Composing for South Western

I have been writing the music for South Western, the brand new show from the Wardrobe Ensemble which premieres at Tobacco Factory Theatres later this month. In this blog post I will talk about the instruments used in the show and the inspiration behind them.

I’m an associate artist of The Wardrobe Ensemble and I wrote and performed the music for previous shows from the company, including 1972: The Future of Sex and Wind in the Willows.

I’ve spent the past four weeks in my usual ‘music corner’ surrounded by instruments, well mostly guitars actually, in all different shapes and sizes. From lap steel to mandolins, acoustics to electrics, I’ve been playing with every sound possible that a guitar can make. At the moment the biggest influence on the music in the show is Ennio Morricone for his epic western scores on classics like Good, The Bad and The Ugly and A fist Full of Dollars. If you want to listen to some of the artists we are enjoying in the room check out this Spotify playlist – https://spoti.fi/2MkesQW

When discussing the music for the show two questions came to mind. Firstly how American can it be? E.g. Banjos and fiddles, like Old Crow Medicine Show. And how British should we go? E.g. Guitars and violins, like Nick Drake. The answer to both seems to have landed in knowing we don’t want cheesy country or folk, but it still too early to write off vibes.

Either way I have started with the guitar. Not only is it at the core of both American and British song writing, it also happens to be the instrument I compose with. So I went ahead and bought a few different guitar slides, researched some cool tunings and even bought a cello bow in an effort to make as many sounds as possible from the iconic ‘six string’.

Now for a breakdown of the instrumentation I will be using live, hopefully I don’t get too nerdy…

On one side I have an acoustic guitar tuned to DADGAD, which is a typical tuning for playing transatlantic folk music and gives the tracks a really cool modal sound. Going forward I can see room for it to take the foreground and be performed with minimal or no backing.

Next is an electric guitar with a cello bow, that when bowed slowly through lots of reverb and delay effects it sounds really trippy and will be great for darker drones or bass layers. This is a really fun way to play the guitar and when using harmonics it can sound like horror film screeches. I can imagine this instrument being very useful in arrhythmic scenes to make an ambiguous or haunting atmosphere.

On the other side is a baritone electric guitar. Without getting to nerdy it is essentially a lower pitched electric guitar that is often used on country and western productions. When played with a tremolo arm it can give an instant feeling of epic American weight and will be really useful for creating motifs and character themes.

And lastly is the lap steel, which sits right in front of me on its three legs. This instrument is played horizontally using a bottleneck or bullet slide. Its sound is so American when played in different styles it can take you from Delta Blues to Nashville Country in a few notes. This will come in really handy when needing to inject some USA into what could be produced as a British folk song.

This is not the full instrumentation, as I am recording backing tracks to accompany the performance that include harmonica, mandolin, orchestral drums, violin and piano that will be triggered via Ableton Live. I might be juggling guitars throughout the performance of this show but I can’t wait to get it up on its feet as this is going to be a very fun show to play.

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