Show artwork for Feature | The music in maths

Feature | The music in maths

When Adrian Sutton was asked to write the musical score for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time he was elated. Here was a project a world away from the big, cinematic sound and orchestral flourishes of War Horse – his last production – so stylistically opposed in fact, that it required a completely different approach.

Adrian explains, ‘It’s one of the nation’s favourite books, so we knew there was going to be some pressure. A lot of prep work would be required before I started putting together some musical ideas.’

After consultation with Director Marianne Elliott, things quickly clicked into place. Adrian continues, ‘It soon became apparent that Christopher, the principal character, [was] obsessed with the cold logic of computers and mathematics. [He] finds the world of real human emotions very confusing, so he retreats into himself. What seemed to be an in to all of this, from a musical point of view, was to try to get into Christopher’s head.’

This idea immediately became the springboard for what the composer wanted to do with the music. ‘Marianne and I talked,’ says Adrian, ‘I said, he loves music and computers, these are things he knows he can control and feels safe with, so it made perfect sense to have a soundtrack with a computer generated, electronic feel.’

One of the show’s most popular pieces, Maths Appendix, represents Christopher’s gleeful joy of mathematics.

‘In many ways, that’s a perfect example of how life can be really spontaneous. It was written in the rehearsal room, during a tea break. Sometimes the best ideas can come from not over-thinking things too much,’ he laughs.

Adrian is a classically trained musician, so the blips and beeps of Curious should have taken him way out of his comfort zone. Yet, the unconventional style harks back to his ambient work on soundtracks for Chris Morris’ darkly comedic shows Blue Jam on BBC Radio One and Jam on Channel Four. It also took the composer further back, to the days of his youth, as Adrian explains, ‘I was quite a geek when I was a teenager, learning to programme computers and write software. I actually wrote a couple of software programmes specifically for this show.’

The score is littered with mathematical references. For example, the opening track starts off on a rhythm that’s based on the counting of prime numbers. Such was the power of the play that at one point the creative process completely took him over and Adrian became obsessive. ‘I wondered what it would be like if Christopher wanted to make his own sounds using prime numbers; so I used a text only sound programming language called SuperCollider to generate the first 7,000 prime numbers and use them as frequencies to make a combination of sounds.’
Influenced by contemporary artists such as Aphex Twin, Autechre and early Kraftwerk, Adrian has crafted a show soundtrack that is emotive, powerful, and groundbreaking.

The squelchy Intro piece bounds into life as Christopher makes a startling discovery: it’s designed to replicate the ‘pulsing, horrendous confusion and uncontrollable panic that goes on inside a brain,’ says Adrian.

The beautiful and melodic track Sleepwalking, is one of the few musical pieces in the show that appears to exist outside Christopher’s head and it is one of Adrian’s favorite moments on stage. ‘Visually it’s very arresting,’ he says. ‘On the back wall there’s a wonderful, slowly turning overhead view of suburban London. It feels as if Christopher is asking us, through conversations with his school teacher Siobhan, to think about what’s important in our lives. It’s an emotional moment.’

The score, rather than seeking to control the dramatic temperature, succeeds by subtly existing within the framework of the story and helps us to not only understand what is going on in Christopher’s head, but also, perhaps, inside our own minds.

The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays until 25 February 2018 at Arts Centre Melbourne

Published on 23 January 2018

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