Interview: Music Technology (1988)

This interview was published in the November 1988 edition of Music Technology magazine.

The Syncalvier And The Stage

by John Walters

It's a curious room. No windows, and no light comes through the heavy steel shutters outside. The room is filled with some very sophisticated electronic equipment. Not an amateur electronic rat's nest of wire and cable, but custom-built units containing computers, tape and disk recorders, racks of amplifiers, filters, reverb units and gismos of all descriptions. At one end, several keyboards.

Whilst the immaculate technical equipment is kept lovingly protected from the slightest speck of dust, the rest of the room - the living area - is in fair chaos.

Sound uncomfortably familiar? Alan Ayckbourn, playwright, scourge of Thatcher's Britain and tireless chronicler of man's inhumanity to women, has written a play about a composer of electronic music. London theatre-goers, not previously known to be avid readers of Music Technology, will soon be treated to a demonstration of the delights and dangers of sampling. The above is an edited extract from the stage directions to
Henceforward... which opens at London's Vaudeville Theatre on November starring Ian McKellen and Jane Asher, and directed by the author.

The music was specially written and realised on an New England Digital Synclavier, by long-time Ayckbourn musical associate Paul Todd. An earlier production of
Henceforward... has already delighted audiences at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, on a British council tour of Egypt, Poland, Turkey and Germany, and on a provincial tour of England: Bath, Crewe, Hull, Poole, Norwich, Cambridge and Wolverhampton.

Of course it's not just about music. But by pegging his drama on an obsessive composer who literally samples everything that breathes, Ayckbourn has devised a clever metaphor for all creative artists whose personal lives are shredded by their search for perfection. I spoke to the genial playwright at his home in Scarborough where he was happy to talk about music, theatre, sampling, urban violence, the narcotic of live performance and just about anything else that came up. Like a character from one of his plays, his easy conversational manner cloaks deceptively rigorous ideas which will be of interest to anyone who regularly locks themselves in combat with a computer to make music. First topic of the day concerns Ayckbourn's musical background.

"I have it in the blood, as it were", he replies. "My late father was a violinist - deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra - and I inherited a love of music, although I don't really understand it. I don't understand the nuts and bolts of music. I realise that it's something to do with maths, which baffles me, but it remains a purely emotive and rather mystic experience. So it has a magic which alas, the theatre no longer has. The swish of the curtain going up merely fills me full of anxiety.

"Music is quite obsessive, I spend an awful lot of money on it. I use it a lot when I'm writing, probably not while I'm writing, but during the time I'm writing. I get drawn to various types of music - when I was writing
Absent Friends I must have bought every requiem mass that was ever written. I went through an appalling phase of heavy metal for a long time - I think that was around Henceforward... time - experiencing the violence of modern music."

Ayckbourn's first play,
The Square Cat, was about the '60s three-chord / Tommy Steele / coffee bar era of British pop culture in which the 20-year old actor / assistant stage manager wrote himself a part as a rock-singing guitarist. He spent another five years as an actor before joining the BBC as a drama producer, [1] but continued to write until the success of plays like Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves enabled him to write and direct full-time in 1970. [1]

"My first real musical experience was the biggest and the most disastrous - writing the lyrics and the book for
Jeeves with Andrew Lloyd Webber", recalls Ayckbourn. It is his only major failure to date. "I know why", he explains, "because we didn't spend enough time preparing for it or really finding out what a musical was about. It was quite extraordinary, like a bunch of people with no torches in a coal-mine. I'd been used to writing here, where I'm in total control of all the elements.

"It always seemed to me that the book-writer in most musicals is the poor relation to lyricists and composers. A lot of musicals are hung around the most appalling books. Dreadful, the dialogue's appalling and the dramatic quality between the music and lyrics and the book, it seems to me is often quite drastic... unless they clearly have some well-known story-line."

It sounds as if the playwright and Lloyd Webber learned entirely different lessons from
Jeeves.

"I wanted to write a strong book. Paul Todd and I did a big musical together called
Making Tracks about a very seedy local studio: one electronic wizard and another guy who's hoping to make a lot of money discovering the new Beatles. They've borrowed money from the local Mafia and the heavies are now arriving, demanding to either get their money back or to see a major recording artist. Their last chance was this girl one of them had seen singing in a pub while she was pretty legless, and she couldn't sing at all, so it was really a musical about a girl who couldn't sing - 'Singing In The Rain' stuff."

