Indeed, if Music is the food of love, Twelfth Night, or What You Will playing now at the Folger Theatre, is an amorous buffet.
Hello! Emily Trask here! I had the pleasure of blogging with you last year while I was playing Valeria in The Gaming Table and I’m delighted to be back at the Folger playing another lady whose name begins with a V… Viola, and also delighted to have been asked to blog a bit while I’m here in Washington and on this isle of Illyria.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will has always been one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps it’s the effortless humor of the text – witty and bawdy alike. Or perhaps it’s the beauty of the character’s plights and journeys. But more and more I seem to think that what makes Twelfth Night so enduringly wonderful lies in the realm of the intangible — that ineffable essence which is so innately human that Shakespeare manages to capture and store in the folds of this particular story. It is the play’s simultaneous effervescent yet profound bitter-sweetness, and the fact that beneath the moments of bawdy revelry, one senses there is something as swollen and dark blue as the sea that threatened to swallow the twins whose tale we follow.
In many ways, Twelfth Night is a play about loneliness and longing; about being found when one fears they are irrevocably lost…about the discovery of love and laughter in the least likely places – Oh, and about having one hell of a good time while we’re at it!
But even in light of any long list of descriptions, one is still hard-pressed to encompass the essence of this beautifully enigmatic play. However, a Spanish word comes to mind that might touch on the depths of this comedy: duende.
Very loosely, duende means to have soul, rare depth and range of expression, and the ache of authenticity. Of course, the word encompasses so much more than that, but you get the idea.
I first learned about duende in reference to Garcia Lorca and his plays. All right, all right. So the Shakespearean revels in Twelfth Night aren’t that closely akin to the fiendish flamenco of Lorca’s explorations. However, the second time I met the concept of duende comes significantly closer to the mark. It was in reading a lecture by Nick Cave, the famous Australian musician and front man for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, about what it takes to write a true love song.
[Enter our “food of love.”]
Cave says in his lecture:
“All love songs must contain duende. For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain. Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all…”
From Satie’s Gymnopédies,
to Debussy’s Clair de Lune,
to My Wild Irish Rose,
to Scott Joplin,
to Shakespeare’s very own Hey Ho, the Wind and the Rain! —
the Folger’s Twelfth Night is overflowing with the musical food Cave speaks of — and this is no mistake, but rather of an (oh-so-intentional) design. Specifically, the design of director Robert Richmond, of Sound Designer and primary composer, Matthew Nielson, and of the practical magic of maestro/musical director Joshua Morgan. The numerous cast members who play and sing in the show thoroughly embrace and enact this amazing design.
So for our mutual edification, I decided to go right to the source and ask the awesome and seriously gifted Nileson a few questions about our musical world.
First, I was curious about where he gathered his inspiration for this play’s musical “sustanence.” Nielson said that he started with Shakespeare’s already bewitchingly scripted lyrics: “The lyrics for each song are written into the text, which by default becomes the biggest inspiration.” He said he was also inspired by the time period Richmond chose to set the production in, as well as by the composers that both he and Richmond were drawn to. These, and many other elements, combined to be the inspiration for the “first course” of Nielson’s composition and sound design.
Once inspired, the development process took the better part of a year: “Robert and I first met in September. I wrote first drafts of several songs during the fall, and in January we started having discussions about specific draft notes and shaping. Over the next couple months we bounced drafts of all the songs back and forth. Once rehearsal started, Joshua Morgan stepped in as music director and between his direction and the actors playing the songs, they evolved again according to the needs of the show.”
But the musical world didn’t fully come together until the “table we set” (Yes. I am persisting with this metaphor), that is, until technical rehearsals. Nielson continued, “One of the greatest experiences for me on this production, aside from this being one of my favorite endings of a show, was the first time I heard the cast perform these songs in the design run. They breathed life into the songs in ways I didn’t anticipate and I couldn’t be happier with how they turned out.”
When asked if it was a challenge to write for this cast of eclectic musicians (ukulele, cello, clarinet, piano, accordion and voice — instruments that are not often grouped together), Nielson said “Not even a little. It appealed to my creative side AND my geeky puzzle-solving side. I was given lyrics, a time-setting, and a set of instruments I knew I’d be working with, and got to write music accordingly. It’s really so much fun to compose music for an eclectic set of instruments that you wouldn’t normally expect to hear together. “
Similarly, the characters themselves in Twelfth Night are an eclectic bunch of voices that find themselves thrust together in unexpected ways that create entertaining dissonance and harmony. In fact, most of the “sound design” that would normally be created by specific sound effects, etc. was done away with for live, in-person options. Joshua Morgan’s live accompaniment underscores a significant amount of the play and serves to heighten moments in scenes, and, of course, Louis Butteli’s “mellifluous voice” creates the change of place instead of shifting scenery.
“For my part, I realized that between Josh’s playing, the songs we added, the songs I wrote and a few sparse design elements here and there, we had everything we needed,” Nielson said. “I worked with Josh and created varying layers of effects on the piano to achieve the different feels/ambiences/soundscapes in different scenes that I would normally create with recorded sound.” For example, instead of inserting underwater sounds at the beginning of the play when the twins may be drowning, there is heavy reverb on the piano which, when music is played, creates a distant and dreamy underwater feel.
It is through the music that we experience the shifting world of the play. Not a bad concept for a play whose first scripted line is about just that: Music and the spirited feast that is about to be offered for our savoring with delight and deunde.
With that – I’ll just offer some dessert in the form of the lyrics to a love song that would make Mr. Cave (and certainly Shakespeareans) sigh:
Would you have a love song or a song of good life?
SIR TOBY BELCH
A love song, a love song.
Ay, ay. I care not for good life
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low:
Trip no further, pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter.
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty.
Then come and kiss me, sweet and twenty
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
Twelfth Night – Playing at the Folger Theatre until June 9th