It's 5.30 in the morning and I'm in a rather insalubrious B&B in Bath, where I'm composing for some shows at the Theatre Royal whilst doing some work on 'Flicker' in the early part of the day before going in for technical rehearsals. I've spent a long time reading and re-reading the libretto, and asking the ever-patient Poppy if she'd mind changing a few sections and phrases that I think the music won't need. At the moment the score's a fairly random collection of bits of manuscript paper with scraps of vocal melodies and chords, from which I'm pulling together ideas as I start working through the libretto.
When I talked to Julian O'Kelly - the head of music therapy at the RHN - I was very struck by the idea of what music therapists call 'entrained improvisation'. This is a musical process used to establish connections with patients in low-awareness states; the therapist begins by humming, singing or playing a single note, which is precisely timed and phrased to the patient's breathing. Gradually more notes are added and the complexity built up before being taken back down to a single note again. There's something very attractive about this as a compositional structure, so I'm planning to use this basic idea in several different ways throughout. In fact I've got very interested in the whole idea of breathing patterns; we've decided to start and end the opera with solo arias for Iris which are not-quite-identical mirror images of each other, and I've found some low chord clusters which have a feeling of soft breathing which I think might work well as an accompaniment for these.
I've also decided that the three characters should have quite different kinds of music. Iris' music is going to be very chromatic and melismatic (stretching words over several notes), whereas Bridget's will be much more melodic. She discovers Iris is locked-in (rather than being in a low-awareness state) when she notices Iris blinking in time to her singing, so I've written a little slightly Ella Fitzgerald-ish song for her to sing, which I can develop into other ideas elsewhere.
I've (eventually) been having fun with the Joe scenes; at first I was slightly tearing my hair out over how to set phrases like 'neurophysiological response', before I realised that there was something quite exciting about setting his lines very close to the actual speech rhythms of the interview transcripts we drew on when putting the libretto together. His scenes are also an opportunity to introduce a slightly lighter tone, so I'm trying to make his sections as bouncy and upbeat as possible.
We've got a R&D day coming up, where we're going to workshop two scenes with two the singers who'll hopefully be in the final performance - the soprano Anna Dennis (playing Iris), and Alison Crookendale, the contralto who'll be playing Bridget, so I'm looking forward to hearing some of the music sung live. We're going to concentrate on Iris' opening aria and the scene in which Bridget starts working with Iris using an alphabet chart, which Iris can navigate by blinking. As we found when interviewing the patients at the RHN, this is an unbelievably slow yet crucial process, and I'm starting to think about how to convey that musically without the audience (hopefully) getting bored.
Lots to do...