EVOLVING MUSIC FOR EASY VIRTUE
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[Editor's note: Kevin Gill was music director for the March 18-20, 1994 production of Easy Virtue: A Reconstruction of Plautus' Cistellaria at the University of Michigan.]
When I started working on the score for Easy Virtue, I originally intended to make it entirely a jazz composition with some sort of music behind the whole production. I worked on this idea for about a month, scribbling all my musical inspirations on the script of the play and thinking through mentally what types of jazz would be appropriate to the drastically changing moods of the play.
The next step was to actually compose and perform the music. This proved to be the most difficult part of the project. I didn't have the instrumentation or the musicians available at the times I wanted them to play the music I had come up with. Also, their backgrounds in music were very different from mine, ranging from classical to gritty blues. It would be extremely difficult to coordinate everyone and arrange the amount of practice time needed to make my vision concrete. We simply didn't have the time to teach everyone to play jazz.
To combat this problem, I turned to a MIDI hookup to a Macintosh PowerBook, and a MIDI capable key pad. Through this medium, I had all the instrumentation that I could ever want and more. MIDI also created another problem however: I couldn't get the jazz sound I wanted. A digital instrument simply doesn't sound like jazz. This was the final problem that convinced me to change my approach to using more traditional music for this type of production.
I composed marches, disco, some blues, a waltz, and a few other short songs that would be used on the transitions between character exits and entrances. I recorded the music onto a tape and experimented with playing it during a few of the rehearsals. There were problems with the timing of the music versus that of the play. The time that scenes took to complete in the play varied quite a bit depending on the energy of the actors and the different ways that they interacted with each other. The tape was static, and always took the same amount of time to play, so I had to work a lot with cutting it off short at certain places that I wrote into the music that could work as endings to the songs if they had to.
I never refined these songs past the second version, which was still a bit sloppy, because I wanted to get the approval of the instructors before putting a great deal of time into the music, in case they didn't think it would go with the play. As it turned out, they did approve of the music, but there were other complications that arose. The main problem, and the one that turned out to be the biggest obstacle to the use of MIDI music, was the difficulty of obtaining the proper equipment to play this music. This equipment would also have been extremely difficult to set up and take down every performance.
In the end, I was forced to do everything acoustically. The only instruments that I had to work with were a piano, my saxophone, and a harmonica which one of the actors played. In order to turn the MIDI songs into their acoustic counterparts, I had to learn music which I had never intended to memorize. Fortunately this wasn't hard, and in less than one practice session I had a pretty good grasp of what I was going to play for the performances.
The fact that I was responsible for the majority of the music and that I was playing it by myself with no backup led to an interesting conclusion. I could play a majority of jazz after all. I decided that most of what I played would be improvised. I've played quite a bit of piano and saxophone jazz, both solo and in a band, so I was confident that I could pull it off. I ended up improvising everything for the first dress rehearsal and polishing it for the second dress and the performances.
The final version of the music was basically what I had envisioned in the first place, but instead of a band it was me playing simplified versions of the music I had thought of at the beginning of the project. Aside from the fact that it was difficult for me to see what was happening on stage from behind the piano, it was a really enjoyable experience. I've only played piano in front of that many people a few times before, and I was used to playing my sax primarily for a groups of six or seven people who would ask me to play in our high school band room after school was out. The crowds actually helped me to relax and play well because an impersonal audience can be easier to face than an intimate one. The only thing I regret is the wasted time composing on the MIDI.
Kevin Gill is a first-year undergraduate of undecided major at the University of Michigan.