Keeping Score: Creating Music for The Gods of Strangers

An interview with composer Hilary Kleinig


Dina Panozzo and Elizabeth Hay listen to Tosca in The Gods of Strangers (photo by Victoria Lamb)

Hilary Kleinig is an award winning cellist, composer and creator. She is one of the members of Zephyr Quartet and created the beautiful music for our production of The Gods of Strangers. We sat down to chat to her about her role within the production and what informed her process.

Can you tell us, in broad terms, what a composer does in the context of a theatre show?

When I approach composing for a theatre show, it’s very much about trying to connect with the emotional and physical landscape that the writer and director have presented. And I guess the other really important role is trying to create an emotional through-journey so audiences can make sense of the trajectory of the play without giving too much away early on.

What inspired the music you created for The Gods of Strangers?

This was an interesting play for me… right from the start when I talked to Geordie about it he said it’s quite traditional in form. I was mainly creating music for scene-changes and a bit of underscoring and so forth. And obviously it’s about Greek and Italian migrants to Port Pirie but that he didn’t want it to sound typically Greek or Italian, but for it to fit into a contemporary classical world.

Composer Hilary Kleinig

In the play there are these beautiful interludes where a picture is painted about certain aspects of the life of the people in that play, but they’re not directly related to the play’s narrative. They’re like landscapes in a way. So this provided a really nice opportunity to expand and go further with the compositional sense throughout the process.

I listened to a lot of folk music from Greece and Italy and took certain rhythmic and harmonic motives that I used as a basis for the music. I also referenced Puccini when making the music, especially the Vissi D’Arte aria which features heavily in the play and, I feel, underpins a lot of the action. It was great inspiration for a lot of the musical material, so I downloaded and studied the score and took certain chord progressions and motives from the orchestral parts and threaded them throughout the work.

Writer Elena Carapetis spoking about wanting to create a vast emotional landscape for the play, not dissimilar to that of an opera. How do you go about translating such epic emotions into your music?

To capture vastness in a play is a little bit challenging in that the moments that you’re given are often underscoring and therefore the music can’t be brought to its full level and in the scene-changes are transitional and quite brief.

So to create vastness, I use lots different layers and textures… I layer a lot of rhythmic and melodic material that sit on top of each other so you can have a sense of it building and going somewhere, but also a sense of consistency as well.

I guess there were two things I wanted to achieve with this music:

Firstly, an intimate personal feeling… I wanted to create a feeling of intimacy, as if you could be in a room with a couple of instruments playing music for you in a soiree style.

Secondly, something larger in scale. We have the sound of quite a large ensemble creating an array of different sounds and textures that feel big and vast and sweeping. And I hope that within the music people will find those differing states of something quite personal and something quite vast and overarching.

The complete score for The Gods of Strangers by Hilary Kleinig

What has your personal response to the show been?

I think seeing the show, and seeing all of the elements come together, the play has really made me think about the strength and courage of migrants to this land and particularly the strength and courage of women… especially those strong, beautiful and funny women in the play who are so wonderfully written by Elena.

The Gods of Strangers closes in the Dunstan Playhouse on December 2. Get your tickets here.

Learn more about Hilary and her work here.