Welcome to Thiasos-Ancient Greek theatre






from an interview with Jamie Masters

How similar is your music to ancient Greek music?

To be honest, hardly at all. For the Medea, which was the first play I wrote any music for, I had only the vaguest idea of ancient music at the back of my mind, you know, things I'd picked up from studying classics all these years; something about oboes and harps being the nearest equivalent to the ancient aulos and kithara. And the chorus all sing together. But the main thing I was concerned about was trying to find a practical solution to the weird rhythms that you get in the Greek lyrics. I mean, it was an amateur production, the chorus we had weren't all particularly good singers, not particularly musical, and most of them didn't know a word of ancient Greek; and they were going to have to dance at the same time. So it was really important to make the music as singable and accessible as possible, given that I wanted to stick as closely as possible to the rhythms of the words. Which meant writing nice, memorable tunes, and the last thing on my mind was whether it was anything like real ancient music. After the Medea, I thought I'd do a bit of research into the subject. I have to admit that I went into it quite aggressively, I mean quite skeptically. I'd come out of the Medea with some quite bloody-minded ideas about the way metre worked, and I was perfectly prepared to take the same attitude to theories about ancient music. The picture that seemed to be emerging from the books I consulted was that the chorus all sang in unison, with some kind of lyre accompaniment, maybe only playing the same tune as the singers. No-one was prepared to state that any kind of percussion was used, or that there was any harmonic background. The most worrying thing was the modes and the tunings that the ancients used; I really couldn't find much in all the theory that suggested the Greeks used anything I would really recognise as a scale, and so much of modes seemed to be about impossibly fine distinctions between tunings that were fractions of a semitone apart. I once tried tuning my guitar to one of these modes, to see if I could make any practical sense of it. I played around with it for about half an hour and gave up. In the end the problem is that we just don't have any examples of what the ancient music sounded like. If someone could go back two thousand years with a tape recorder, well, the scales might fall from my eyes, and it all might make magnificent sense, but trying to reconstruct the music from one or two fragmentary pieces of notation, and a bunch of theoretical treatises which may not even be particularly accurate, just seems a hopeless task. I still want to be skeptical about those tunings, even though I feel backed into a corner by the weight of the evidence. We're told that, say, Indian classical music has I-don't-know-how-many divisions of the scale, but to an innocent like me the scales don't sound particularly alien - I can comprehend them in terms of western scales and modes. The same is true about Arabic music. It all sounds roughly the same kind of thing, with some interesting out-of-tune moments. There are analogous out-of-tune moments in western music too, we just don't notate them as such: slides and bends, vibrato, the blue note in a blues scale, the way violinists play C sharp differently from D flat. I wonder if the theorists are not just being over-fastidious in cataloguing divisions of the scale, and cloud the issue, even if they are more rigorous and accurate. I may eat my words. Ask John Franklin about all this. But I want ancient music to be like this: I hope it will turn out that the theorists really did record too many divisions of the scale, or were too interested in the wrong kinds of scale. Just practically, I can't see how a chorus of singers could be relied upon to slide perceptibly between microtones. A really good soloist can do it, I've heard it (though it sounds to me like a colouration of a tone, rather than a separate note), but getting a whole bunch of people to be exactly in tune, to that degree of accuracy, I just don't see it.

So you just abandoned the whole idea?

So I just abandoned the whole idea. Not that I was very concerned about it in the first place. The basic argument would go, however this music sounded originally, the important thing was that the audience enjoyed it; it was familiar to them, they accepted it and understood it. That's how it had the effect it did. So what I had to do was come up with music that would have that kind of effect on a modern audience, and the real problem was a simple one of deciding which modern musical language to choose, one with the right kind of associations.

What kind of associations?

