By Dame Evelyn Glennie’s own admission, composing the music for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Troilus And Cressida has meant stepping outside her comfort zone. Prior to the play opening in Stratford last month, What’s On chatted to the virtuoso percussionist to find out more...

How did your collaboration with the RSC come about?
I was simply asked out of the blue by the show’s director, Greg Doran, if I would consider writing the music for Troilus And Cressida.

What did you initially find attractive about the project, and has it fulfilled your expectations?
It took me a long time to accept the invitation to write the music because this was completely out of my comfort zone. I had never written for theatre before and have worked very little in that kind of setting. However, I was immediately made welcome by the whole RSC team and was struck by the fact that they wanted something different sound wise, and that Greg really wanted to make the music an integral and influential part of the play. I have found the whole experience to be such a privilege and a massive learning curve. It has totally fulfilled my expectations.

Generally speaking, do you enjoy Shakespeare plays? What are their pros and cons from your point of view?
At school I found Shakespeare hard work, and I have never really embraced the plays since, which was another reason why it took me some time to accept being involved in this project. I felt I could only write for something that I enjoyed or could latch onto. However, since being involved and witnessing the whole rehearsal process from the beginning, I have been totally converted! I even went to a very local production near where I live and was hooked. I now see Shakespeare and his work in a totally new light and would eagerly attend more productions in the future…and who knows, perhaps even compose for more! I think the pros come from the vision of the director, and in this case Greg is so embracing of the creativity of all involved, which makes everything such an organic and ‘living’ process. The challenges are more logistical, in that there are so many elements to come together. This means that the music score will be constantly tweaked and balanced according to the movements and projection of the actors, how the set feels, lighting, sound effects and so on. It’s an exciting process.

On a general level, what are the main challenges of producing music for theatre work as opposed to a concert performance or an album? 
Embracing all elements of the set, costumes, voice projection, speed and feel of the actors’ movements, timings, balancing live playing with recorded sounds and so on. Also, the music cues are more fragmented than writing for the concert platform or for an album. One has to know each character in the play and decide what the sound of the character may be. That can really only happen once you see the actors in action during rehearsals and be part of the dialogue between the director and the whole team. There’s no way that music for this scenario can be written in isolation.

More specifically, what was the most challenging aspect of providing a soundtrack for Troilus And Cressida?
I’m writing with just under a week before we go into technical rehearsals, so a lot will still have to be adjusted with the score as we adjust to the theatre and set. But so far the most challenging aspect is to get cohesiveness between the characters from the Greek camp and those from the Trojan side. Percussion has a huge dynamic range and therefore we have to achieve high energy in places but still allow the spoken word to come through; working out the frequencies/soundscape that can work with the spoken voice so as not to cancel the voice out. Many of the percussion sounds I recorded with Dave Price in my studio, and so we’re bringing them together with the live percussion. A challenge is knowing how long musical passages will be, based on how an actor may recite something or how long it takes them to move. They need to be free to interpret what they do, and so the music score needs to be prepared to elongate or shorten right on the spot.

Your soundtrack has been described as satirical and futuristic. Did you produce the music to fit Greg Doran’s interpretation of the play, or did your ambitions for the music define the path he decided to take with the production?  
Both, really. Greg has been open right from the start and has given me free range as to what to do. He was clear that he wanted the score to be percussive, dynamic and surprising. He wants the audience to physically feel the music and soundscape, and for the stage to almost become an instrument. This has opened up possibilities of having musicians come on stage to play, and for certain props, such as the crates where the Greeks enter from, to become things that can be struck. Even the motorbike sounds become part of the soundscape. It’s still evolving, as we are still in the rehearsal process, so until the music and musicians are on set with the actors, so much more may change in the next two weeks. The main thing is that there is constant dialogue between all parties, both on a creative level and of course while making sure that the aims are realistic and practical.

What are your thoughts about Troilus And Cressida, Shakespeare’s ‘most testosterone-fuelled play’, being the RSC’s first gender-balanced production?
It has taken me a while to get into this play, but now I absolutely love it. The play is hard to define, just like a lot of the music I play, so I see it as very contemporary - something that is relevant to us all. It’s more about the individual characters as opposed to the actual plot or location. No matter where a war is taking place, the same human emotions arise. No matter where two people fall in love, the same human emotions arise, and so on. It’s a play that taps into every emotion possible, from funny to the horrible, quirky, mundane and serious. For me, as a composer, this is heaven! The casting is brilliant and inspirational.

What do you hope that your soundtrack will add to the experience of watching Shakespeare from an audience’s point of view?  
I hope that the audience will embrace the sound as an integral part of how a play has been designed and interpreted; appreciating that all elements of a play are essential and equal. Theatres are meant for each discipline to be displayed, and so it’s fantastic that Greg has given such a platform and emphasis to music.

What have you learned from the experience?
I have always been aware of the importance of teamwork, but this experience really has heightened that. There are so many creative, talented and extremely hard-working people who put a project like this together. The respect and value towards what each person does is crucial, and I have very much felt included in the process. The ebb and flow of embracing ideas means that you know the score will always be fluid, right up to the final performance.

Would you contemplate future work with the RSC, and if so, which other Shakespeare play would you like to get your teeth into musically? 
Absolutely, I would not wish for this to be a one-off.  I would certainly be a lot more aware as to the working process and what is required. I would never have imagined embracing Troilus And Cressida, but (thanks to Greg’s incredible direction) here I am loving the actual play. Based on that, I would be completely open to any play!

Troilus And Cressida shows in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until Saturday 17 November. The play will also be broadcast live into cinemas on Wednesday 14 November.