Interview: Music Technology (November 1988)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

The Syncalvier And The Stage

by John Walters

"I have it [music] in the blood, as it were. 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."

"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 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 [
Henceforward…] 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'."

"No play starts with one theme. The Christmas before I wrote it [
Henceforward…], 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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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...'"

"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."

"There are a lot of nightmares. 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."

"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."