Synclavier On The Stage
A British playwright looks into the future and sees a composer locked away from the world with a machine that makes music for him. John Walters talks scripts and Synclaviers.
The Synclavier makes its theatrical debut in Alan Ayckbourn's play Henceforward... this month. How well-suited are American technology and English drama?
"They've borrowed money from the local Mafia and the heavies are now arriving, demanding either their money back or to see a major recording artist."
Henceforward... is set in the near future. Ayckbourn conjures up a bleak, violent world of private affluence and public squalor. Jerome lives in a no-go area of North London patrolled by the "Daughters of Darkness", a kind of militant feminist Hell's Angels. The play's action is punctuated by the clang of their missiles against Jerome's shutters.
"No play starts with one theme", comments the author. "The Christmas before I wrote it, a friend of my ex-wife came over. He lives in Burnley and he's called Fred Gittings and he does the most erudite research into cryptograms and hieroglyphics to do with the ancient world - he's always deciphering inscriptions on tombs. He's an expert. But this man lives in this tower block in the middle of a wasteland. Unemployment is high and the vandalism's extraordinary, and it's like a war-zone. His girlfriend said 'one night I'm going to get mugged, die or they're going to burn this house down'. He said 'well I think somebody has to stay there'. And I had this quite romantic image of this one beacon of light in the middle of chaos. He was doing something pure and good and positive, and everything else was crumbling. So I thought up this tale of a composer writing his final work that nobody would ever hear - nobody cared about."
Jerome's most widely-heard composition turns out to be a jingle, as he explains to Zoe:
JEROME: Tell your friends that if they remember those baby powder commercials they showed two or three years ago, ten times a night, every night for about eight months - then you met the man who wrote that music and wished to God he hadn't.
Frustrated, angry and creatively blocked, he rages at the break-up of his marriage.
JEROME: She wasn't, in the end, prepared to live with a creative person. That's what it boiled down to. She wasn't prepared to fit in with the lifestyle of a creative entity. Such as myself. That's all. I'm not saying she was a woman who refused to adapt or even begin to understand the pressures that a creative person can undergo. I'm not saying that about her. After all, why should she? She's just a bloody bank manager.
ZOE: (sympathetically) No. And you probably didn't understand a lot about banking, did you?
JEROME: (sharply) What's that got to do with it?
Ayckbourn, happy and relaxed, reflects on his remarkably successful artistic career. "I think I'm very lucky. Most of my output is comprehensible and seems to be acceptable to my contemporaries. I think musicians, when they are seriously working and trying to explore new areas are miles ahead. You know people are still struggling to keep up with Stravinsky really, in terms of the listening public."
Why should there be such a difference between what appear to be comparable forms of contemporary art? Is it simply luck?
"No, you work hard for your luck", says Ayckbourn. "I was brought up in a theatre where there were two huge pressures on me. One was from my fellow artists, who wanted something worthy of their talents. They said 'we've given up x televisions, we want the work to be worthwhile'. The other side was the management saying 'unless some people come to see this play we won't be open tomorrow. We rely on our box office'.
So I've always continued to try and write intelligent entertainment - something that could be appreciated on a couple of levels. If you really weren't at all interested in the nature of creativity and all the questions I hope Henceforward... raises, you might at least be interested in whether he'll get his daughter back.
"And that's not writing down to people so much as there are various strands, and it makes sense to try and keep a human level in whatever you're writing. But that's not a particularly easy thing to do with music, which is a much more abstract thing."
The modern composer, using modern technology, can actually produce a finished product - just him, without anybody else involved...
"I think it makes it more difficult in a funny way. There is a danger in directing your own plays, that you miss whole corners. It's not a pretentious thing to say, but when you're writing, you're writing well, your subconscious is also writing along with you and there are quite a lot of things that you don't even know you've done. Actors point out things to me that I didn't know were there."
"I asked Paul to look into state-of-the-art sampling, and he said there is this extraordinary machine up in North London called the Synclavier."
