By Nate Clark
How do you compose music for an instrument you’ve never played?
This was one of the challenges tackled by Canadian composers Ivana Jovic and Liam Gibson when they featured rare instruments like the lute, the lyre and the 20-stringed Indian sitar in the stage-adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s, The Penelopiad.
Since the play is set in an exotic location — 21st century Hades — the score required an equally exotic approach, and it wasn’t easy.
“There are some limitations of the sitar,” says Jovic, 24, who holds a master’s degree in composition from the University of Victoria and an honours bachelor of music from Wilfred Laurier University.
“It can’t hold notes for a very long time; you can’t have as many sustained pitches, but it really conveys that image of a seductress on an island somewhere.”
The Penelopiad is a re-imagining of Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, told from the perspective of Odysseus’ faithful wife, Penelope.
Trapped for eternity in Hades, she reminisces about her life and contemplates the hanging of her 12 handmaidens by Odysseus following his return from the Trojan War. Using several parallel themes, Atwood attempts to answer a question Homer seems to have completely forgotten to address: why?
“It’s a subversion,” says Gibson, 23, who is finishing his third year studying music composition at UVic.
“Written as a feminist interpretation of The Odyssey, it asks the question: what are the implications of these events? Maids represent the voices you don’t hear in the original, for reasons of both gender and class.”
For composers Jovic and Gibson — who use computer software to help notate for unusual instruments – matching music to Atwood’s story presented numerous challenges, the most obvious is that they don’t even live in the same province. They studied together at UVic, but Jovic is now teaching and performing in her hometown of Kitchener, Ont. The collaboration, like the interesting notation, was made possible through technology.
“It seemed overwhelming at first,” says Jovic. “But [the director] Wendy Merk sent us scene breakdowns of what she wanted. For example she’d say, ‘In Scene 8, I want an old-fashioned folk song,’ and I would send my requests to Liam and we would discuss it. We both had different strengths and weaknesses so we were able to complement each other really well.”
Tasks were delegated and each musician would compose on their own before sharing the final pieces via the Internet.
Deep understanding of the script was also an important factor. In one scene, the composers were asked to write a nursery rhyme to add contrast to the play’s serious subject matter. Respect for Atwood’s complex moods and themes were an essential part of Jovic’s and Gibson’s writing process.
“The subject matter is dark but humorous or at least ironic,” says Gibson. “It was difficult to strike the right balance. Any attempt to overwork it sounded silly.”
It’s the first time Gibson has written music for theatre and he says he’s learned a lot from the collaboration with Jovic. He’s looking forward to seeing his compositions come to life on opening night on April 23.
The Penelopiad runs until May 10 at Langham Court Theatre. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.