Saturday, 19 September 2020

Composing The Red Shoes: I chat to Terry Davies about creating the score for Matthew Bourne's ballet based on Bernard Herrmann's music

Matthew Bourne: The Red Shoes - Ashley Shaw  as Victoria Page, Glenn Graham as Grischa Ljubov ( Photo by Johan Persson)
Matthew Bourne: The Red Shoes
Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page, Glenn Graham as Grischa Ljubov
(Photo by Johan Persson)

The film of Matthew Bourne's ballet The Red Shoes is due to be released on 30 September 2020 (The Red Shoes is directed for the screen by Ross McGibbon and distributed by More2Screen, screening information from the film's website).

Terry Davies
Terry Davies

The ballet is inspired by the 1948 Powell and Pressburger film (which featured Dame Moira Shearer) and by the original Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. The film was notable for featuring a full fifteen-minute ballet, with music by the British composer Brian Easdale (1909-1995), who wrote music for a number of Powell and Pressburger films and who was the first British composer to win an Academy Award for Best Original Music Score for The Red Shoes. But for his ballet Matthew Bourne turned to the music of another distinguished film composer, Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) with the arrangements and orchestration done by Terry Davies, who has collaborated with Bourne on a number of other ballets. I spoke to Terry to find out more.
 
Terry admits that it was not an easy decision to ignore Easdale's music when looking for a score for the ballet, but apart from the much-lauded ballet sequence, there was simply not enough music in the film. Matthew Bourne had long wanted to do something using Herrmann's music and the choice made life much easier for Terry as Herrmann's music is thematically rich and structured in a way which made it easier to include the music in a very different narrative to the films for which it was originally written.
 
Bourne had a clear idea of the music of Herrmann's that he liked, and they concentrated on Herrmann's earlier, pre-Hitchock scores. They used a relatively small number of Herrmann's scores; the more they talked about it the better it seemed to keep the unity of the score, and from the point of get the rights to the music. It also meant that the final ballet score would avoid the feeling of being simply a mix of favourite tracks.

Original publicity still for the film 'The Red Shoes.' From The Red Shoes (1948) Collection at Ailina Dance Archives
Original publicity still for the film The Red Shoes
Moira Shearer, Robert Helpman, Leonid Massine
From The Red Shoes (1948) Collection at Ailina Dance Archives

Terry and Matthew Bourne know each other well, having worked on a number of previous projects and this meant that they could keep the 'nuts and bolts' discussion to a minimum.

Bourne knew the music and drew up a detailed scenario which Terry would then work around. For Terry, the two most enjoyable points in such a project are first the early discussions with Bourne about dividing the piece into sections and working out how the music will serve the narrative and the dance, and the second enjoyable moment is when he first works with the orchestra at the end of the process.

The original film was clearly an influence for Matthew Bourne, but Terry tried to let go of it; he watched the film and then put it in a cupboard. He did not try to replicate the film as the ballet is a very different medium. As well as being able to work closely with Bourne, Terry now knows many of the dancers in Bourne's company, New Adventures, so that he was able to visualise them, thus making the creating of the score more personal.

Terry Davies conducting for the film Aliens
Terry Davies conducting for the film Aliens
Ballet is a very different medium from film, particularly in the function of the music and Terry likens ballet more to silent film. For Matthew Bourne, the music in a ballet is the narrative so Terry likens it also to music for the theatre but writ large, and the music never stops! With the music being in the foreground in a ballet, Terry needs to maintain the listeners' interest and ensure that the music does not bore.(At this point in our discussion we have a very lively discussion about the music for pre-Tchaikovsky Russian ballets, on which we both hold strong views - in agreement, I might add).

In a concert hall ,it would be relatively rare to have a 90-minute piece performed, so for Terry to create a ballet score of this length is quite a challenge. He needs to create sonic variety from a small group of musicians, so that the listener's ear does not get bored; he needs to find solutions, and he enjoys the challenge of seeing interesting things emerge.

Whilst Terry does also write his own music, he finds it interesting to inhabit someone else, to look inside a composer like Bernard Herrmann's scores in detail, to come to know the personality of the composer. He also likes the technical challenge of making the final result work, whilst approaching the composer's work from a position of respect. For The Red Shoes, there are also a few bits of Terry Davies in the score, particularly in the second half of the ballet, in the music hall scene though Terry estimates that less than 10% of the final score is his own music.

Terry's earlier comment about silent films comes from experience, he loves silent films and always went along to Carl Davis' Thames Silents at the BFI where Davis would conduct his own live film score for a major silent film (one of the most notable being the 1980 restoration of Abel Gance's five-hour-plus epic Napoleon). And Terry found the results a revelation, and since then he has done music for silent films, either playing the piano himself or writing music for a chamber group.

Film itself is a much subtler medium musically, as the score generally manipulates psychologically behind the scenes, adding flavour, supporting the action and reflecting the dialogue.

