The Composer: Graham Reynolds on the new sound for GRIMM TALES and storytelling through music
By Eva Kahn
Graham Reynolds is in the midst of creating a musical narrative for Ballet Austin’s latest world premiere, GRIMM TALES, the third full-length ballet he has scored for long-time friend and creative partner, Ballet Austin Artistic Director / Choreographer Stephen Mills. Reynolds, the Austin-based composer, and bandleader, who’s known for his countless compositions, award-winning film scores, and performing arts collaboration, has enjoyed adjusting his creative process to compose for visual works of art — works which do not exist in time — the way music and movement do.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Reynolds about telling stories through sound, stretching the parameters of a musical form, and playing five piano parts at the same time…
How did you get involved in GRIMM TALES?
Stephen Mills, who I’ve worked with a million times, brought up this concept and then brought in this gigantic book of Grimm’s tales that Natalie Frank (visual artist) had done. We looked through the book and talked about it, and he had marked paintings and stories he was interested in.
What was your initial reaction to the book? How do you work with visual stimuli?
Collaboration with the visual art world is something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s very hard to figure out how to do that in a performative art. The paintings from Natalie are so visceral, raw, and leap out of the page a bit, and that makes me want to start writing music.
Because there was this book, I was able to put it up on the piano and act like I was scoring to picture [as in film] — in this case, just imagining what the actual motion is, and trying to create music that captures what’s in the painting.
It’s about playing, and then flipping some pages, playing some more, flipping some pages, and then just immersing into the book.
In dance, the music has a special place to be guiding the narrative. How do you tell a story through sound?
In pure music forms or forms that derive out of instrumental music or songs, there tends to be a squareness to it and a form of predictability that’s part of whatever the structure is supposed to be. Then you play around within those parameters. But when a film or a dance comes with a narrative, it’s not following any of the rules of the music form, it’s following its own arc. Instead of stretching within the parameters of a music form that’s been established, this is letting another medium entirely dictate your pacing and your structure.
With film, the exact times are dictated. With Stephen and the ballet, there’s an outline and a narrative structure, but there’s not an exact, dictated amount of time, so the music can push and pull. It creates this structure where I’m coloring the lines — where I’m trying to capture the character and the story — but in an outline that is dictated in non-musical terms.
The music at the performance will be performed live. Has this element affected your composition process?
In some of the earlier collaborations, we knew it would be a recorded score, so we really layered on the studio approach, where we made it impossible to play live. In other times, we knew the score would be performed live, and it was constructed that way. This time, we did a little bit of both. We built using studio time and acoustic instruments and live musicians, without regard to performability. Five piano parts at the same time, things like that. And now we’re taking that composition and deconstructing. At the first music rehearsal, we’ll be figuring out that structure.
What is the instrumentation of the score?
It’s a 20-piece ensemble…lots of strings, three percussionists, a guitarist, keyboardists, pianists, an oboist, a bassoonist, and a contrabassoonist. Each keyboard will have eight different palates that can be pulled up and combined. There’s a lot of solo violin and some string quartet parts. You’ve got a small ensemble in the context of a large ensemble.
Are you playing yourself?
Yes, I’ve been trying to take everything that Stephen’s been working with and put it in other people’s parts, so that I will conduct, cue, and “band lead,” and I will have the piano there to augment when the opportunity is there. There’s some complicated piano playing!
How have you used instrumentation to personify different characters?
It’s not strict, but there’s a contrabassoon that’s very clearly a frog. We dive into that — translating the sound of an animal into a musical instrument at times — and at other times, abandon that. The contrabassoon is the most obvious, I’d say.
You talk about making a playlist as soon as you start a project to find your influences and jumping off point. What was in your playlist?
A whole bunch of stuff, some of it was just pure mood — these are some dark fairy tales — so looking for material that felt like the right mood. Some of it was about palate, instrumentation — what instruments were resonating for Stephen and me — some of it was about music that works well as a hybrid, where it’s some effects and computer-based stuff mixed with live or acoustic instruments.
Stephen and I would listen to it and I would see which ones he responded to, and which ones sounded like the ballet. And then I started making sketches and I made 30 or more sketches. Stephen would listen to each one and say, “oh for sure, that sounds like it” or “maybe”, or “no that doesn’t really sound like it.”
Each folder of music we would match up to a chapter or a scene in the story. And then we had the maybes in reserve to fill in where we wanted to.
What drives you to take the projects that you do and how do you continue to come up with fresh ideas?
There’re two parallel paths — I have dreams of what I want to do with music. I listen to it all the time and make music all the time. There’s a lot of music that I’d like to make and imagine in vague concepts. And then there’s another track of things that would be exciting but I haven’t been pulled in that direction yet. When those two things meet up, that’s when it’s most exciting.
GRIMM TALES is perfect for that — this layered hybrid approach that we’re then deconstructing and making performable live — something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. It’s been difficult to do just because it just takes so much time to figure out.
Dance or any collaboration pulls me in a direction I don’t expect because it’s not coming from my brain, my research, my background, listening, or any of the stories that I have experienced, or that are in me. Stephen is a long-time collaborator, and he keeps pulling me in different ways and combining that with things I’ve always wanted to do, and that marriage is what makes me most excited about a collaboration.
Commissioned by the Butler New Choreography Endowment
The Long Center
Tickets at balletaustin.org
CONCEPT AND CHOREOGRAPHY BY STEPHEN MILLS
INSPIRED BY THE ARTWORK OF NATALIE FRANK
MUSIC: Graham Reynolds
Graham Reynolds’ original score for Grimm Tales is funded in part by the Texas Commission on the Arts.
DRAWINGS: Natalie Frank
SCENIC/PROP DESIGN: George Tsypin
COSTUME DESIGN: Constance Hoffman
LIGHTING DESIGN: Tony Tucci
PROJECTION DESIGN: Howard Werner
STORY: Edward Carey
LIVE ACCOMPANIMENT: Graham Reynolds and his musical ensemble
This production runs approximately 80 minutes without intermission
and is recommended for ages 10 and older.