Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunday Feature: Tara Litvack on Creating Music for Theatre (a case study)

Finding Musicality in Real Life
Scoring The Laramie Project 
by Tara Litvack

Tara Litvack is a Toronto-based musical director, accompanist, arranger, and vocal coach. She is an honours graduate of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Tara is on faculty at Bravo Academy and is the resident accompanist for Tracy Michailidis’ Songbook Masterclass Series. Selected Credits include: Set Those Sails: A Night of William Finn (Self-Produced), One Song Glory (Acting Up Stage Co.), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Hart House Theatre), tick, tick…BOOM! (Half-Pint Theatre), Into the Woods (Bravo Academy), Spring Awakening, RENT (Toronto Youth Theatre), Into the Woods (Stageworks Toronto), Hair (VCDS), Life Is Sweet, There’s Something About Ashley (Ashleyx2 Productions), The Laramie Project (Composer – Theatre Aurora). Currently, she is working with the award-winning team, Reza Jacobs and Robert McQueen in Acting Up Stage's upcoming production of Falsettos as well as music directing Anne and Gilbert at Bravo Academy. She is also composing and arranging music for Honest Aesop's in the Toronto Fringe Festival.

Creating music for theatre is a process I'm still discovering. It's hard to call myself a "composer" although I do find musicality in the daily life of others as well as myself. I try to lend that musical ear of the mundane to my compositions whenever underscoring theatre. In the past, I composed music for The Laramie Project and currently I am composing and designing live sound effects for a Toronto Fringe Production of Honest Aesop's produced by Tarradiddle Productions. I will use these two examples to give an idea of my own personal process of finding the music in "straight" theatre.

I wanted to capture the feeling of isolation, calmness, warmth, that either contrasted or enhanced the horrific acts that took place against Matthew Shepard.

The Laramie Project has always been a powerful piece for me. It will always strike a chord in people, but having lived in Colorado as a child, and having visited Wyoming several times there was always a sense of closeness to this piece. I knew what the environment was like out there and I think it was the most integral part of the music. I wanted to capture the feeling of isolation, calmness, warmth, that either contrasted or enhanced the horrific acts that took place against Matthew Shepard. There's a certain expanse of the sky there. And a certain temperature in the wind. The colour palette of your environment is very different. It can be rich and green near the mountains or dusty and beige away from the mountains. But most of all there is a sense of aloneness, slightly different than isolation because it can have an overwhelming quality to it. It's very striking to think of someone being left for dead on a road anywhere but on top of it where it feels like there is no one around to hear or see you cry for help. That whole concept was the first step to my process. 

How do I depict that through music? I started off with an interval and built upon it. That interval figure was how I based my harmonies and structure both in large and small scale. I improvised a lot from there. Sketched out what i liked and why I liked it, in my own language which can often be symbols or shapes or squiggles.... anything to remind me what exactly I did and what sound I'm going for. Rests were very important. To use them without restraint and let the sound breathe and settle - like wind or dust. Then I figured out the basic theme off of that interval as I started to manipulate it in different ways - different keys, octaves, inverting it, expanding it, ornamenting it. All the pieces in the end sounded similar to each other. It was important to me to have a consistent, cohesive voice throughout the piece. I think that is a trap young composers can fall into. Being eager and wanting to put a lot of variety in and flex their muscles of how many genres and styles they can compose without having a singular voice holding the piece as a whole together. I didn't want to fall into that trap. 

I read the script of the scenes a lot. Out loud, whispered, with unusual inflections.... To experiment and see where the temperature rises and falls in the speech pattern. I didn't base it off the actor's speech pattern - I wanted to base it off the text and the text alone. Because it is a recounting of an actual event - not a recounting of a portrayal. Certain words would amp up the tension and certain events would cause the music to move forward either in tempo or harmonically. Some scenes had very wide vowels.... Maybe a preference of the actual person. Some people choose language that reflects the geography. I find west coast people have wider vowels, softer consonants compared to the east coast. That dictates also how I'm going to find my harmonies and intervals. Some sonorities depict a closed or harder or darker sound than others. 

What turned out to be lack of resources actually turned out for the better.

Since I don't record that much and for this particular project had a very small budget, I recorded it at home. What turned out to be lack of resources actually turned out for the better. The recorder picked up outside noise of cars passing by on the street, which in the end I thought was perfect. Because that was the scene. A young man left for dead on the road with cars passing by. 

Right now I'm working on a show called Honest Aesop's. I can't give too much away since we are just in the beginning of rehearsals. But it's no surprise to anyone that Aesop's Fables feature many animals of all kinds. My challenge right now is finding the pure spirit of that animal and embody it into music. The differences between small and large animals in how they move and how they think will dictate how the music should be. I'm trying to find musicality in not only the way the animal is perceived (for example a lion being king of the jungle) but for what they actually are. I look at the shape of their bodies, extremities, what they eat, how they move, how long do they sleep, how fast do their hearts beat and mouth chew, and where the real fun comes in is whether I can anthropomorphize that animal and find inspiration from a human musical icon. I can't give too much away, but for example, right now there is an insect in a fable that reminds me of Mick Jagger or David Bowie in the way it moves and interacts and is built. So I'm going to draw on that music to figure out how to enhance that particular character's story and make it three dimensional and interactive with its environment. 

Overall, this is a process that takes time I have discovered and many mistakes before landing on something you like. It's also a process that requires a keen sense to observation both big and small and thinking of the world in very abstract ways. But to be honest, I like seeing the world that way. 

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