The Magic Wand of Artistic Transformation: Adam Cork on ‘London Road’

Adam Cork is a sound designer and composer. His sound designs have accompanied many productions, including at the National Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse and the Menier Chocolate Factory. He wrote the acclaimed 2011 musical London Road, which brought musical theatre and verbatim theatre together by pioneering a way of setting pre-recorded speech to music.

How did you get into music? I heard something about your mum having piano lessons…?

I didn’t know that was out there! When I was 6 my mum bought a piano. She got to grade four when she was 11 but, when she’d finished having kids, she wanted to take it up again. The way she tells it, I hijacked it as soon as it arrived, though I think she may be exaggerating a bit. I do remember working out the melodies of tunes from the TV at the time, and she thought that meant I might be talented, and from that moment I had a more formal training. I studied music at Cambridge, but really I felt like I studied theatre. I did lots of student theatre at university – acting, directing, MDing, composing.

Was there a little Cambridge “scene” while you were there?

When was the last scene? Probably Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson… I don’t think every year produces a scene. Although part of the fun of Cambridge is sitting around with groups of friends thinking they’re the new Bloomsbury Group! That said, Sacha Baron Cohen was a couple of years above me and I ran into him a bit. David Mitchell was a contemporary and good friend of mine. In fact, we wrote a short late night musical together, which did very well – for a week.

What did you do after Cambridge? How did you get to where you are now?

I was interested in directing, and spent time being an assistant director on small scale opera. I assisted a Marriage of Figaro, and a Birmingham Conservatoire production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. I worked with Opera Holland Park on a Marx-brothers themed production of The Barber of Seville!

Meanwhile, the direct Rupert Goold asked a friend of mine to write music for a production of Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, at the Bridewell Theatre. My friend asked me to co-compose, and then dropped out, leaving me in the hot seat. And then that turned into a fully fledged professional production at the Studio Theatre at the Salisbury Playhouse.

I had a choice to make: I had an interview with Glyndebourne (not to say they were gonna accept me!) to take up a assistant-director position there, and wouldn’t have been able to do that and the Salisbury Playhouse production. I did some soul searching, and found I was more interested in writing music, so I said yes to the Salisbury Playhouse gig, and went down the composing route. The next two years I was writing music for plays, working sometimes with sound designers, some of whom were brilliant. I wanted to explore the sound design side of things, and see if I could be the person who does both. And then for the next five or six years I started doing that.

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Adam Cork

How do you distinguish composition from sound design?

Sound design is wider than composition: you’re in charge of the delivery side of things (that is, system design: putting speakers in the right place, delivering an even sound to the whole of the room, etc) but also there’s a side that is to do with content. It is very much like composition, even though you might have no musical training whatsoever – it’s putting sounds together, constructing soundscapes, engaging with literal sound effects for scenographic reasons, but also more abstract sounds that evoke mood. The difference is that composition is pitches and rhythms and orchestration etc. They do feel like two different sides of my brain: the more mathematical, logical, practical side of sound design, against the more shamanistic get-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-follow-your-fantasy composition side!

Do you have any favourite moments of your sound design?

I did a production of Macbeth in 2007-8 with Patrick Stewart that began in Chichester then went to the West End then Broadway, and I wrote a Soviet-sounding chorale (we were presenting Macbeth as a kind of Stalin figure) to a Russian text. The experience of teaching that to a cast and then amplifying them through a sound system was a high point of composing and sound design together – to be able to write it and deliver it to the theatre.

Another was my design for Eugene O’Neil’s Anna Christie in 2011. It was set around the docks in New York, and on the ocean too. I went for a very realistic seafaring soundscape, along with sea shanties and traditional melodies. I was very happy with the integration of a very literal soundscape – the creaks and ropes on the deck of boat, the industry of the docks, seagulls – with the more lyrical sea shanties.

Where do you get your sounds from?

There are lots of sound effect libraries out there – once you find or make the recording that does the thing you want, that’s the best starting point. It can take ages to sift through what’s available, though. But my library expands because I treat library effects – I make them do certain things, combine them together to create a texture, which might then becomes its own layer in another show. You begin to get sedimentary layers of sounds and textures that develop over the years. You can only have that over the course of a long career. I quite like that.

Your most recent sound design was for Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at the Wyndham Theatre [with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart]. How did you go about designing that?

