Ruth Chan is a composer for film, stage and music theatre, and a classically trained pianist and multi-instrumental performer. Her work has been performed internationally including commissions from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hong Kong Arts Festival, Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival, British Film Institute, Chinese Arts Space, Shakespeare Festival – Stratford, Canada and Pittsburgh Opera Festival. We asked Ruth to give us an insight into creating the music for Hedda Tesman.
How did you get involved in composing the music for Hedda Tesman?
Holly approached me to chat about a couple of projects that I could be involved in, but when she described Hedda Tesman, I was particularly intrigued. Holly wanted a composer who understood the piano intimately because she was interested in blending the sound of the piano into the theatrical/soundscape world of Hedda Tesman. I used to be a pianist myself, so to have the opportunity to create more experimental piano music really excited me.
A piano forms a major symbol in both Ibsen’s original play and Cordelia Lynn’s new adaptation. How has that instrument informed the music in the play?
In Ibsen’s play, Hedda’s piano is symbolic of her aristocratic past with her father, General Gabler, and a site of financial contention between her and her more bourgeois husband. In Cordelia’s version the piano’s symbolism of Hedda’s past and wasted life is heightened, and it is one of the charged objects from her childhood (along with the General’s portrait and her writing desk). It was this heightening which encouraged Holly and designer Anna Fleischle to use a live pianist haunting the play as a design concept, and embed the piano in the tone and experience of the production.
I wanted to reflect Cordelia’s work on Ibsen’s text which is at once a piece of new writing and an adaptation of a 19th century play, so I decided to write contemporised adaptations of a 19th century composer. We chose a more neglected female composer in favour of the more famous male composers of that period. It’s a choice that speaks to Ibsen’s story of a woman’s wasted life, a woman repressed by her circumstances.
What made you and director Holly Race Roughan decide on a piece by Clara Schumann? And have you “adapted” it, in the same way that Cordelia has adapted Ibsen’s original play?
I researched a number of female composers from that period, but in the end felt that Clara Wieck Schumann’s Scherzo No. 1 in D Minor was the most appropriate piece for this show. It has a huge range of colours and emotions in it, from a surging romanticism to more wicked rhythms, to moments of really pure sadness. I felt such a rich and complicated piece reflected Hedda’s character really well.
Clara was a celebrated virtuosic pianist and composer. Her superb piano music had a huge impact on the repertoire, as did her teaching and methods on piano technique. However, as time went on, her memory was neglected in favour of her composer husband, Robert Schumann. It’s a typical story of female erasure from the canon. Fortunately, she has had a revival over the past decade or so and audiences are enjoying her music again.
For a piece written in 1838, the first Scherzo feels very contemporary and could have been written 50 years later. I studied every note of the scherzo and selected fragments and themes, then expanded them as part of the show’s soundworld. As the play develops the composition gradually becomes recognisable as Clara Schumann’s piece. While it is not exactly the same process as Cordelia’s adaption of Ibsen’s play, there are certainly parallels to it.
You’ve written extensively for theatre, documentaries and film; does composing music for theatre demand a particular approach or consideration?
The live element of actors and musicians performing in theatre can create different challenges for the composer when compared to film/television, where the composer works on fixed edits. For example, no actor performs exactly at the same pace every night: Vamps are used for this reason [a musical holding passage that can repeat until the theatrical action is ready to move on, usually when waiting for a script cue or during a scene change]. You also have to consider timings of costume and set changes, movement sequences and transitions that can affect how you’d write the music. And the fast pace of technical rehearsals in the theatre means that I sometimes have to provide a handful of musical solutions on the spot.
Personally, I like to overwrite material then pull back, as I like to have all my musical ingredients and palette ready to bounce on and try on stage. But every composer works differently; I know of some that prefer composing more organically with the actors in the rehearsal room and stage.
Hedda Tesman plays in the Minerva Theatre until 28 September.