An Update

Over the last few months I have been properly settling into London and into music college and my degree. I moved into my flat three weeks ago, and have been busily getting set up with all the usual living necessities, as well as a digital piano so that I can compose at home whenever I need to, rather than needing to use a practice room for the trying out of ideas.
College is now well and truly underway, with many of the year’s projects starting in the last month or so. I am now busy writing a piece for two piano players and two percussionists for a postgraduate ensemble, in which I am experimenting with some of the more mathematical and procedural methods of composing. We have also started working with choreographers from the London School of Contemporary Dance to create a dance piece with live musicians from the college and dancers from the LCDS. It is very exciting to be working with the choreographer and dancers, and although I know very little about contemporary dance, quite a learning curve.
We have also just embarked on another collaborative project, this time with postgraduate singers and poets from the Birkbeck University School of Poetry, to create new song works for première next year at the Wigmore Hall.
In addition to the curricular compositions I have used the opportunity to get involved with a couple of extra-curricular and professional projects. I recently completed a collaborative intensive at the Young Vic Theatre company, and I have just started work on a similar project to the one above, working with singers and pianists to create new art songs. I am in all likelihood going to start working on the drama school’s production of Twelfth Night. In addition to getting into the conducting unit, I am currently preparing scores for competitions run by the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music and the BBC Concert Orchestra.
I am enjoying finally being properly settled in London, which is a very exciting city with so many different performances and events going on. It is also nice to be properly stuck into the business of composition and study. I am already trying to broaden my compositional style and stretch myself to try new ideas and ways of working.

Feature Pieces

Feature pieces are pieces which stand apart from the fabric of the performance in some way, often contributing traditional musical structures and thematic writing to provide some variation to the musical score. When suites or albums are made of theatrical scores (Peer Gynt, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) they are usually drawn from the feature pieces, as they are the cues that translate best into concert form.

Works outside the Narrative

These are pieces which the characters cannot hear. They are used to introduce or contextualse scenes for the audience, and to fill up time between scenes or acts. Aside from the most common types, Overtures and Intermezzos, these feature pieces can include Entr’actes, Curtain Call music, Exit music, interval music, preshow playlist and many other genres.


A substantial (although often brief) standalone musical work played before the narrative starts. It usually introduces the musical and aesthetic themes of the proceeding drama.


An intermezzo is an piece of music played between scenes or acts. Designed for a practical purpose—to cover a gap while the stage is dark and the set and costumes are changed—it usually also evokes the following scene, or provides a musical reflection on the scene before it.

Works within the narrative

These include songs, fanfares, dances, montages (although these are closer to underscore), ballets, background radio, jukebox, characters that perform, and other musical works that the characters can engage or interact with. Shakespeare makes great use of these and they provide many great moments in theatrical performances.

There are no great tricks to the composition of feature pieces for the theatre. Each composition is naturally governed by the requiremnts of the script and of the performance venue, but in general they allow composers to flex their creative muscles and present music that is distinctive or memorable, and emerge from the supporting foundation to which it is normally accustomed.



Underscoring (the process of accompanying speech or action with sound or music) as a science as much as it is an art. It requires a careful understanding of the action onstage and a sensitive tailoring of the music to interweave exactly with the narrative of word and action. Nowadays we are far more familiar with this technique as a filmic convention, but underscoring theatrical scenes involves a set of skills not needed for the predetermined world of the edited film.

Although you never see underscore, it is a talent worth having. Photo by rosengrant (flickr)

Perhaps we should start with a short definition:


Underscoring refers to music which plays underneath dialogue and action, without ‘locking in’ with it or standing on its own. Generally quiet and unobtrusive, it supports the onstage action emotionally and atmospherically. It is not usually heard by the characters onstage.

It is similar to the technique of Melodrama, a form of writing that interlocks musical ideas with complex dialogue or action, but can be seen as a smaller component of melodrama: underscoring does not usually peek it’s head above the ramparts of the dialogue, instead providing a firm emotional foundation.


Perhaps the most important factor for the creation of underscoring is volume. Unlike in film music, where you absolute control of volume in recording, live music can easily overwhelm speech if badly written.

Perhaps the best thing to bear in mind is to keep the music as distraction-free as possible. This means not writing jaunty and catchy tunes or distinctively rhythmical accompaniment patterns.

The other area of techniques, aside from compositional, lies in the orchestration. If the spoken word is un-amplified you have to be careful not to overwhelm it with brass or percussion instruments. Some instruments (strings are traditional) are able to play at very quiet dynamics without strongly accented articulation, and so are able to maintain a low sound level over long periods of time. Other instruments such as flutes and some tuned percussion can also sustain quiet passages, but many other reed and brass instruments are difficult or tiring to maintain a consistent quiet pitch. Experimentation and intuition are the key.

Audio technology is often used in a theatrical context because it presents complete control and reliability. A case in point is volume control: unlike acoustic instruments, it is possible to reduce the volume of any recorded sound without significantly altering the timbre. In practical terms this provides composers with increased musical resources for underscoring, as any instruments which would previously dominate a spoken voice (such as a brass fanfare beneath a stirring speech) can be reduced in volume without losing the emotive qualities of the music.

However, using technological shortcuts can often result in a lessening of the impact that well-written underscoring can have. The embodied presence of live musicians interacting and locking in with the emotional arc of the narrative can create a more powerful performance than a accompanying recording. If done well this can be an enormously powerful technique for many different styles of theatre, but is perhaps more difficult in a live and acoustic setting. The challenges are worth it though!

Around the Web

Around the Web: Arranging, Editing, and Rehearsal

A few links gathered from around the web. This week we have a couple of useful tutorials in sound mixing and MIDI orchestration. Although written with games, films or album release, these techniques are equally applicable for theatrical work. I’ve also linked to an excellent post by composer John Adams on taking your compositions into the real world for the first time.

The art of orchestration is a very complex and interesting one. I think that today it can be divided into “classical orchestration” and “MIDI orchestration”. The latter is created with the help of software and samples – check my previous tutorials and quick tips.

Now I think that one rule can be applied to orchestration – when done properly in a classical way, MIDI orchestration becomes piece of cake. Lots of problems will be solved when a nice classical orchestration has been made.

via A Guide to Producing an Epic Orchestral Track.

Home recordings are infamous for having noise. Background noise from outside and indoor noises from the air conditioning and people shuffling around in the next room. Home recording studios are usually never sound isolated enough. Even though you might have a great sounding room, with acoustic treatment carefully placed all over, you’re still going to run into sound isolation issues.

The biggest issue is noise, and in the following tutorial I’ll run through a couple of ways you can minimize the amount of annoying hiss and noise from your home recordings.

via How to Minimize Noise In Your Mixes.

Advice to composers: Try not to panic if you can’t recognize that noise coming from the stage as something you wrote.

via John Adams: Hell Mouth: On surviving a first rehearsal.