Show artwork for Imbued with Music
Chris Williams (centre) in rehearsal with Amy Holley (Associate Sound Designer) and Julia Smith (Stage Manager).

Imbued with Music

Composer and Sound Designer Chris Williams discusses the musical world of Così.

How would you describe the composition and sound design you’re creating for Così? What is the world of this play?

There are worlds inside worlds inside worlds for Così - the 90s when it was written, the 70s when it’s set and the 1790s when Mozart’s opera was premiered (not to mention Zac’s ‘Romantic interjections’ with Wagner.) It’s also a text already imbued with music: Mozart, Wagner, and 70s rock - a great combination - so it’s really about revealing those musical moments, and finding ways to make those moments tie the show together.

What kinds of sounds and styles of music are you using in your design?

There’s a lot of Mozart, but some of it’s in disguise. There’s a bit of everything in there, really, and hopefully a lot of colour, too. You’ll hear voices, orchestra, organ, guitar, strings, piano accordion, piano, broken bottles, electrical SFX, and the unmistakable sound of rain on a corrugated iron roof!

How have you gone about creating the sound and music?

Because of the operatic elements, there has been a lot of editing of extant recordings - finding looping points, playing with speed and reverb, thinking through where the harmony connects and where it can afford to jump to another moment when we need to do so dramatically. I’ve also done some studio recordings - I wanted to have access to Zac’s piano accordion, and as the piano is such a central character in the play it felt right to include some solo piano recordings too.

The actors also contribute to the music of the play quite a lot, playing and singing, so working with the actors to find their ‘bits of music’ has been another fun aspect of creating music for the show.

In your opinion, what is Così about? How does your design support the play’s big ideas?

Così is about many things but at its heart it’s about people, how we treat them, and the beautiful complexity they bring into the world.

It’s about seeing people for who they are - inconsistent, loving, honest, dishonest - and knowing that we are richer for being in the world with this diversity.

The musical ideas written into the text help this already. Roy’s sense of world order, or ‘the harmony of the spheres’ is strongly identified with Mozart and classicism more generally, while Zac’s musical and philosophical interjections with Wagner disrupt this philosophical trope - just as musical Romanticism overtook Classicism historically, with less predictably ordered musical structures and the idea of The Sublime and The Transcendent.

This leads to another key idea in Così: transformation - how we transform and if we can. Nowra has always been interested in how people are able to transform and how the theatre can contribute to this. Most of what I’ve made for the show, sonically, is about transformation. I began by sitting down with the piano score for the opera and just playing it, then started ‘playing around’ with it, finding figures I thought were useful and letting the Mozart be the spring-board for related ideas. In some parts of the design, there’s a blend of Mozart-like figures, with original music, and vice versa.

Gabriel Fancourt in rehearsal

Gabriel Fancourt in rehearsal

What has been your approach for the play within the play, Così fan tutte. What considerations have informed your ‘opera’ design?

We’ve given the cast a lot more of the opera to sing than the text specifies, in part because we felt it was crucial to see them actually producing sound, as the catalyst for the transformations we see at the end of the play. We felt that we needed to see more than miming to get us there. This has meant teaching the cast to sing (at times rather complicated) Mozart counterpoint!

Is there a particular moment in the play that you’re especially excited about, regarding your composition and sound design?

I have a moment I hope we’ll find a final spot for, but it’s in the mix at the moment! In Mozart’s opera he quotes himself using a line from an earlier opera. In The Marriage of Figaro, one character sings: ‘Così fan tutte le donne’. Mozart quotes his own music for this line in the overture to Così fan tutte - a sort of personal musical joke. I’m hoping I’ll have the same musical figure in a new form for Così. Just as there’s a play within a play, I’m trying to get music inside music (inside music). It would be satisfying to get those layers in the final version, but in the end if it doesn’t work dramatically we won’t be able to include it. It’s a niche little musical joke, just like the Mozart!

Is there anything else about your work that you’d like to share?

Zac makes a Wagnerian reference to the ‘destruction of Valhalla’. If I’m honest, I’ve always found Wagner a difficult composer to ‘get into’ and I didn’t know the exact reference. It was good fun to go through the score, find the moment and then work with Gabriel Fancourt, who plays Zac, to find a piano accordion version of that huge orchestral moment. It’s a matter of seconds in the show, but it makes me smile!


Così plays at Southbank Theatre from 30 April.

Published on 12 April 2019

Explore More