From Orchestrators Ryan O'Connell (Music Director, ABOVE LEFT) and Brendan Milburn (Composer, ABOVE RIGHT).
Orchestrating ESLM presented new challenges that, to my knowledge, have never been faced in the realm of musical theatre ever before.
One of the unique aspects of this show is that a good amount of the score is essentially created in front of the eyes of the audience. In the last few years, Valerie has essentially become a one-woman band, and uses foot pedals to live-record soundscapes that she builds and elaborates to create songs in real-time on her electric violin and other instruments. This is a popular trend in music nowadays, but no one has ever put this kind of music into a musical theatre setting. We loved the visceral experience of this on-the-spot creation and wanted to incorporate that into the show. However, the use of looping pedals can be finicky and unpredictable, both of which can spell disaster for a live theatre performance. We needed to find a way for Valerie to reliably record and playback on stage, while acting and singing at the same time.
Another challenge - Kat’s song cycle to Shackleton stems from her video game score, which she describes as “John Williams on steroids.” Without an 80-piece orchestra at our disposal, how would we get that epic, film-music sound into the theatre?
Lastly, Kat loves using electronic effects. Whether it’s voice-delay, or vocal processing in the form of auto-tune, or beat making from unique recorded sounds, she’s got the electronic equipment to do it in her chaotic studio. This kind of processing usually takes arduous amounts of editing on the computer. How would we achieve these cool effects in real-time without boring the audience to tears?
The answer to all these problems presented itself in one incredibly versatile piece of software: Ableton Live.
Ableton Live is a program that has been used by DJ’s and beat-makers for years to do exactly what we were trying to achieve - live processing, playback, and digital effects. With some adaptations, we were able to make it work for our the theatre too.
Above: Ableton Live Screen shot. Says Ryan: All these colors make for one great show!
Inside Ableton, we are able to record Valerie’s electric violin and loop it back immediately, so that what the audience hears is Val’s actual violin that she just played. She could change up what she plays each night, and the audience would get a different experience. It’s live music-making at its best and technologically most advanced.
We were also able to augment Kat’s live-composing with a huge film orchestra, using the same exact sounds that Hans Zimmer and co. use to demo their scores for directors before hitting the recording stage. Ableton also gives us the ability to vamp and jump in the music, so that our underscoring actually scores the scene as though it were a live orchestra playing to the action. We can also wait for the actors until they are ready, or if something goes wrong. It feels live and dynamic, and prevents the karaoke aesthetic that one can feel at, say, an amusement park show where the actors sing along to pre-recorded music. Finally, we were able to incorporate delay, vocal processing, cutoff filters, and other cool digital effects to present to the audience very cool sounds that they may have never heard in a theatrical setting before. As a bonus, Ableton also takes care of switching Valerie’s electric violin sounds and my keyboard sounds, which I will play from the pit.
All of these aspects combine to give the audience an incredible and unique musical experience. It’s something that has taken us months to engineer and program, but in performances, it’s going to be so worth it.