Ayckbourn and Todd have also written another musical,
Suburban Strains and several lunch-time and late-night reviews for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough. But Henceforward... is in no sense a musical; the short pieces of sequenced, synthesised music that Todd has written are important dramatic moments. The play is about a composer, Jerome Watkins, who has lost (and briefly regains) the will to write music. Carefully plotted, and ranging from knockabout farce, through Gothic sci-fi, to scenes of great intimacy and seriousness, it depicts his attempts to get custody of his teenage daughter by hiring a young actress to play the part of his fiancée. A babbling technology-obsessed social worker, a clanking domestic robot and Corinna, Jerome's brittle ex-wife, complete the small cast. Lupus, a suicidal rock drummer, appears regularly on Jerome's video answering machine. But why write about a musican?

"It seemed to me that a writer, or a playwright or a novelist, on stage is one of the most boring characters you can think of because there is nothing to see. Somehow or other I wanted an audience to get as close to an act of creation as they could. It seemed important that in the end, he, my hero should do something. Then I asked Paul to look into state-of-the-art sampling stuff and what was going on and he said there is this extraordinary machine up in North London, the Synclavier, and this nice girl up there called Yasmin. So he and I went up, and she showed us a billionth of what it can do. It did what I hoped it would, but obviously I pushed it a bit further. Everything it did I made it do at 15 times the speed because we couldn't sit around for eight weeks as she and Paul did in order to sample and re-synthesise sound.

"One of the major elements of the play is the way a writer piratises the personal experiences he has. And in a sense can sometimes betray them. I wanted to say this not too ponderously but at the same time make a point. A man who kept digital recorders running all the time in every single room in the house including the bathroom seemed to me the ultimate - the man obsessed with 'the right sound'."

Henceforward... is set in the near future. Ayckbourn conjures up a bleak, violent world of private affluence and public squalor. Jerome lives in a no-go area of North London patrolled by the 'Daughters of Darkness', a kind of militant feminist Hell's Angels. The play's action is punctuated by the clang of their missiles against Jerome's shutters.

"No play starts with one theme", comments the author. "The Christmas before I wrote it, a friend of my ex-wife came over. He lives in Burnley and he's called Fred Gittings and he does the most erudite research into cryptograms and hieroglyphics to do with the ancient world - he's always deciphering inscriptions on tombs. He's an expert. But this man lives in this tower block in the middle of a wasteland. Unemployment is high and the vandalism's extraordinary, and it's like a war-zone. His girlfriend said 'one night I'm going to get mugged, die or they're going to burn this house down'. He said 'well I think somebody has to stay there'. And I had this quite romantic image of this one beacon of light in the middle of chaos. He was doing something pure and good and positive, and everything else was crumbling. So I thought up this tale of a composer writing his final work that nobody would ever hear - nobody cared about."

Jerome's most widely-heard composition turns out to be a jingle, as he explains to Zoe:

Jerome: Tell your friends that if they remember those baby powder commercials they showed two or three years ago, ten times a night, every night for about eight months - then you met the man who wrote that music and wished to God he hadn't.

Frustrated, angry and creatively blocked, he rages at the break-up of his marriage.

Jerome: She wasn't, in the end, prepared to live with a creative person. That's what it boiled down to. She wasn't prepared to fit in with the lifestyle of a creative entity. Such as myself. That's all. I'm not saying she was a woman who refused to adapt or even begin to understand the pressures that a creative person can undergo. I'm not saying that about her. After all, why should she? She's just a moody bank manager.
ZOE: (sympathetically) No. And you probably didn't understand a lot about banking, did you?
JEROME: (sharply) What's that got to do with it?

Ayckbourn, happy and relaxed, reflects on his remarkably successful artistic career.

"I think I'm very lucky. Most of my output is comprehensible and seems to be acceptable to my contemporaries. I think musicians, when they are seriously working and trying to explore new areas are miles ahead. You know people are still struggling to keep up with Stravinsky really, in terms of the listening public."

Why should there be such a difference between what appear to be comparable forms of contemporary art? Is it simply luck?

"No, you work hard for your luck", says Ayckbourn. "I was brought up in a theatre where there were two huge pressures on me. One was from my fellow artists, who wanted something worthy of their talents. They said 'we've given up x televisions, we want the work to be worthwhile'. The other side was the management saying 'unless some people come to see this play we won't be open tomorrow. We rely on our box office'. So I've always continued to try and write intelligent entertainment - something that could be appreciated on a couple of levels. If you really weren't at all interested in the nature of creativity and all the questions I hope
Henceforward... raises, you might at least be interested in whether he'll get his daughter back.