High culture, but easily accessible. Popular, but not trash. There's this story in Thucydides about some prisoner of war working in the mines, who earned his freedom because one of his captors asked him to sing one of Euripides's latest choruses. I think I must have read that when I was still at school, and we had maybe read a few choruses from tragedies, and they were very difficult, you know, really obscure, difficult language; you could work at one for an hour or two and still not feel that you had understood what it was about. I hated the choruses. After managing to get a bit of momentum going on the dialogue, I'd hit a chorus and my heart would sink. So that story made about zero sense to me. But it stuck in my mind, I guess. And what it means to me now is, people really liked choruses. I'm still not sure how this character in the story managed to remember the song after only hearing it once - I guess we have to put that down to the phenomenal powers of memory they had back then. But the songs themselves must have helped; they had to be pretty much instantly appealing, instantly memorable. And since the make-up of the audience was more or less everybody, the music wasn't elitist. On the other hand, it was a big public occasion, a festival of the best the city could offer in the arts, so it must have had music that was recognisably 'serious'. Except in comedies, of course.

So how did that translate into the music you write?

Well, the particular style I fell most naturally into was a cocktail of a lot of different things. Medieval and renaissance stuff, for instance, from the beginnings of harmony before things really settle into classical major and minor. The advantage of that was that it sounded kind of old and deep, and in the end I didn't mind making that kind of association. But it also has a kind of freshness and energy about it. I had been listening to Philip Pickett's reconstruction of the Carmina Burana, and also to a collection of 16th century Italian songs which really touched a nerve. I'd also just come out of a long period of listening to and performing a lot of traditional British folk music, which shares with the medieval stuff a very simple kind of harmony, and uses the same 'modern' modes. I know the ancient Greek modes were a completely different thing from the modes in the western classical tradition, but I was still very attracted to the idea of using modes instead of minor and major, as a kind of pale reflection of the original Greek modes. The music had to be accessible, but I really didn't want it to sound, well, normal. Just slightly exotic. I think we were quite keen to stress foreignness of Greek tragedy. I guess there's a paradox there. But both me and Yana were getting fed up with seeing Greek tragedies done as if they were just a rather awkward form of modern theatre, because they're very bad if they're done that way; so with the music too we wanted to distance ourselves from that kind of approach. So, a lot of simple harmony, modern modes; and lots of percussion too. And a smidgin of renaissance counterpoint. Nothing like ancient music at all, in fact.

Except for the rhythms.


So what was your approach to those?

That's a pretty big question. I suppose the simplest way to state the problem is that the Greek lyrics aren't, in any obvious way, regular. If you try to figure out the metre for any part of the song, it all looks terribly random. Plug into that the fact that we're not talking about a beat; Greek metre is all about patterns of long and short syllables, an idea which is absolutely foreign to English poetry. But it's reasonably easy to represent musically. Say, a word like 'Hesperidon' comes out as long-short-short-long, tum-ti-ti-tum, crotchet-quaver-quaver-crotchet, and it doesn't matter very much which of those syllables you stress. When you first come to analyse the metre of a Greek lyric, you're faced with a bewildering mess of longs, shorts, and some syllables that might be either, and there doesn't seem to be any particular pattern to it all. In fact, I don't think there is a pattern, most of the time. But for some of the songs, you find that this random metrical scheme is answered by a second verse which repeats, more or less exactly, the same sequence of longs and shorts. Conclusion: those two verses are sung to the same tune. And that suggests to me that the tune is a large part of what makes the metre make sense. That seems a good way of defining what I'm trying to do: to find a tune that makes the metre make sense. Now with these 'random patterns', if you start with the principle that all long syllables are equally long, and all short syllables are equally short (and I do, more or less, though I break that rule sometimes), you quickly discover that the tunes are not going to fit into a regular beat. No marches, no waltzes. Everything hobbles and swerves. If you wanted to divide it up into bars, you would end up with lots of syncopation, or a constant change of time signature from 5/8 to 7/8 to 4/4, whatever. So that's the challenge.

And the solution?

