst dating from 1928, with Louise Brooks in the title role, and later still I saw a professional production of the Wedekind (in a superior translation by Angela Carter) at Harrogate Theatre. The first attempt to develop my work – in a version for soprano and electronics – came to nothing, partly because of limited experience with the available technology at that time, but it did put in my mind the possibility of using the film with live performers to create a multi-layered narrative, a simultaneous re-telling of the story on several levels and across different media. Then in 2012 I heard the Dutch new music ensemble De Ereprijs with their full-frontal instrumental line up of wind instruments with piano and electric guitar and bass. The sound world they occupied seemed a perfect accompaniment for the darkly seductive images of Pabst’s film so I set about developing my earlier fragmentary incidental music for soprano, actress (speaker) and large ensemble, with five short sections of the film projected during the 20 minute piece. There were still obstacles to overcome: I needed texts for actress and singer, and a stylised, edited and shortened version of the film. Several would-be collaborators came onboard – and then got off again! I can understand their issues: each level of the piece, each medium, needed to convey a limited part of the narrative and project the complexity of the tale and its characters from one particular angle. Only when they are all assembled together will the complete picture become clearer and even then the message is oblique, fragmented and discontinuous. I was the only one with that overview and I suspect I didn’t communicate it to them with sufficient conviction. Eventually everything fell into place, but not in a natural order: the music was completed before the final version of the text, for example, which necessitated some re-composition, and the films were edited last of all. The visual elements are intentionally independent of the music; I was very keen to avoid a scenario where the music was merely the servant of the film, simply mimicking the action on screen. The actress and singer will perform from different areas of the stage and interact with the film as well as with the music, and I am still considering introducing a third Lulu character in the form of a dancer, who (like the other live performers and the five films) makes periodic appearances during the piece, sometimes overlapping the appearances of others.
The next challenge is to find the right performers and begin to work towards a first staging of the piece; until then I won’t really know whether or not this long, complex and demanding work really succeeds.