Adrian Sutton is the man behind the music for some of the National Theatre’s most visually and aurally entrancing productions.
His compositions for Coram Boy, War Horse and, most recently, Melly Still‘s production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, formed an integral part of the sensory fabric of each respective show.
The latter saw Sutton performing onstage every night alongside a cast including Rory Kinnear and Elliot Cowan.
Now as the distinctive, evocative music for War Horse is made available on CD, Sutton talks to musicOMH about the particular challenges and pleasures of composing for the stage.
“Normally I would get involved at the earliest possible stage,” he says describing his working process. “But War Horse had a long gestation period because of all the research and development involved in the creation of the puppets, a good couple of years.” Sutton started work on War Horse in February 2007, after Tom Morris (the co-director along with Marianne Elliot) asked him to contribute. Sometimes, he explains, “the director will have some ideas about what they want it to sound like or sometimes they will have no idea at all and are looking for suggestions.” In the early workshop stages of a production Sutton takes along “a kit” of musical snippets and clips.
“For example, for War Horse I took along some old stuff of mine as well as some Stravinsky, Mahler and Elgar.” These pieces were then played during the rehearsal of certain scenes, allowing both Sutton and the director to get a sense of how such music would work in context. “It acts as a seed,” he tells me, “you discover what your direction of investigation needs to be.”
War Horse was a musical collaboration between Sutton and John Tams, who was billed as the ‘songmaker.’ Tams is “a great English folk song expert and the folk song was an important strand of the music” in that production. Sutton goes on to describe how the collaborative process works. “He [Tams] was in the rehearsal room making suggestions about what folk song we might use, and he might sing it. Then, once that had solidified, and we knew what songs we were using it became more about how they might be woven into the score more completely.”
His work with Tams seems, on the surface at least, a world away from his collaboration with DJ duo differentGear on The Revenger’s Tragedy. However, he says, “the underlying process is the same. It’s all about not being afraid to fail, being prepared to throw the most unlikely and ludicrous things at something just to see if it works or not. With Revenger’s obviously we were polar opposites in terms of musical style. Gino and Quinn (Gino Scaletti and Quinn Whalley of differentGear) are techno and house producers and had a completely different way of working. But one of the most exciting things about Revenger’s was discovering mutual ways of working, and seeing where we overlapped.”
“On War Horse things were different,” he continues, “as folk song has a long tradition anyway of being part of orchestral music, especially in the early 20th century in England with people like Vaugn Williams. So it was slightly less risky than Revenger’s.” During the run of Revenger’s in the Olivier, Sutton performed on stage every night alongside the DJ duo and countertenor Jake Arditi, the man with the glorious, soaring voice, who made such an impact on everyone who saw the show. “Melly wanted a visual aspect to that show, for the musicians and the DJs to be visually part of the show,” he explains, before going on to describe the production’s bombastic opening sequence, all noise and movement and colour. “Our specific intention was to shock the audience, not only to make it loud and explosive, but to do that while the house lights are up so no one has any warning of what’s about to happen.”
“I’m interested in projects that allow my music to tell stories, where the music is not just background but part of the story, and that’s why Coram Boy worked so well.” We discuss his work away from theatre. In the name of ‘research’ before meeting Sutton I’d spent a very pleasurable couple of hours watching clips of Chris Morris’ sublime sketch show Jam, reminding myself who wickedly black and often unsettling it was. Sutton worked on the music for both this and its earlier radio incarnation Blue Jam. “The thing about Chris Morris,” Sutton tells me, “is he has a very keen interest in musical matters, a sharp musical mind. Those sessions for Jam and Blue Jam were a lot of fun because he has such an inventive and warped mind.”
We move on to a more general discussion of the differences between making music for TV and theatre. Sutton’s background is in “working to pictures” and the process, he says, is “in many ways more rigid and specific in as much as it’s all to do with timing. When you have images in front of you, you can see exactly what the length is that you have to write to, which makes it easier to develop ideas rapidly. The big difference for me is that it’s a far more insular way of working. In theatre you’ve got many more people around you and in many ways I like that working environment better.”
Composing for theatre can be quite a challenge because “you’re on shifting ground until the very last minute and sometimes you have to have the guts and the professionalism to just scrap something if necessary. With theatre a lot only becomes apparent when something’s on stage. You have to be grown up about it and say ‘that isn’t working.’” Time, or the lack of it, is the key issue. “In the tech and in the previews you have so little time. The director will tell you something’s not right and what that means is everyone’s now going to wait for ten minutes while you solve the problem!” It’s a very rough and ready process he admits, if an exciting one, though occasionally you have to accept the inevitable limitations of working to such a tight schedule. “There are cues in War Horse where I think, if only we had another day, that could have been better, but you have to let it go.”
After Revenger’s, Sutton is looking forward to taking a break from theatre, though only for a short while. We start to talk about hypothetical future projects. “Every composer would like to have their music as the centre of attention of a work but obviously we have to be realistic about that. I would like to write an opera or maybe a musical that engages audiences and tells a story. That’s what interests me: telling stories.” In all music, not just that for the theatre, “the best music is that which engages you, tells you something and leads you along in the same way that reading a good novel does.”
He’s quite dismissive of contemporary music. “So much music these days is one dimensional, it’s not even trying to tell a story, it’s bathing you in ear candy, and is ultimately boring for that very reason. I think it’s important for every composer to and try and be better than that.”
I ask him whose work has he enjoyed recently, which productions have used music in exciting ways. “Caroline, Or Change,” he says, because “the music really is part of the fabric of what you’re seeing.” He also rates Floyd Collins by Adam Guettel, which he’s listened to but never seen, because it’s “really inventive, clever music that told the story, it didn’t fight the story.” He goes on to mention modern day operas like John Adams’s Nixon in China and Peter Grimes. “I’m not interested in writing a musical that follows a formula. I can’t help feeling there’s a new musical form that is waiting to be born, one that will still engage with audiences and tell a good story.”