Mon 17 Apr 2023

What is a music ‘palate cleanser’?

Ben Hudson and Anna Wheatley are the musical geniuses behind the stunning soundtrack on 'Around the World in 80 Days'. They spent months in production, with the cast and creative team, creating original music. We asked them about this process and what they do to 'cleanse their musical palate' between session and here's what they said...

When did Hal Chambers, the Director, first approach you about doing this project?

Ben: A while back. I think he approached me first because Hal and I had worked together before, we’ve done about 12 shows together over the years. Anna is a playwright, performer and musician, who has also worked with Hal.

Anna: Hal has directed some of the plays I’ve written, and I’ve performed in plays for his theatre company.

Ben: Anna and I write a lot of music together, and Hal’s a fan of what we do isn’t he?

Anna: (laughs) A super fan!

Ben: I would say that my limitation as a composer is that I’m not really a musical director or a songwriter. I’m part of a songwriting process when I’m collaborating with people, but I tend to handle the producing bit. Hal came up with the idea of Anna and I working together on this piece, initially with Anna coming on as a secondary composer and helping with the bigger song numbers. Then after about day 2, we realized that we wanted to compose the whole score together.

Whats your music background?

Ben:  I mostly create work for film and TV and in that role I have to make a lot of very varied music styles, usually to a client brief. That can be anything from orchestral to club music. The music that I like to make in my own time is more in the world of Techno and Jungle. Anna also has a pop project which I co-produce.

Anna: Yeah I have an electronic pop alias; GLYSK. I write all the tracks and then Ben produces them. It’s a fun collaboration!

When did you two meet?

Anna: We first met on a job we worked on with Hal; a play that I wrote. It was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol with a female Scrooge. Hal was directing it and Ben was doing the music. We got on so well that we continued to work together on all sorts of things after that.

Ben, did you ever think youd get into theatre with your music?

Ben: My best and oldest friend runs a theatre company that I’ve now worked with loads, and for years he was always encouraging me to get involved in theatre. He went to Bristol Old Vic with Hal and put us in touch. Hal was the first theatre director I’d ever worked with, and I didn’t have any idea about how it all worked.. We got on really well though, and have a lot of similar music tastes. He always comes into the rehearsal room with tons of ideas, which I like because you can get really focussed in from the start… He’s also  very gracious and gives you license to do your thing.

Anna: I think there’s a really interesting language between the three of us when we’re talking about the music and sound for the show. I feel like I really get where Hal is coming from. He often uses sounds when he’s describing what he wants. He’ll be like ‘I want it to go booooooch’ or ‘pschoook’ and it immediately makes sense to me. We have definitely developed quite a fun shared language that really helps the process of composing.

Anna, at what point did you decide you wanted to be a writer and move on from acting and when did the music come in?

Anna: I trained as an actor and then acted for 10 years. When I first got asked to write a play a few years back, I never intended to transition entirely into writing. It’s just turned out that I do more writing than acting these days. I will always love performing!

I’ve made music and been in bands my entire life and no matter what else I’m doing, music is my favourite thing in the whole world. I guess this project felt like a new endeavour. Although I’ve worked in theatre for over a decade in different capacities (and I run a theatre company so I’m used to being involved in the creative team) I’ve never composed a full theatre-score. So at first, when Hal approached me, I said ‘Are you sure I’ve got the right credentials?’ (laughs) It turns out it is the most fun ever! I love working with Ben, and we already have that dialogue because we’ve written a lot of songs together outside of theatre. I also love being in the rehearsal room as much as we are able, and responding to what’s happening. We watch amazing Movement Director, Jess, creating these extraordinary pieces which we’re so excited for the world to see. It’s so much fun being able to doctor what we’ve already made to facilitate that work. I love that sort of collaborative process.

Ben: I’ve always worked on the music in situ because it’s nice to bounce off what’s happening in the room. You get immediate feedback that way, and can tell if things are working or not. I don’t know if I could work remotely on a job. It would be hard to get a sense of the play and the vibe in the room. I use Ableton Live for recording and producing. You can develop a really fast workflow with it, which is so important when you need to get your ideas out quickly, and the company are working on a complicated movement piece.  One of the amazing things about working with Anna is her skill in musical direction, and ability to bring out incredible ideas and performances from the actors.

Once youve met the actors how much does that affect the music you create?

Anna: Oh, loads! We have created certain character themes in the show that have been developed based on how the actors are portraying their roles. Every time Fix comes in, for example, he has a musical theme which was developed and made in response to what we witnessed in the rehearsal room.

In terms of songs performed live by the actors, some songs we pre-wrote and others we developed along the way.