When that happens, does it enrich the play?
"It does. As long as I'm generous enough and flexible enough to control the initial concept that I had, and to make sure that arrived safely at B from A. But in between I think it's very important to leave it open sufficiently for other creative people to put their three-pennorth in. I mean, the designer to produce some ideas, the lighting designer, and of course principally the actors to add, hopefully, another dimension onto the characters.
"I do see my writing very much in terms of a musical score. Even the way I put a page down, I'm very careful about it, because you can often influence an actor's phrasing and interpretation by the way you set out a page.
"I was influenced quite early by Harold Pinter. He is a poet who writes plays, I think. He's very fond of repeating words or turning a well-known cliche into something extraordinary. I picked up quite a lot of that from him and began to write my own peculiar naturalistic, but not really naturalistic dialogue with things like repeated words. Women who say 'I usually go out usually when I go out..."
Ayckbourn has a reputation for writing very quickly, polishing off a full-length play in less than a week after a period of preparatory work. But he wrote Henceforward... twice, the earlier version being a "very brutal, very unremitting, very dark piece", which he realised would have been unacceptable.
So how does the computer-assisted approach of the Synclavier relate to the art of the playwright?
"I looked at the Synclavier and it was producing the music and it was correcting the beats and it was doing this and it was doing that. And you think 'well I dunno, it's getting uncomfortably like it's writing it'. It isn't quite, obviously there is a creative input. It worried me that the old image of four jazz musicians splitting a bottle of scotch and then playing for the hell of it was slowly disappearing. Let alone the composer who finished his score and presented it to a symphony orchestra or hammered it out with a soloist. There was a feeling that it was getting very arid. And I think Jerome suddenly realises that you need people to create. I'm absolutely convinced of that - if I was pulled away from people I'm absolutely sure that I would dry up writing."
In order to achieve something, most composers find it desirable to cut themselves off a little bit. How does Ayckbourn reconcile the two elements in his writing?
"I'm lucky in that I have a double job. I'm a director by real trade, I mean about 11 months of the year. And running a theatre here, or even working as a freelance in London, which I do occasionally, you are forced into people's company. In the theatre you have to deal with the staff, you have to deal with the public to a certain extent, and you have to sort of say 'Hi, everybody!'.
"And more importantly, actors are also people. I deal a lot with very different people in a very close and very personal proximity. I find that quite exciting - I steal a lot of material from actors."
The question that has to be asked concerns Ayckbourn's relationship with his lead character. Is Jerome a nightmare projection of the playwright?
"There are a lot of nightmares", he responds. "There's the nightmare of that's what'll happen to the country, there's the nightmare of that's what could happen to the Arts... But in the end, art is art is art."
Could cinema offer a more satisfactory outlet for Ayckbourn's work?
"I'm too selfish really. What I really enjoy is a live performance. Like old rock groups who go out for no reason at all. The actual excitement of even an indifferent house is far removed from watching your own work on telly and hoping someone might ring and say they've seen it. I've seen a few plays of mine on telly, but if the show works - and even the most successful play will have a one in two strike rate - some performances just burn. It's that indefinable chemistry which keeps us doing it. It's fascinating, where a group of completely disparate people will suddenly get involved and at the end of that two hours there's a high. The finished product is when the audience and the actors are making magic.
"Was it Keller, Hans Keller, came to talk to us once, saying 'Anyone who listens to gramophone records is crazy'? The only possible way to listen to music is live, because as soon as you have a record you destroy the performance? I think in a certain sense that's true of stage performance over televised or filmed performance.
"In the end risks are taken on stage. Sometimes disastrously, sometimes brilliantly, because you can do it again. You know you get many shots even though you never get it perfect."
Henceforward... opens at the Vaudeville Theatre, London on Wednesday, November 16, in a production directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Ian McKellan as Jerome and Jane Asher as Corinna.
Interview by John Walters
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