"And that's not writing down to people so much as there are various strands, and it makes sense to try and keep a human level in whatever you're writing. But that's not a particularly easy thing to do with music, which is a much more abstract thing."

The modern composer, using modern technology, can actually produce a finished product - just him, without anybody else involved...

"I think it makes it more difficult in a funny way. There is a danger in directing your own plays, that you miss whole corners. It's not a pretentious thing to say, but when you're writing, you're writing well, your subconscious is also writing along with you and there are quite a lot of things that you don't even know you've done. Actors point out things to me that I didn't know were there."

When that happens, does it enrich the play?

"It does. As long as I'm generous enough and flexible enough to control the initial concept that I had, and to make sure that arrived safely at B from A. But in between I think it's very important to leave it open sufficiently for other creative people to put their three-pennorth in. I mean, the designer to produce some ideas, the lighting designer, and of course principally the actors to add, hopefully, another dimension onto the characters.

"I do see my writing very much in terms of a musical score. Even the way I put a page down, I'm very careful about it, because you can often influence an actor's phrasing and interpretation by the way you set out a page. I was influenced quite early by
Harold Pinter. He is a poet who writes plays, I think. He's very fond of repeating words or turning a well-known cliché into something extraordinary. I picked up quite a lot of that from him and began to write my own peculiar naturalistic, but not really naturalistic dialogue with things like repeated words. Women who say 'I usually go out usually when I go out...'"

Ayckbourn has a reputation for writing very quickly, polishing off a full-length play in less than a week after a period of preparatory work. But he wrote
Henceforward... twice, the earlier version being a "very brutal, very unremitting, very dark piece", which he realised would have been unacceptable. So how does the computer-assisted approach of the Synclavier relate to the art of the playwright?

"I looked at the Synclavier and it was producing the music and it was correcting the beats and it was doing this and it was doing that. And you think 'well I dunno, it's getting uncomfortably like it's writing it'. It isn't quite, obviously there is a creative input. It worried me that the old image of four jazz musicians splitting a bottle of scotch and then playing for the hell of it was slowly disappearing. Let alone the composer who finished his score and presented it to a symphony orchestra or hammered it out with a soloist. There was a feeling that it was getting very arid. And I think Jerome suddenly realises that you need people to create. I'm absolutely convinced of that - if I was pulled away from people I'm absolutely sure that I would dry up writing."

In order to achieve something, most composers find it desirable to cut themselves off a little bit. How does Ayckbourn reconcile the two elements in his writing?

"I'm lucky in that I have a double job. I'm a director by real trade, I mean about 11 months of the year. And running a theatre here, or even working as a freelance in London, which I do occasionally, you are forced into people's company. In the theatre you have to deal with the staff, you have to deal with the public to a certain extent, and you have to sort of say 'Hi, everybody!'. And more importantly, actors are also people. I deal a lot with very different people in a very close and very personal proximity. I find that quite exciting - I steal a lot of material from actors."

The question that has to be asked concerns Ayckbourn's relationship with his lead character. Is Jerome a nightmare projection of the playwright?

"There are a lot of nightmares", he responds. "There's the nightmare of that's what'll happen to the country, there's the nightmare of that's what could happen to the Arts... But in the end, art is art is art."

Could cinema offer a more satisfactory outlet for Ayckbourn's work?

"I'm too selfish really. What I really enjoy is a live performance. Like old rock groups who go out for no reason at all. The actual excitement of even an indifferent house is far removed from watching your own work on telly and hoping someone might ring and say they've seen it. I've seen a few plays of mine on telly, but if the show works - and even the most successful play will have a one in two strike rate - some performances just burn. It's that indefinable chemistry which keeps us doing it. It's fascinating, where a group of completely disparate people will suddenly get involved and at the end of that two hours there's a high. The finished product is when the audience and the actors are making magic.

"Was it Keller, Hans Keller, came to talk to us once, saying 'Anyone who listens to gramophone records is crazy'? The only possible way to listen to music is live, because as soon as you have a record you destroy the performance? I think in a certain sense that's true of stage performance over televised or filmed performance. In the end risks are taken on stage. Sometimes disastrously, sometimes brilliantly, because you can do it again. You know you get many shots even though you never get it perfect."

Website Notes:
[1] The timeline here can get a little convoluted: Alan Ayckbourn joined the Library Theatre, Scarborough, as an Acting Stage Manager in 1957 before going onto write his first play,
The Square Cat, in 1959. He began directing in 1961 and retired from professional acting in 1964. Between 1965 and 1970 he worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC (during which time he also wrote Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves) before becoming Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in 1972.

Copyright: Music Technology. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.