Ben: Sometimes in rehearsals the actors will sing something and it’s not what we wrote but it actually sounds better, so we definitely encourage collaboration in the room. Often we’re just creating a bit of structure and then allowing them to do what feels natural to them. Then the whole thing develops in a more organic way.

Anna: I think collaboration is extremely important on this project because we’re hugely aware of the historical context of the play; the potential for the play to be problematic and for the music to be appropriative. That is one of the first things we said when Hal approached us about working on it. We are two white composers, working on a show where someone goes around the entire world and visits all these countries, each with their own musical cultures and backgrounds. We said from the beginning that we’d like to be collaborative while making the music. We’ve had really exciting moments where we’ve worked with some of the actors on songs and themes in various languages and styles.

Ben: We’ve tried to develop a musical language of its own rather than using obvious tropes, and have tried to give a flavour of the places visited by the characters by employing sound design rather than music.

Anna: An early conversation with Hal about his vision for the play featured his interest in the human stories at the heart of the piece. That was quite inspiring for us in terms of what we’ve ended up making, and a lot of the music is made up of human voices. We’ve made instruments out of voices or Ben might take a vocal and can cut it up to make it sound extraordinary. The running theme of human voice has definitely helped create a coherent sound-world throughout the play.

What are you going to do with this amazing soundtrack?

Ben: We hadn’t really thought about it! (laughs). It would be nice to have it documented somewhere.

Have you had that magic moment yet where what you hoped to see or hear has happened?

Anna: I get that from everyone else in the room. This crew of actors are extraordinary and with Hal at the helm, and Jess with her amazing movement sessions, the room has an amazing vibe. We are doing lots of recording at our digs, so we’re back and forth between there and the rehearsal room. We’ll go away, make some music and be like ‘yeah this is a good idea’ and then take it back to the actors and they just bring it to life. Those are the moments for me when I go ‘Yes, this is going to be sick!’

Ben: I’m really enjoying how receptive the cast are to the (sometimes ridiculous) music we are giving them to perform.. We made a song  for the circus scene recently and were worried that it was a bit OTT, but they were so into it, and it’s developed into a really fun, high energy section of the show..

Anna: This whole show is like a dance. The actors learn so fast, and everyone is just so willing. Yesterday we tried something with the movement and I realized I needed to write a whole extra verse to fit what Jess and Hal had made. I gave the new lyrics to  the cast and they just went ‘yeah great!’ They just roll with it, it’s wicked. The magic, for me, is in the collaboration.

Ben: We were working on a waltz for one of the more surreal scenes, and in the recording session, Anna was using her voice in an extraordinary way to mimic an instrument. You can spend hours on a computer or a synth trying to get interesting results, but your own voice makes so many cool sounds. You can definitely save yourself time by recording some vocal ideas and then processing and editing them in interesting ways.

Anna: We keep having those moments where if we can’t solve something, we ask ourselves; ‘what does this need? Can we make it with human voice?’ Then we’ll just try something and see how it sounds. Sometimes we are just standing at the mic making really odd sounds until something sticks.

Is there anything else that has been different, unique or challenging in the process?

Anna: For me the challenge is the sheer quantity of sound and music, which is exciting! I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way, but we are working all the time. We’ll work in the rehearsal room and then we’ll go back after rehearsals and record in the evening.

Ben: It’s pretty much wall-to-wall music and sound, which seems to be typical of a Hal Chambers play, but it’s great. It’s got very bold moments in it, and I think a lot of it is going to be musical.

What do you do to unwind, most people listen to music?

Anna: Both of us keep having to do audio palate cleansers. We put our headphones on and listen to a completely different genre of music, either a track that we like or we don’t know at all. Just something that’s nothing to do with the show. I didn’t get very much sleep last night because I had the circus song just going around and around my head.

Ben: I nap… I definitely need a nap most days. I’ve really enjoyed being near mountains, I know you don’t call them mountains here, they’re fells right? I haven’t had a lot of time to go outside since we got here, but going for a walk down to the lake every morning to stare at the mountains has been so nice.

Whats your go-to music track?

Ben: Currently “I Shake That Ath” by Deaton Chris Anthony.

Anna: What I was listening to just now to cleanse my palate was really lush, it’s called Mateo Disco by Kalinga. It’s really nice and I was just swaying, looking out at the beautiful mountains outside our room. I’ve never been to Keswick before..actually that’s not true. I went to a wedding in Cockermouth and we met some friends for a swim in a lake. I did not realise it was the lake by the theatre! I’ve never been here for work before now and I would definitely return… It’s beautiful!

If you haven’t seen the show or heard the music yet, it features in our trailer… click PLAY below and enjoy!