The Aspirations of Daise Morrow, a work for theatre based on Patrick White’s short story Down at the Dump, was created by Brink Productions with a score composed by the Zephyr Quartet and premiered in 2015. Following the release of the Quartet’s brand new disc Aspirations, Zephyr Quartet cellist and Artistic Director Hilary Kleinig spoke to Limelight about how the music was created ahead of the play’s tour to Canberra and Wollongong.

Zephyr Quartet, AspirationsThe Zephyr Quartet: Emily Tulloch, Hilary Kleinig, Jason Thomas and Belinda Gehlert. Photo © Emma Woolcock

How did the idea for this project develop?

Chris Drummond, the Artistic Director of Brink Productions, and I have worked together on several theatre productions and he initially approached me about coming on board as Musical Director and Composer for this production and also expressed an interest in having Zephyr Quartet playing in the production. I suggested that it might be good if we Zephyrs all contributed to the composition of the play as well as playing – he agreed to give this a go although was a little skeptical as to how four composers could compose a cohesive score.

How was the music composed? What were some of the influences or ideas you brought to this music?

Initially we each approached our composing seperately by reading ‘Down at the dump’, responding to it each and then coming to the preliminary creative development with a number of sketches. Some of the pieces focused on broader ideas, such as the essence of a character, and others on specific ideas, such as using some of White’s rich language from the story for impetus, as in the case of ‘Yellow on the grey’. Some of the music was composed to be more loop-based and flexible and some has a longer through-composed form. When we combined our pieces together, we arrived at about 45 minutes of music of varying character, style and scope. After we played those preliminary sketches to the cast Chris Drummond remarked at how surprisingly cohesive the music was, despite being written by four different people

Together with Chris, we painstakingly wove those musical fragments into the fabric of White’s story during rehearsals. I believe Chris is a unique director in the theatre world, in that he strives for an almost choreographic-like balance between the words, movement and music. It is very satisfying as a musician to work with him as the musical integrity is not at all compromised because he believes that the story telling is best served by a musical score that can artistically stand alone.

What were the biggest challenges in creating this score?

The challenges and also the excitement of creating the score for this production was that it is not your typical theatre experience – there is no fourth wall because the audience, actors and musicians all sit facing each other’s in a mandala-like fashion. This means that whilst the world of ‘Daise’ is rich in aesthetic and texture, there are a limited amount of props and lighting states. There are no set changes to mark shifts in location within the story and limited costume changes to mark the actors’ often swift transitions from one character to another and in and out of narration. These tools of the theatre story telling, that often play such an important part in helping guide the audience through the story, unconventionally take a secondary role to the music. This unusual approach leaves us, the composers and performers, with some intriguing questions: how do we create “a smell of sink sprayed out of grey, unpainted weatherboard, to oppose the stench of crushed boggabri and cotton pear” out of sound? How do we help the audience understand changes in location, into the dump and then across the fence to the cemetery? How do we guide the audience to understand that one actor is playing two characters and then narrating the thoughts in another character’s mind?

Zephyr QuartetThe Zephyr Quartet. Photo © Emma Woolcock

Did the music change much once you got it in the rehearsal room with the actors?

Following the independent composition of our initial sketches, all the music was arranged and placed into the story in the rehearsal room with the actors as we worked through the story together. Some of the music underwent several variations to complement different aspects of the text and some of the music stood alone in its structure and the placement of the text was based around the music. 

Did recording the music – as opposed to performing it live – change the way you thought about it?

When we decided to make an album of the music for the play we had to make some decisions about what to record and rather than record every sound cue we decided to record one definitive version of each of the main ideas. For the album recording some of the pieces were changed a bit so that they made more ‘musical sense’, while other pieces were very much influenced in their final recorded structure by how they were conceived for the play.

Do you have any favourite moments in the music (or the play?)

What fascinates me about working in this manner is that each performance is an intimate conversation between words, music and space with each of these three elements playing an equally important part in the story telling.

One of my favourite moments where the music and the language align beautifully is when we are taken to the dump – a poignant and evocative description of walking through the junk – the music is drone based with shimmers and harmonics overlaid that are improvised and can respond in real time to the text. In the next breath we are taken across the fence to the cemetery – where we musicians overlay fragments of Kum Ba Yah – and then in the next breath back to the dump.

The Zephyr Quartet’s Aspirations is out now and available hereThe Aspirations of Daise Morrow is presented by the Canberra Theatre Centre as part of the Canberra International Music Festival May 1 – 5 before playing at the Wollongong Town Hall May 9 – 12.