Pinter himself is shy of sound, particularly music and underscoring. Now that he is no longer with us, though, I think we can take more liberty. I’ve composed a theme, which to me evokes Hirst’s reveries, these amazing fugue-states in which you get these half-glimpses of his mysterious inner life: he talks about someone drowning, a photo album full of girls. It’s a place where time is standing still. It is No Man’s Land in a sense. So I wrote a slow-moving harmonically evolving theme that ends up where it started. You get a bit of the beginning at the beginning, a bit of the end at the end, and all of it under one particular amazing speech at the beginning of Act 2 – but very quietly. And there’s also a rifle mic pointed at Patrick, at a great distance, amplifying the room as much as his voice, using his voice to create little effects around the auditorium.

There are more literal moments too. Hirst says “I hear the sound of birds”. I wasn’t going to do anything here, but Patrick [Stewart] asked me to put something in – even if not naturalistic – that was like birdsong. He seemed happy with what I provided. The great thing about working with wonderful actors that they can take sound design that is run-of-the-mill and everyday – it’s not gonna change the world – but they can use it and change the mood of it.

I used to make it my mission that every cue had to change the world, to be different from everything heard before. Out of pride in my work, being bored of convention, wanting not to create something that sounded like something that had been created before – not seeing the point of that. Now I’m less hard on myself. Also I recognise you can’t always be presenting novelty, because then novelty doesn’t stand out by itself. If there is a scene that requires a railway station, I accept that it doesn’t have to be the railway station sent by god! It’s easy to forget that theatre is a collaborative medium, and that if you give standard sound design, your colleagues will make it great. I no longer expect myself to produce the whole transformative alchemy of theatre by myself. We can get together and synthesise something.

I no longer expect myself to produce the whole transformative alchemy of theatre by myself. We can get together and synthesise something.

Do you think your experience as a sound designer helped with composing London Road?

It would be fascinating to hear what a version of it would have been like had I not been a sound designer. I spent a long time transcribing, and because I am a sound designer, I have all the technology I need to listen to recordings over and over again very quickly. I used Sound Forge, an audio editor, when the interviews of London Road. I’m very quick with that technology because of all the tech rehearsals using this, meaning I could get into it very quickly and think about how I could musicalise it.

I used the technology to listen to it and then just sat at the keyboard thinking, well what notes are these? A big part of it was deciding, from conversation to conversation, what tempo I wanted to hear these spoken melodies against. I was aiming to capture it as accurately as possible, but you have to make things fall into a pattern. If you do it against a slow tempo versus a fast tempo, the relative duration of the notes change, even if the end result sounds the same. Placement in the bar has everything to do with where you hear an emphasis. Absolutely fascinating – and very time-consuming!

Do you think your experience as a sound designer helped with composing London Road?

It would be fascinating to hear what a version of it would have been like had I not been a sound designer. I spent a long time transcribing, and because I am a sound designer, I have all the technology I need to listen to recordings over and over again very quickly. I used Sound Forge, an audio editor, when the interviews of London Road. I’m very quick with that technology because of all the tech rehearsals using this, meaning I could get into it very quickly and think about how I could musicalise it.

I used the technology to listen to it and then just sat at the keyboard thinking, well what notes are these? A big part of it was deciding, from conversation to conversation, what tempo I wanted to hear these spoken melodies against. I was aiming to capture it as accurately as possible, but you have to make things fall into a pattern. If you do it against a slow tempo versus a fast tempo, the relative duration of the notes change, even if the end result sounds the same. Placement in the bar has everything to do with where you hear an emphasis. Absolutely fascinating – and very time-consuming!

What was your composition process with London Road?

I approached it phrase by phrase, and didn’t really move forward with a song until I’d nailed a particular phrase, perhaps finding its mood, or something in the melody of the spoken voice which was a hook into a song. I didn’t transcribe a whole interview – just a phase, and then set that to music, and then that generated material. I did go through a phrase of just transcribing the interviews, the vocal lines changing all the time without repetition, but that didn’t sound communicative. It just felt like a sort of tautological act, because you may as well just be listening to someone speak again – you’re creating something which simply copies what’s already there. You have to do something in the structuring of it which waves the magic wand of artistic transformation and justifies the fact that you’re setting this material to music. After I’d come up with a great phrase from the audio material, I allowed myself to change more as it went on. I didn’t modify rise and falls of the speech melody, or the natural rhythms, but I did change the absolute pitches, so an absolute fifth may become a fourth to fit with the repeated harmonic structures, which to me already had truth because they came from a much more strict approach to transcribing the line.