A bit of everything. Whatever works. Whatever produces a good tune and fits in with the ethos of the production as a whole. I have to say, I really enjoy doing the 'constant change of time signature' thing. You know, the second piece of music I ever wrote was in 5/4. I showed it to someone, who said, oh yeah, right, just like Dave Brubeck in 'Take 5'. I felt a bit cheated that someone else had got there before me (I must have been all of fifteen at the time). Then I discovered the Rite of Spring, and realised that classical composers had been playing around with weird time signatures for years. So I never felt intimidated by skewed rhythms. Then, around the time I came to do the Hippolytos, I suddenly discovered traditional 'modern' Greek dance music in a big way. I'd spent a lot of time in Greece, lived there for eight months, and during that whole time I absolutely detested the music. But a few years after, I came across this CD of traditional Greek dances, and slowly fell in love with it. And the way some of the styles use asymmetrical metres, in this immediate, energetic, and utterly unselfconscious way really excited me, and plugged immediately into the music I was doing for Hippolytos. The chariot scene, for instance, was directly inspired by one of the dances on the CD, a 9/8 bar made up of 2+2+2+3. But I have to add to that that the solution is sometimes just to syncopate; I mean keep the basic pulse regular, and let the tune go where it will against that. I've done a lot of pop and jazz, so again, this kind of approach seemed very natural. If you put me up against a wall with a gun to my head, I'd admit that I find that a less satisfactory way to go. It's probably a lot less like ancient music, and there's more danger of unhelpful associations: I wouldn't want it to sound too much like pop music. I think the finale of the Hippolytos (the hymn to Aphrodite) gets dangerously close to sounding like a pop tune. But in the end it was so beautiful, it was worth it. And I did muss it up with some classical counterpoint.

Do you ever cheat?

Yes, of course I do. But not much, and I can usually justify it. My settings of the Medea were sometimes a bit loose (after all, I was still finding my feet); but I remembered from Aristophanes' Frogs that Euripides was ridiculed for singing the same syllable over a number of notes, 'el-el-el-el-el-el-el…'. From which I deduced that it should normally be one syllable to a note, but sometimes more than one. The very first lyric I set went 'Erechtheidai to palaion olbioi' and I immediately changed it to 'Erechtheidai to palai-to palaion olbioi', which actually makes some kind of sense in Greek. I used the same trick of repeating bits of text in the Oedipus, but not at all in Hippolytos. Except that I'll sometimes sing two or three notes on one vowel. I got more rigorous as I got more confident. But I think Euripides cheated too. There's hardly a single chorus in which the metrical correspondence between two stanzas is 100% exact. Did he change the tune, or just fudge it, like, sing a short syllable as a long?

You said something about fitting the ethos of the production. Does that mean that you make the music Indonesian if the production is Indonesian?

Not really. Or not overtly. The Medea was choreographed by an Indian classical dancer, really fantastic stuff, but I don't think I made any effort to reflect that in the music. The Hippolytos was Indonesian, but the music was quite Greek. I think the original suggestion from Yana was that I should do gamelan music, but I killed that one dead in its tracks. Frankly I don't think I would have been capable. But I did use a lot of tuned percussion -- glockenspiel, marimba, finger cymbals, gongs -- as an allusion to the gamelan sound-world, and had a recurrent melodic figure which was based on one of the standard gamelan scales. And of course all the in-between bits, where we had narration and mime, all that was done in a very Indonesian style. Not actually gamelan, but percussion and chanting. The Wealth was a different story. We did that as a traditional 19th century Greek puppet show, and the music was pretty much in that kind of style. Or at least, my version of that style. The ethos of each production was more, for me, about light and shade: about colour. About what the production was trying to say. Our productions have been basically very bright and colourful, and I've generally come up with very bright, colourful music.

Even though the Hippolytos and Medea are tragedies?

