Birthing Partus – Writing Music for Devised Theatre

January was all about Third Angel‘s Partus and in February I worked on the preliminary score for Red Star‘s latest 3D animation. An excellent, varied and challenging start to the year in all the right ways.

I’m now starting to think about the latest edition of 15 Minutes Live – on at The Holbeck, Leeds, 10th April, 2016. Exactly a month today! There are 5 short radio plays, and I’ve 3 scripts already with two arriving as and when. The show is still a long way off, and I really don’t need to start working on it yet, but as an excessively paranoid type I like to get started, prepped and organised as early as humanly possible (though I did take a delightful week-and-a-half off between the last project and getting going on this), especially on shows with a live music element.

Partus - Birth in all its Bloody Glory posterIn contrast, Partus was a huge departure from my usual, uber-prepared way of working. One likes to squirrel oneself away in the studio for the bulk of work time actually planning, plotting, writing (for the purposes of work, I’m the most introverted person I know and possibly you’ll ever meet without realising it – I manage it to my own advantage well mwahahaha… ahem) peppering as necessary with meetings and rehearsals and general out-and-about time.

The more I can restrict face-time to the essential information-gathering and idea-collaborating environments, the more efficient and effective those times are, and the more time I get for proper experimentation in the studio, rather than drawing on past, effective – but sometimes cliched – motifs and chord progressions, instrumentation and sound design.


Deep-thinking, alone time is my most valuable resource for getting the right music for the job written on time.

Though I do like to mix it up when the opportunity arises, as such an opportunity did indeed arise in Partus, a devised piece by Third Angel about, “birth in all its bloody glory.”

The four-week process was split around Christmas – two weeks before, two weeks off for the holidays and then two weeks finalising with the first show on the Friday, into a run lasting a week or so. In a complete break from character, I spent a large portion of those four weeks in the rehearsal room with the rest of the team.

I do love a script when it comes to theatre work. Those words on the page fill me with optimism (usually), hope (always) and a clear vision of where to go next – or at least what the gaps are in my knowledge that need filling in order to get the music progressing. Then there’s the feeling that we’re all ‘on the same page’. We all have a clear and common point of reference. A new script will also give me a healthy terror of a ‘what-the-eff-am-I-going-to-write’ variety, but we won’t go there just yet.

Primarily, with a script, or even just a synopsis or scene breakdown, I can work out the purpose of the music, where it sits with the sound design, and the characters’ journeys. With music, we travel through time and space and into the deepest recesses of the human emotional journey – of both the characters, and more importantly the audience.

Though I don’t need it at the beginning of the process, there will come a point during the schedule where I may start to fret if the structure of the script hasn’t been defined and formalised – because I know how long it takes me to come up with ideas, write them, get them performed by the computer or people in time for delivery on time. And there is nothing that pisses me off more than not delivering work on time (ok there are lots of things but it’s at least up there in the top ten).

With this devised work, Partus, on day 1 there’s by definition no script, no scene breakdown, no synopsis. There’s a huge bank of research from mothers, fathers, midwives, nurses and other health workers… but there are no predefined characters, no arcs, no 3- or 5- or 7-act structure. Though it’s unsettling, it’s also quite liberating – I feel like I’ve a long enough lead up to the show to enjoy this not-knowing phase, and (hopefully not misplaced) faith that I’ll get the job done someway, somehow.

It’s an intriguing process, one I don’t normally get to see (and haven’t in many years, not since the early days of Slung Low) and not normally one I want or need to. I’ve a tendency to start scoring in my head immediately I see something that might need it, before allowing the process to weed out the chaff and develop what’s left into something more mature and worthwhile – that may not need music at all.

On this occasion, working with a company new to me on a topic that wouldn’t normally be on my radar, I decided to see what would happen if I worked differently, by necessity – there wasn’t really any other way to do it. It was lovely to be in the devising room and see the process in action, though long days were incredibly draining and later in those first two weeks I did have to catch myself from getting a little antsy for a brief or a structure of some kind.

“It’s all part of the process, you can’t rush it,” I’d tell myself.

“Well I’ll be rushing at the end if I don’t get some sort of structure RIGHT NOW,” I’d reply.

“Jeez, chill your beans,” would be my witty retort.

And so on, etc etc.

Eventually, a little time after New Year, the show coalesced into something tangible. Very few of the preliminary sketches I’d made during the Christmas break made it into the final score wholesale, but there was plenty of raw material if time got short… which it did, and that raw material got used and abused! The structure shifted substantially during those final few days before the first performance, though the ‘bricks’ of those structures and some of the narrative themes always remained consistent. We always had something to build on, and I usually had musical material to draw on as we swapped things around.

It was a challenging and exhausting process with some brilliant ladies (and gents!) creating a show on an enormous and emotive topic that was very well received. We made it! There’s something in that feeling – mostly relief and disbelief – but also of having finished a marathon at sprint speed and the endorphins have just kicked in…

This process has made me more open to different ways of working, and also confirmed how best I like to work given the right conditions. I’ll not stop loving the script as a universal concept, and I won’t stop pushing for one in some form by the point I’ll definitely need one to deliver the music on time (in fact, now I think I might be slightly more pushy…).

However, needs must as the devil drives, and if it’s to work with good people on worthwhile topics and interesting projects, I’m not too old a dog to learn new ways of working. Just to mix it up a touch, now and then. Give the grey matter a little jiggle to wake it up.

Now back to marking up these 15 Minutes Live scripts for cues. Wonder what the final two scripts will hold in store…*


**jk Alan and the writers 😉