Matthew Bourne: Edward Scissorhands - Dominic North (Photo Johan Persson)
Matthew Bourne: Edward Scissorhands - Dominic North (Photo Johan Persson)

Earlier ballets of Matthew Bourne's that Terry worked on included Edward Scissorhands, based on the 1990 film by Tim Burton. This score used music by Danny Elfman, who wrote the score for the film, but Terry's ballet score also included a lot of his own composition but he needed to get inside the quirkiness of Elfman's music and use this as a starting point to create music which has the same quirky view of the world.

Other scores for Matthew Bourne have used all of Terry Davies' own music, such as Play Without Words and Lord of the Flies. When I ask about the style of Terry's music, he describes it as classically orientated and mostly tonal, saying that he likes to work acoustically and enjoys working with musicians and getting their input. 

Music was one of the things that he was able to do as a kid along with technical things, so he went on the Tonmeister course at Surrey University which combined music and technology and was a recording engineer for a year or so afterwards, but he decided that that was not the career for him and that he was more interested in what was happening on the other side of the glass. He learned a lot from the orchestrators who had worked on the music that was being recorded, and he would jump out after a recording session and look at the scores, working out why something worked (or did not work). This stood him in good stead, and his orchestrating work took off. He was asked to orchestrate a musical, though at that time he had no idea about theatre, and that led to him co-orchestrating Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls for Richard Eyre's production at the National Theatre in 1982 (the original sound-track from which is available on disc), which led to a lot of work at the theatre.

Matthew Bourne: The Car Man  (Photo Johan Persson)
Matthew Bourne: The Car Man  (Photo Johan Persson)

His work in dance only happened by chance, as someone recommended him to Matthew Bourne when Bourne was looking for someone to create the score for his 2000 ballet The Car Man. With a story inspired by the 1946 Tay Garnett film The Postman always rings twice, the ballet used Rodion Shchedrin's 1967 Carmen Suite, which Shchedrin (born 1932) had created for his dancer wife, Maya Plisetskaya). But in order to create a full length ballet using Shchedrin's 30-minute suite, further music had to be created based on Bizet's original opera. Terry and Matthew Bourne met up and discovered that they had shared interests, were fascinated by film and theatre and the collaboration felt right.

For The Car Man, Terry took Schehedrin's score, which filter's Bizet's music through Shchedrin's own flamboyant orchestration, and used this as the model for the rest of the ballet writing for the same instrumental line-up and trying for the same panache as Shchedrin's score. And this would be Terry's first dance piece, so with no prior dance knowledge he approached the music as a theatre composer. He understood the need to be rhythmic, and he had to learn the dancers' way of counting. In effect he wrote a lot of theatre music, but always with an eye to the fact that the music would be in the foreground. And, as he points out, he did have Bizet as his source material which made it pretty bullet-proof!

Terry Davies conducting 'Aliens' Terry Davies conducting 'Aliens'
Terry Davies conducting 'Aliens'
Whilst Terry has worked extensively in the theatre, he has written just two musicals, Kes, the musical (based on Barry Hines' novel, A Kestrel for a Knave) which premiered at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, in 1995, and which in retrospect he wondered might have been too serious a subject for a musical, and a version of Aristophanes' The Birds for a theatre company in Istanbul and this latter production ran for a long time. He describes musicals as very hard, they have a great many moving parts. Whilst it is somewhat like working in spoken theatre, there are singers as well and with so many people involved it is difficult to know where the centre is. He admits to having no desire to write more musicals, and he finds dance more to his taste.

When I ask about his musical heroes, he first names Stravinsky and Ravel and then mentions Mozart whose work still always amazes him. But he listens as widely as possible, and points out that if you work in theatre and film you cannot carry your prejudices with you, you have to do what is required. It was Jerry Goldsmith's music for films that first got Terry's interest in film music. And of course the work of Bernard Herrmann, and he comments that there is a lot of amazing music in Herrmann's scores, pointing out The Ghost and Mrs Miller and Citizen Kane, both of whose scores are mined for The Red Shoes.

His working life has been 'a complete desert' this Summer, but he has done some talks for his local cinema. In March 2020, his new ballet for choreographer Cathy Marston (who choreographed The Cellist,  the Jacqueline Dupre-inspired ballet for the Royal Ballet in February 2020) was due to premiere at San Francisco ballet. This is all Terry's own music, and the ballet is the story of Mrs Robinson, the character from the film The Graduate; he describes the score, which is written for good size orchestra including acoustic guitar, as eclectic tonal. The premiere of the piece is now planned for February 2021.

He also has his annual Christmas project lined up. Since 2010, he has been doing an animated film each year for television with Julia Donaldson (author of The Gruffalo). Being as animators are able to work alone, the project has been going ahead and he will be recording the music for the film in October though this will take longer than usual thanks to social distancing.

Matthew Bourne: The Red Shoes - cinema poster

The Red Shoes
Directed & choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Set & costume design by Lez Brotherston
Lighting design by Paule Constable
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Orchestrations by Terry Davies

Boris Lermontov - Adam Cooper
Victoria Page - Ashley Shaw
Julian Craster - Dominic North
Irina Boronskaya - Michela Meazza
Ivan Boleslawsky - Liam Mower
Grischa Ljubov - Glenn Graham

Directed for the screen by Ross McGibbon

Further information from the New Adventures website, screening information from the film's website.

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