Yes, exactly. I mean, that's exactly the point. You think, this is a tragedy, so it ought to have really doomy gloomy music, full of foreboding. But I'm really against that. I'm against the general idea that tragedy as a whole has to be so dark, for a lot of reasons -- number one, some tragedies have rather jolly plots, and number two, it's dramatically exhausting to keep pushing the same button, dark dark dark and then more dark. But just keeping to the music, I've always been fascinated by the way music can appear to go against the grain of the words: how a song in a minor key can be funny, or uplifting, or comforting, and a sweet tune in a major key can be emotionally devastating. Particularly the latter. Just off the top of my head, Dowland's 'come again' -- a really beautiful song in a major key, it's about unrequited love, the poet says that he is weeping and fainting and dying, but the music stays impassively lovely, and I can't hear the song without crying. Bob Dylan's 'Don't think twice, it's alright' is another example. If you want to affect people emotionally it doesn't do to batter them with gloom. I did the Oedipus for King's -- nothing to do with Thiasos -- and that was a very dark production, and I was asked to do brutal, primitive music. Which I did; but honestly, I can't say I liked the music very much. I was listening to it the other day in fact. There are some good things in there, some things I wouldn't mind rescuing, but overall it's very hard going. I don't get much pleasure out of it. The piece I enjoyed the most was the one where the chorus start fantasizing about how things might turn out really well after all, and I allowed myself to write something quite chirpy. But that whole experience convinced me to stick to my guns in the future.

You've talked a lot about your music for tragedies. What about the Wealth?

Well, that was a very different kind of project, mostly because the chorus doesn't have such a big part to play. There's only one song in it, which I did, as usual, in Greek, but the rest of the music is just short instrumentals to introduce the characters onto the stage and see them off again. That was an idea we took from Karagiozi, the Greek puppet show, and it worked like a dream. I don't know what it is, but having the music to frame the performance, and to frame the individual scenes, really lifts the whole production, really adds to the atmosphere we're trying to create. I was very much into the way the actors did some little dance as they were coming in, a dance that portrayed their character, but usually had no relevance at all to the plot, nothing to do with what they were supposed to be feeling. It just made it all so wonderfully calculated and artificial.

And what attracts you to that?

Good question. I'm really not sure, it's just an instinct I have. Maybe it's because if you keep a distance between the audience and the players, if you use devices like this to show that what is happening on stage is not real, it gives the audience room… room to breathe, room to feel and be genuinely affected. To experience the frisson of being on the outside and entering in. And if they don't, it's still quite fun to watch from the outside. But I'm not a theorist. Ask Yana. It's just that there's something kind of stifling, embarrassing almost, about 'realistic' performances. Realism works well in the cinema, because there's a distance created by the fact that you know the actors aren't really there, and won't mind if you don't react… But I love those really stiff performances you used to get in old movies. You know no-one really behaves like that or talks like that, but you can still relate to it; 'of all the gin-joints in all the world, and she walks into mine…'. There's class there, pride in an artefact being an artefact.

All of your songs are done in the original Greek. Is that also something to do with distancing the audience?

I hadn't quite thought of it like that. But maybe. The plays at King's college London are always done completely in Greek, and coming from that background, deciding to do anything in English seemed a pretty momentous step. And I know that the purist Greek thing can work, even if the audience doesn't understand the language. Probably the most powerful performance of any Greek tragedy I ever saw was a Greek-language Bacchae, done in Cambridge in the late eighties. But I did know the play very well, I'd acted in a film version of a different production, and I knew some parts of it inside out. So perhaps that's not a fair test. And King's and Cambridge can rely, more or less, on a devoted following of insiders who have some emotional investment in seeing productions in the original Greek. For Thiasos, we wanted to have a broader appeal, and that meant doing productions in English. But there are pros and cons to that. It's the same double bind that you get in opera. If you do it in a foreign language, it all sounds magnificent, but there are long stretches of impenetrable monotony. If you do it in English, people understand what's going on, but it begins to sound dangerously banal. I remember seeing a video clip of some tragedy production, and the chorus were sort of chanting 'Blood… blood…', and I thought, this is ridiculous, just awful. So we came up with this compromise: the songs would all be in Greek, but everything else would be in English. Just on the grounds that you've got the music to carry you through the Greek bits, but you need to know what's going on the rest of the time. I guess in an ideal world I'd find a way of doing really convincing translations of Greek lyrics, but I just haven't been able to yet. And in the meantime, yes, the songs sound kind of mysterious and unearthly, and that might work because of some sort of audience-distancing. But like I say, if I could find a way of doing them in English without sounding banal and ridiculous, I would. I think it's really important to be able to understand.