You have to do something in the structuring of it which waves the magic wand of artistic transformation and justifies the fact that you’re setting this material to music.  

How did the singers learn the music?

They learnt it from both the score (which is very detailed) and the original interview recordings, to get a sense of the quality of the individuals who we were working with. We found not every performer could do this. Some were brilliant musically, and sang everything on paper perfectly, but were oddly stiff. Only certain performers could make it sound still like natural speech, which is what I always wanted for it: for it to be still like natural speech, but with this weird patterning going on. If a singer’s having trouble with that, I’d say really go back to the initial audio.

What were your influences on London Road?

I listen to a lot of music all the time, and I find it difficult sometimes to trace back all my influences –  and there are of course quite a lot of styles threaded in and out of London Road. But I am aware that a few years before I wrote it I was listening quite a lot to a piece by Steve Reich called The Cave. It does sounds a bit like London Road. I love what he did with that: he actually incorporated the recordings into the performance of the piece. The difference is that his is a concert-platform art-piece: you’re not following characters, listening to things that have a meaning. They are turned into abstract music – in his transcription of those natural speech lines there was a quantisation going on, which I wanted to try and avoid. I wanted to to be as rhythmically complex as human speech actually is. The thing I took from The Cave is keeping the recordings contained in rigid time signatures. I did have a phase of changing the time signatures regularly, but I came to realise I needed fairly rigid structural containers for these fairly anarchic vocal lines.

Another influence, which I only realised the other day really, was the rapper The Streets (Mike Skinner) – check him out! It’s a style of hip hop based on his own natural speech. There are choruses out of sentences that don’t sound poetic in any way, but he certainly transforms them.

Can you imagine London Road technique being used in opera?

A friend of mine who knows a very well known opera singer said that he went to see it and he said, “All contemporary opera should be like this now,” and I kind of agree. Without wanting to shatter all icons, I think the style of opera should reform to allow new approaches – and new vocal timbres. There’s something about that 19th century melodramatic sound which, though it has its own value, does not necessarily have a communicative value today. I get that back in the day they needed to soar over the orchestras but we have those operas already – let’s write some new ones that don’t need that!

That said, it would be really interesting to hear a production of London Road done by opera singers, only using the score and not the recordings. It would sound really different, but I hope that enough remains natural about it for it to have an uncanny effect.

Did you enjoy it? Do you have any thing else similar in the pipeline?

London Road stands out as unique in my professional experience, and I’d like to repeat it (not writing London Road again, but a new piece of musical theatre that gets produced to a high standard!), as for the rest of my adult life I’ve been working on incidental music.

I’ve been commissioned by Michael Grandage Company to write a musical. It’s 70/80% there, I just need to find the time to finish it. I’m not talking about it yet, I’m going to wait till I’ve finished it – I’m slightly superstitious! But it isn’t like London Road – though there are couple of songs where maybe lessons I learned from London Road are taken forward. Although even before London Road, I would try to engage with natural speech rhythm in vocal settings. In the act of writing London Road I took that principle one step further, and it’s probably ruined me forever when it comes to writing simple songs with immediate commercial value!

Would you work with Alecky [Bythe, the verbatim theatre writer behind London Road] again?

I’d love to collaborate with Alecky again if we found the right story – it would probably be a mistake to do another community-based piece, either because it would imitate London Road or because it would eclipse it.

The verbatim method, particular Alecky’s, is not just about what they say but the how of it, the way it is said. Her rules are fairly strict – about not using material that isn’t gathered spontaneously, not making anything up. But I think there’s a lot of room to explore the strange hybrid between verbatim and structured made-up stuff that could yield amazing stuff.

I also think that verbatim is a form that invites less conventional approaches to narrative form – it allows you to be more experimental, as everyone accepts that this is restricted by what actually happened. People are more predisposed to accept playing around with narrative than they would be if they thought it was all invented.

Finally: Is London Road the future of the musical?

Some people who didn’t like it said it’s not the way forward for the British musical. But I just see it as one new strand – i don’t think it’s going to wipe out everything that’s gone before it.

leoemercer

More information about Adam Cork is available here.

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