The Canterbury Tales – my second foray into theatre

(Originally posted on 7th March 2014)

It’s great to be working again with the passionate theatre community of the University of Liverpool. Some of you may remember the otherworldly Goblin Market put on by award-winning LUDS and my eerie Balalaika-infused score that went with it. Well, this time they’re teaming up with The Liverpool University Players to put on Chaucer’s Middle English classic The Canterbury Tales and I was invited on board to write some music for them once more. That means familiar faces! So I’ll be collaborating with harpist Sarah Peverley again (who is helping produce the show), as well as Director Rio Matchett and Musical Director Darren Begley.

The Canterbury Tales follows a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Thomas Becket as they take each other on in a story-telling contest.

It was quickly decided to keep the instrumentation simple – I was to draw from a small selection of forces to create a medieval palette for the show and the plan involved having musicians on stage, delivering the score diegetically. Originally we tried to get a hold of a lute for me to play, but ended up settling on a Psaltery which I was to pick up, learn to play, and then compose for within the space of a matter of weeks, complimenting the rest of the lineup consisting of an Irish Flute, Bodhran, Harp and vocals. As a result, the compositions are generally very simple, making use of the dorian-mode style of the medieval era and ensuring that vocal pieces reflect the base comical nature of the text. When you’ve got cast members singing ‘I have a gentil cock’ then it’s best not to get too pretentious with your writing. Inspiration came from traditional English and Celtic Folk songs as well as contemporary recordings (thank you psalterygirl!) and I found myself developing a newfound respect for the proto-Renaissance compositions that were emerging in the Middle and High Medieval period.

Even these simple pieces brought challenges, not least because the score is aping a period where music wasn’t written down in the way we understand it now, with melodies sometimes being drawn based on the shape they took. It was hard not to resort to conventional post-Bach harmony and counterpoint and I’ll admit that, given more time, I would’ve liked to deliver as authentic a sound as possible. In addition, learning the Psaltery was an unusual pursuit. I had never even heard of it before I joined the production and, despite my optimism that my guitar proficiency would help, its lap-harp design proved a very different landscape to pluck! I’ll be performing it with the rest of the ensemble in the play itself so I’ll be sure to get the practise in before then.

There’s a possibility I might try and get some extended recordings of the soundtrack available to download if there’s interest and the production will be on show at the Stanley Theatre, Liverpool from the 26th-28th March. Maybe see you there?

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