We can’t deny we were pretty excited when we learned that ARIA Award-winning musician Missy Higgins would be composing the score for our production of Cock by Mike Barlett. And when we found out that THE SWEATS (aka Pete Goodwin, who composed the score for Constellations) would be joining the team as Sound Designer, we knew something special was in the works! Curious to see how it all went, we had a chat with Missy about the process of writing for the theatre stage, working with Pete, and her love of theatre.
What are some of the similarities and differences between composing for an album and composing for the stage?
The biggest difference for me has been the fact that I’m not just writing for myself, I’m writing for a project that is much bigger than me. It’s about everyone collaborating to make the final production as good as it can be. And in my case that means making music that supports the story of the characters, and evokes the right kinds of emotions, without spoon-feeding it to the audience. Suggesting it to them rather than slapping them over the head with it, which, paradoxically, seems to make it more powerful anyway. Usually it’s just me that has to approve the final product but in this case it has been Leticia, the director, who has decided whether the songs are of the right feel or not, that’s been good to keep my ego in check!
But it’s lovely, because I’ve been so involved since the first rehearsals, so I’ve got to sit in on the character development and really get to know the characters. After really immersing myself in the story and world of the play my job was to go home and try to find the cross-over between me and the main character, John. It really helped that I totally loved the script and really could relate to a lot of the core emotions going on. The concept of not really being able to figure out exactly who you are and feeling pulled from both sides by different people, being pressured into defining yourself, even though you have no idea what that means. I responded so strongly in fact that during rehearsals I constantly found myself with tears streaming down my face!! But the actors are also incredibly good, and the story is just so well told, I think anyone could relate to it in some way. This whole process has been different in almost every way, to writing an album. I’ve had someone else’s parameters to work within, which I’ve found really helpful.
Missy with Director Leticia Caceres and Sound Designer Pete Goodwin in the rehearsal room
What inspired you when composing for Cock? Where there certain themes or elements of the play that influenced your work?
My main challenge, I felt, was to find the “sound” of that world. Was it rambunctious and cheeky or was it sombre and languid? And should it involve electronic sounds and drums or should it be really stripped back and raw? In the end (luckily) I realised Leticia wanted something quite stripped back and piano based so that was good because that’s what I do! I really love circular, repetitious contemporary piano compositions like that of Phillip Glass and Arvo Part, so I used that as inspiration, and as a base. And the great thing about circular compositions is that you can build and build and build by adding more vocals on top of it, until you’ve created an orchestral crescendo! And it’s perfect for theatrical scoring because it has movement in it without distracting the audience too much from the story of the play and what the characters are doing on stage.
My other main hurdle was how to include vocals without doing that exact thing also: distracting the audience from the story. I was very conscious of not wanting to tread on the toes of the script by assuming anything of the characters, or making my own interpretations of what was going on in their heads. I felt that was for the audience to decide for themselves. So in the end there are a few lyrics throughout, but mostly “oohs” or “da-daa”s and the full lyrical song comes in at the very end, with the song ‘Somewhere’. With these lyrics I really tried to write about what I felt was the core emotion probably going on in John’s head, without being to specific.
While parts of your compositions don’t include lyrics, the parts that do are quite poignant. One of the team’s favourite lines begins ‘Somewhere there’s a book with all the rules inside…’ – can you tell us more about how you developed these lyrics in response to the text?
Yes that’s the song ‘Somewhere’, at the end. Well after sitting in on the rehearsals and run-throughs and getting a real feel for the emotional heart of the play I basically went home and wrote whatever poured out. Like I said before it was those themes of identity, loneliness, hopelessness, confusion, desperation for something solid to hold on to, for someone to just tell you what’s right and what to do. In my saddest moments I feel totally at a loss for what the right thing to do is, and how to live. I always wish there was a book that could just tell you whether to go left or right, who to date, who not to date, whether to do this career or that career, whether to save your money or give it away, whether to dive in head first to every opportunity you’re given or whether to be careful and protect yourself, whether to speak up or be quiet… there are so many unknowns it’s unbearable!!! But of course that’s what life is, there will always be people telling you they know what’s right for you but ultimately no-one can know but you, and sometimes not even you can know, argh! I’ve found you just have to throw stuff against the wall and hope that not all of it bounces off or slides to the floor.
The song ‘Somewhere’ really just came out of realising that I shared all these fears with the main character John, that we both had the same longing for certainty and security and a place in the world where we felt we belonged. And also that those fears and longings are and have been felt by absolutely everybody in the history of the universe.
Cast members Angus Grant, Tom Conroy and Sophie Ross in rehearsal.
Describe a typical session with sound designer Pete Goodwin (THE SWEATS). Is it a successful pairing, and how do your original compositions fit within the sound design?
I’ve absolutely loved working with Pete, he is a top notch guy. In fact I honestly could not done it without him. Along the way I’ve been asking him for advice on everything from composition strategies to which microphone to use for the recording. He came over to my house and helped me set up Pro-tools and helped mic my piano and EQ my voice properly. He also taught me how to reverse the piano sound in Pro-tools which has been the coolest thing I’ve learnt in a really long time!! And the reversed piano makes it in to a few of the compositions, actually.
Pete also mixed all the songs, and got them prepared for a surround-sound theatre setting. Once we got into the theatre he arranged all the speakers and separated the individual tracks of the recordings so different parts could come through different speakers. And it sounds amazing, I was so excited to hear it all come to life in the Fairfax theatre for the dress rehearsal! I’ve learnt a lot from Pete and from this whole experience, it’s been so great.
Sophie Ross, Tom Conroy and Angus Grant on stage in MTC’s production of Cock
What are some of your favourite theatre memories/favourite past productions?
Actually one of my favourite past productions was Constellations, which Leticia directed!! So there was no way I was going to say no when she asked me to do this, I know it would be an amazing production. In fact the whole creative team of Cock, including Pete, worked on Constellations, it’s a dream team. I really enjoyed The Beast, by Eddie Perfect, even though I’m vegetarian and it was kind of horrifying to see a (yes, puppet, but still) cow slaughtered on stage, I thought the script was really funny and clever. The Cherry Orchard I saw last season and loved, and Private Lives just recently was really wonderful. I also love going to smaller theatres like Red Stitch in Windsor, they have a tiny actor-run space but their productions are always of such a high quality. I go there often. The world of theatre is relatively new to me, it’s just in the last couple of years I’ve really gotten in to it, I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long but I love it.
MTC’s production of Cock, with music composed by Missy Higgins, is now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio until 22 March. Tickets start from just $33 for Under 30s.