The Making of Ant & Cleo : Composer’s blog

IMG_5123Workshop 1, 28th Feb 2014

Today is the start of a journey that will culminate on the 7th & 8th of November at Stratford Civic Hall – show time for our new, musical take on the epic tale of Antony & Cleopatra (or Ant & Cleo as we prefer to call them). This episodic blog will keep you posted on our progress – because, as it was you that voted for Antony & Cleopatra – The Musical in The People’s Millions, we’d like you to come with us!

Peter Cann (Director), Nick Walker (writer/librettist) and me (Composer) are at Welcombe Hills School in Stratford, where we observe the school’s daily ritual – an energetic Shake Up ‘n’ Wake Up routine. This freeform bop to a funky soundtrack should surely be adopted around the globe as a caffeine substitute (or at least in lieu of that extra shot). It’s characteristic of this school – and many Special Educational Needs settings – that the approach to just about every aspect of school life is imaginative, playful and progressive.

The first 3 sessions are about getting to know our team – at Welcombe Hills, that’s about 30 pupils aged 9-11 with a variety of special needs – or rather, what’s more important to us, an astonishing amount of imaginative power and creative talent – and working out with them how we are going to tell the story. We have the bare bones of the narrative courtesy of Plutarch (source for Shakespeare’s version), but at this stage everything else is up for grabs.

Peter uses signing/actions to introduce the characters – what’s a good sign for Antony, the Roman Soldier? What’s a good sign for Egypt? Next: where might A & C arrange to meet? ‘Costa Coffee! A big music place ! A lighthouse!’ Then divide into Romans & Egyptians and find different ways of moving for each side. I provide some musical accompaniment – at this stage it’s all about improvising, unlocking and capturing ideas and me and Nick keep notes which will later be sifted and shaped into the script and score.

Every child will have their own way of contributing, some will readily be involved, for others it will be a more a gradual process – we rely on the close involvement of teachers and teaching assistants to help us overcome any communication barriers and start to find connections. One pupil really responds to what I’m playing on the piano and violin and together we come up with a little theme tune based on his name. I record this so I can use it next time.

In the afternoon we head to Bray’s School in Birmingham where we’re again given a warm welcome and see familiar faces of staff and students who were involved in our last opera epic Troy Story. []

We have a team of about 30 here too – again with a wide variety of special needs, but more importantly a full spectrum of wicked senses of humour. Here ‘Asda!’ is proposed as a good rendez-vous spot for the heroes. Everyone’s keen to do some singing – we unleash range of musical instruments and melodic and rhythmic ideas come from the floor for the words ‘Cle-o-pa-tra’ and ‘An-to-ny’. Composing can be exciting in solitude, but seldom as exciting as it is in a room of 40 people. Here it’s a team sport, and anyone can take the ball.

From the name-patterns emerge two longer musical phrases, to which Nick puts some words; then we string them together into an embryonic song. What we sing as the culmination of the session is work-in-progress and will evolve further, but the imprint of everyone in this room on the finished piece will be unmistakable. We’re off!

Derek Nisbet, Talking Birds

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