James McGregor

by
After Mrs Rochester
Rob Scott caught up with Exeter first year history student, James McGregor, who composed, conducted, and performed the music soundtrack for EUTCo's After Mrs Rochester.

After Mrs Rochester is a play which tells the story of novelist Jean Rhys. Although it is set entirely within one cluttered bedroom, her difficult past and her wild imagination appear physically before the audience, transporting us back to her traumatic childhood on the exotic Caribbean island of Dominica, and her lonely, troubled adulthood within the cold, drab existence of English city life. Rhys’ fragmentary, hectic past and imagination are rendered seamlessly side by side, and interspersed with occasional scenes from her favourite novel, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. If it sounds ambitious, that’s because it is — but EUTCo’s rendering of every nuance and subtlety of Rhys’ lonely, complex life was practically flawless, proving once again that the future of theatre is in very capable hands.

What was one of the most impressive components of this production was that the soundtrack was composed by Exeter first year history student, James McGregor, who also conducted, and performed the music he’d written with a band alongside the performance. The rumbling tom drum patterns, the warm bass riffs, and the beautiful recurring piano and flute melodies perfectly balanced a sense of Rhys’ nostalgia for her colourful, exotic past in Dominica and the dissonance and frustration of her lonely adult life. Most importantly, James’ compositions created an atmosphere which emotionally engaged you with the performance, but were never intrusive or overbearing. They never distracted from the play, they only lent themselves to it.

Highlights included the music accompanying Rhys’ memory of swimming in the Caribbean rivers, with its ‘watery’ keyboard effects, sounding both wistful and faintly mournful; and the various piano led songs, which reminded me of the compositions of Carter Burwell for the film In Bruges. For James’ first hand at composing for theatre, it’s incredible that he was able to produce a collection of pieces that are not only impressive works of music in themselves, but were also so sensitive and complimentary to the story performed on stage.

I caught up with James after the final performance to ask him some questions:

Did you know much about the life and works of Jean Rhys before you started work on the music?
I have to admit that I knew very little about Jean Rhys before I started this project. However, I found the more I read the play the more I was able to understand her emotions, her frustration and her fears. I could see the dissonance in her life between those around her, and then translate that into dissonance in my music.

Did you spend a lot of time reading the play before you write the music for it, or do you start with the music itself?
It all started with the read through, in which I took note of initial ideas and emotions which I wanted to portray. From there it was just going through the play bit by bit, reading pages over and over again whilst listening to a Spotify playlist of ideas which I had collated since the start of term. If something jumped out at me, be it a chord sequence or a melodic phrase, I’d jump onto the piano and mess around with it.

Were you given complete free reign over the composition? To what extent were you guided by the director?
I was so grateful that the directors Florrie Taylor and Erin Blackmore were able to offer me such clear direction with the music they wanted. From the start I was granted an insight into their musical vision, but they also gave me a great deal of freedom regarding the instrumentation and harmonies. As we got used to working with each other we became more comfortable challenging each other’s ideas, which allowed for the music to become increasingly refined.

How long did it take you?
The music had to be done in phases, with me usually dedicating my Tuesday evenings to it. The main overture went through several iterations, but once that was down a lot of the following music came quite easily and had one or two drafts. However I did have to deal with limitations regarding finding musicians and equipment, which caused me to have to re-score all the music to accommodate for the smaller band. The whole process probably took about seven weeks.

What’s your musical background like?
My parents encouraged me to start learning piano and saxophone at the age of five, for which I am tremendously grateful for. I undertook GCSE and A-Level music, both of which had composition elements to them. I have written a couple of vocal songs before, but as a saxophonist I do a large amount of improvisation, for which I am required to come up with melodies and ‘licks’ as opposed to vocal lines.

To what extent did you write with the dancers in mind? Or did the dancers fit their choreography to your music?
The dancing was a far more difficult element of the production than anticipated. As I was not seen as a rehearsal pianist I was not required to play piano in rehearsals, so much of the music such as the tempo was adapted to suit the dancing when we got the cast and band together for our tech and dress run. I also hadn’t anticipated how loud the stage would be with actors performing leaps and lifts, so additional music had to be written over the final week to mask some of the choreography.

Where there any particular difficulties you faced in the composition of the music or production of the play?
The main issues I faced were finding musicians willing to play my music (especially as the end of term two is such a busy time for people), as well as finding the space and equipment to rehearse. As EUTCo is not ExTunes affiliated we were not allowed to book out instruments or rehearsal spaces using the main music society, which was a significant challenge. A big thank you must be given to the Soul Choir and generous individuals who allowed us to borrow their equipment!

Do you have any advice for anyone interested in getting into composition for theatre, TV, or just in general?
My advice would be to first create an eclectic playlist of music. For me this ranged from the opening titles of Finding Nemo to Latin jazz by Michael Camilo, and gave me a diverse selection of melodic ideas from which I could branch out from. I would also say that you shouldn’t be worried about giving composition a go. It was an amazing experience for me, and I see it as a defining moment in my university life.