How do you write a Documentary Song?

How do you write a Documentary Song?

Arriving at the National Theatre Studio in the spring of 2007 as part of an experimental week designed to bring together composers and playwrights, I had no idea that I’d be working with a ‘verbatim’ practitioner, still less that engaging with the verbatim approach to create stage and screen versions of London Road over the following eight years would turn out to be one of the most challenging and invigorating experiences of my life. Alecky Blythe’s chosen form occupies a unique territory somewhere between journalism, documentary and drama. She sniffs out a story and takes herself right into the heart of it, building relationships with people who have been affected by events, and at the same time very sensitively and skilfully drawing out their perspectives on their own experience. These recorded interviews then become the basis for her audio-scripts which actors perform with the help of in-ear monitors, reproducing what they hear as accurately as they can in an act of near-perfect imitation. When we met, she had just started to interview residents of Ipswich who had lived through the murders of 2006. I confess my first thought was ‘how on earth can I turn this into music?’ But when we started listening to her interviews, I began to glimpse a new way I could approach song writing, through an intensification of one of my existing methods of composing.

In contrast to the ‘transcript’ style of verbatim theatre, Alecky’s tradition prioritises how things are said just as much as what is said. Often when I’ve set conventional texts to music, I’ve spoken the words to myself, transcribing the rhythms and the melodic rise and fall of my own voice, to try to arrive at the most truthful and direct expression of the text. And here was an opportunity to refine that process to a much purer variation, without any authorial or poetic interpretation – not to mention my own bad acting – polluting the connection between the real person and his or her representation in music. Copying other people is a huge part of being human – an adaptive strategy. Whether it’s watching Eastenders or reading Pride & Prejudice or gossiping over a coffee, we tell stories and we absorb stories in imitation of (and preparation for) life situations. We copy, and we rehearse. We never get it right first time, so we copy again, and rehearse again and again until we get a better grip on reality and a better understanding of the people we share the world with. In many ways the particular strain of verbatim practiced by Alecky is, in the very detail of its method, an expression of the social utility of imitation; a ‘copying-in-art’ of the copying we all do in life to survive and get on with each other. Life is after all, in some ways, pure theatre.

In this sense it was perhaps fortuitous that I had a long history of doing (usually affectionate) impressions of family and friends which arguably made me better qualified for this collaboration than did all my previous experience writing music for the stage. Focussing on the crucial effect of ‘how things are said’, I began notating the interviews using strict rules of transcription. The rhythm, the rise-and-fall, the absolute pitch, preserving the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, the hesitations and unnecessary repetitions. For all its rigour this ended up feeling like free jazz in which I set the audio absolutely as I found it, and musical structures had to bend to follow. I found the results uncommunicative and chaotic. The music was merely doubling up, delivering nothing more than what the words already communicated. The words and the music by themselves were each better without the other. It quickly became clear that having constructed a methodological straitjacket the only way I could break out of it was to create a formal one – imposing equally strong underlying musical structures which would convey the sense of verses, choruses, contrasts and other traditional facets of lyric form in the absence of the text doing any of that work. To this end I invented formalised, completely un-spontaneous, totally planned and musically necessary repetitions, to effect a sense of choric ritual, producing tension and contrast between unplanned and planned repetition. I kept the principle of overhanging the barlines and phrase ends; vocal lines were still unconstrained by traditional phrase structures but needed to be underpinned and tightly supported by them nevertheless. I also gave myself permission to break the rules when they didn’t help, but this was mainly through alterations of pitch to allow recurring harmonic structures to retain coherence, with the rhythmic transcription for the most part remaining unaltered. As well as attempting to capture spoken language in music through transcription I wanted the flavour of the music surrounding the words to have something of the texture of real experience. A music of the ongoing flux of lived experience as each instant succeeds the last, the kaleidoscopic rush of conflicting moods, a succession of different musical colours co-existing without contradicting each other – this was an opportunity to be almost chaotically eclectic with everything held together by the thread of testimony and the underlying sense of musical form.

Above all I wanted the songs at the end of the process still to sound like people just talking. The seamless transition between dialogue and song is built in to the concept. Take away the musical accompaniment and the effect, before the more engineered musical repetitions set in, should be like just… having a chat with someone. Restore the accompaniment however, and while the spontaneous un-versified language retains its continuously evolving complexity it now seems inevitable, deliberate. What was unplanned now appears perfectly predestined, to disconcerting but not unpleasurable effect, tickling the language sense into a more vivid relationship with meaning. I wanted to infuse every line, however complex or long or throwaway, with this inevitable quality of a well known tune, the sense that it couldn’t be any other way, so that the transformation of words into song is inescapable, underlining the ritual aspect of the experience of a community in the process of dealing with awful events.

Not only do the particulars of this story demand such a level of respect, the residents of London Road showed enormous trust in giving us their words. There is something intensely moving about the texture and quality of their moment-to-moment experience, captured on recordings, returning a dead present to life. London Road needed to be a witness statement etched in marble.

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