Composing Summer and Smoke

Composer Angus MacRae describes his process of creating Alma's world in Summer and Smoke.

The concept of using pianos as the set had been decided upon quite early, so the challenge was to make that work from a musical perspective. The idea was that the pianos would be reflective of Alma, as the main character herself and also of her interior workings - they almost surround her. It's almost like the inner workings of her mind. There was this idea that Rebecca [Frecknall, Director] was discussing with me which was that she's almost trapped in this eternal piano lesson in her head.

So we knew from very early on that the score was going to have to exist only on pianos, which was certainly the challenge from the off. I knew that Rebecca wanted lots of underscoring, and pianos aren't necessarily the 'go to' instrument for underscore.

With that in mind we started discussing other ways that we could use the pianos and ultimately make the music reflective of the inner workings of Alma. It's all about her soul - Alma is Spanish for ‘soul’ - so that's what the function of the music should be; to exaggerate Alma's inner self. Every department in this show is totally interwoven and interlinked - design, music, lighting, sound - we're all stringing everything onto these pianos and we're all on the same page in terms of using the pianos to heighten Alma's inner workings and her unravelling in a way.

Angus Blog InLine 01

It was the ultimate chicken and egg situation because we both knew that we didn't really know what we could make until we had everyone in the room, since the cast were making the music live. We had two days of R&D in which myself and Carolyn [Downing, Sound] and a couple of others experimented with a few ideas and decided at that point that we would mic all the pianos, which allowed us to process them and effect the sounds they produced.

That allowed us a huge amount more creative possibility than just six people sitting at pianos playing. That seemed to very neatly work with the concept as well, since the mind doesn't ever feel like it should be a straight forward ‘someone sitting at a piano playing’. Instead we can take it into that much more abstract world with different textures.

We experimented with all sorts of things in that workshop. Some of which made it in and others not. Like putting Blu-tac on the strings and then seeing what happened when you play it and trying to create these sound washes, bashing the strings and just trying to figure out every sound that we could get out of a piano as we play it. Bascially playing a piano in any way except playing a piano.

Angus Blog InLine 02

There were a few influencers we threw around during the process, like the impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel. For me at least were a really good starting point because they really manage to nail that tone of ambiguity basically, which is what I always think a score in anything needs. You don't want definite answers until they're demanded by the text - the whole point of a play is that it's a narrative and things are being revealed and unravelled and then ultimately you hope for some sort of conclusion. And I think what those composers did so amazingly was to straddle that line between something that feels like it has form, but it can also be formless. It's neither happy nor sad, it's totally ambiguous, most of the time. Plus I love that music.

And so I think it's given us a nice framework immediately where we can always justify the musical decisions, because we know these moments when we want to step almost outside of anything naturalistic that we've created. Obviously it's already not especially naturalistic, but we can step even further out of that and abandon all the normal naturalistic rules. Music does that so effectively I think, it takes you into another world. I almost see it at times as a purgatory world that Alma occupies - one she is constantly trying to grapple with.


Summer and Smoke, Williams’ intoxicating classic about love, loneliness and self-destruction, runs from 24 February – 7 April.
Click here for more information and to book online.


You might also like