It’s a common experience at the movies: You’re sitting in your seat, tense with anticipation, and at a pivotal moment the camera closes in on the hero while the music swells in the background. In films, a musical score is as integral as camera angles and lighting. It emphasizes and undergirds the action, sets the tone for a scene, and even tells us how to feel in a particular moment. While it’s rarer in theatre, more and more non-musical plays are using composers for similar purposes: Imogen Heap’s score for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, for instance, has generated as much buzz as the magical effects.
According to Florida-based composer Jeremy Douglass, when it comes to scoring straight plays: “You have to just stay out of the way.” Much like other design elements in a theatrical production, underscoring is most effective when it amplifies the action onstage without distracting from it.
But while a film composer will score based on footage that’s already been filmed, in the theatre it’s usually the other way around. Most of the time the sound designer or composer is at work before the performers have even put the show on its feet. While a lighting shift can usually be triggered in real time by a specific line or action, a show’s score cannot operate in the same way. As unpredictability is a defining element of live performance, it is nearly impossible for a piece of recorded music to specifically reflect the shifts in mood or tone throughout a live scene, because, as Douglass says, “You’re just pressing play.” That means that composers for stage plays are often confined to creating scores that are static, cautious, even bland. “You have to distill a complicated scene down to its most basic element and hope that it works, hope that it informs the audience,” says Douglass. While there is always the option to have live musicians plays along with the action, a la the string quartet in the recent Broadway production, sitting onstage playing music by Philip Glass, that’s an expensive option with its own instrumental limitations.
Frustrated by these constraints, Douglass discovered a potential solution when he was asked to score Hedda, Lucy Kirkwood’s adaptation of Ibsen’s 19th-century drama, at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Fla. Director Stuart Fail sent Douglass a copy of the script marked with moments to be accompanied by music. Douglass was concerned, as many of those moments occurred during scenes of tension between the characters. He remembered thinking: “How am I gonna write music for this scene with all these shifting emotions if we’re just gonna press play and not choreograph to the music?”
Unsure how to approach the task, a source of inspiration came to Douglass from another medium entirely: video games. Specifically, the 2014 survival horror game Alien: Isolation. In the game, players must hide from the title creature, with the alien’s proximity to the player indicated by how many layers of music are playing. One layer may include screechy violins, another the rumble of brass instruments. Douglass describes the game’s underscoring as “orchestral tension music,” minus melodies or chord changes. Because it lacks traditional musical development, the layers of the score “can start and stop at any moment within their own loop and it doesn’t sound like it’s starting in the middle,” resulting in music that feels reactive to the player’s every move. Douglass says that this type of composition has been used in video games for a long time, but he was unsure if anyone had tried adapting the style for theatre. Regardless, it seemed like the perfect solution to his uncertainty about scoring Hedda.
So how does this method work? Compositionally it requires a particular style made up of multiple layers of music, with each layer containing “elliptical phrases, these loops that repeat over and over again,” says Douglass. “They don’t have a beginning, they don’t have an end. You can fade a loop up at any moment, and it sounds like the beginning, just because now is the first time you’ve heard it.” The loops must be composed so that they can be played in any combination at a time, whether it be a single loop, three loops, or every loop in the composition. The composer must also decide which combination of loops, or layers, should play during a specific moment. This layering is what creates the musical development of the underscore, replacing what is traditionally fulfilled by melodies and chord changes.
Douglass cites the music of composer Bernard Herrmann, a frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator and master of loop-like motifs to create tension, as a major inspiration for his music choices in Hedda. The loops heard in Douglass’s score feature the instruments of a small string orchestra, a purposefully traditional soundscape that befits the domestic drama happening onstage. “We’ve already given orchestra a space in cinematic underscore,” Douglass explains. “Everybody’s comfortable with it—it’s a character we all know.”
Then, during the performances of Hedda, the loops were programmed into the scene using QLab, a program designed for running sound and light cues that is commonly used in theatres. Using QLab allowed Douglass and sound designer Matthew Ray to program in advance the rate at which different tracks fade in and out, whether it be an immediate change or one gradually happening over 30 seconds—so it could better match the pace of the live scene. Then during performances, an operator only needs to press a button.
Douglass notes that, while looping programs such as Ableton Live exist, using QLab for the underscoring tracks is a more efficient option, as the tracks can run alongside lights or sound effects also in the program. “No special skills are needed if the company already uses QLab,” Douglass wrote in an email. “A lighting tech can run it, because in the end it works just like lights.”
The biggest challenge Douglass and Ray encountered during the process involved volume levels. The levels, or sound intensities, of each track had to be adjusted so that when all of the tracks play together it didn’t overwhelm the dialogue. For Hedda, Douglass set these levels in Logic Pro, the program he used to compose the score. Once the files were transported to QLab, however, making the levels consistent between cues became tricky.
“Music Cue 1 maybe has 10 tracks, and all of the tracks have been exported at different volumes depending on how I want those tracks to be blended when you turn them up,” Douglass says. “So that makes it difficult to keep the levels for each music cue consistent. If Music Cue 2, when all tracks are playing, is still too quiet compared to Music Cue 1 when all tracks are playing, we have to go through and bring up the levels of each track in Music Cue 2 so they match Music Cue 1.” Douglass believes this complication can be avoided in the future by waiting to adjust the levels of the tracks until the files are in QLab.
The next production he hopes to use this approach on is Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower at Jobsite, which he plans to give a contemporary sound with more modern instruments. To help other composers and sound designers who are trying to figure out how to better underscore a play, Douglass plans to create a series of videos outlining his process, so that they feel, as he does, that “you now have infinite control over music developing into a scene.” Score!
Caitlyn Halvorsen is a dramaturg and writer based in the Hudson Valley. A former editorial intern for American Theatre, she is currently working as the education intern for Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. She is a recent graduate of SUNY New Paltz’s Theatre Design and Technology program.