If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know that I recently composed and recorded the music for a new BBC Radio 4 drama called Amazing Grace. To coincide with the broadcast of the drama in five parts throughout the week beginning 28th June on Woman’s Hour, the producer/director, Justine Potter, is putting out a series of blogs about the process of getting a radio drama from an initial idea to a final broadcast episode. As part of this process, she has asked me to write a blog about how the process worked for me as the composer.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story, here’s a brief synopsis:
When Grace’s Sudanese village was attacked, she grabbed youngest children Kyla (10) and Mia (2) and ran for their lives, with her twin boy’s right behind her – or so she thought. Thankfully safety arrives as a truck full of fleeing villagers lets them on board – she loads her 2 daughters on board and turns to lift the boys up, but they’re gone, she can’t see them anywhere in the smoke, gunfire, screams, flames and the truck must go. Grace must make an impossible choice;: to save the children she has with her or abandon them to look for the 2 boys who somehow, in all the chaos have got left behind. This is the story of Grace – a refugee now in the UK and her battle to find and bring her children back to her.
Justine and I first talked about the possibility of me producing theme and incidental music for Amazing Grace while the script was still in its writing stage. As usual, I got rather excited and, after finding out from the writer, Michelle Lipton, that the main protagonist was of the Dinka ethnic group, I made a start on researching the music of the Dinka people of Southern Sudan and started throwing together some initial ideas.
As it happens, this was a bit of naive of me because at this point I hadn’t actually been commissioned to do anything and had just assumed everything would go ahead. After this misunderstanding was pointed out, I put Amazing Grace to one side and got on with another couple of commissions I was working on.
Once I got the official go ahead from Justine to make a start on the music, I was glad that I’d at least done some initial research as the turnaround for the whole production was pretty tight and I needed to deliver the complete recorded versions of the music very quickly indeed.
The idea that I had had since my initial discussions with Justine was to fuse the Anglican choral tradition with certain musical features of Dinka music. This was because the character of Grace is a christian of Dinka ethnicity who sings in an Anglican church choir when she finds safety in the UK. This choir, without featuring directly in the drama (although it did in earlier drafts of the script) is important to the narrative in that this is where she meets her friend, Bonnie, a middle class, middle aged lady that Grace would be unlikely to get the opportunity to befriend outside of the church community. From our email correspondence, it seemed that Justine and Michelle thought that this approach might be interesting, so this was this path I decided to follow.
During the early stages, many of the important decisions I made about the music were really defined by what I did not want it to be.
First of all, the title, having a musical connection, offered one particular musical route that I felt would be wrong for the drama. By taking Amazing Grace as a starting point,the temptation would be to draw inspiration from the Gospel choral tradition, but that is really an African American tradition that need not necessarily be something that a Sudanese woman in the UK would identify with.
The other thing that I was very keen not to do, was to produce pastiche African music. I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a Sudanese musician and I thought it best not to try and be either of those things. I was very keen that my music would be respectful to the characters culture and would reflect the point of view of the story, which is that of a Sudanese woman mediated by the experience of living in the UK.
One of the themes of Amazing Grace is the way in which she inspires the people around her and enriches their lives. I thought that I would focus on this idea for the main musical themes. Rather than represent Grace with pastiche Sudanese music, I would represent her with an archetype of Britishness/Englishness – the Anglican choir -that has become subtly enriched and infused with Dinka/Sudanese inflections. In this way, Grace is actually represented musically, not as a Sudanese refugee, but as a force for good and inspiration for positive change within her adopted community.
The actual development of the theme itself began with composing the initial melody. I knew from the start that I did not want to “borrow” Dinka tunes for my composition. there were two reasons for this: I wanted my music to be a original piece of work and I was wary of plundering a people’s cultural heritage and then doing something with it that could be interpreted as disrespectful.
I did, however, take inspiration from a recording I had from the Smithsonian Institute of Dinka women’s songs. Many of the songs used very few notes and were based on a minor pentatonic scale and in a number of songs there was a certain swing that had an equally heavily accented downbeat:
1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 etc.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a UK choir to copy the swing I had heard on the recordings, but that was really the point. The point would be that they were trying to emulate that swing.
Once I had the initial pentatonic melody, I re-composed it into a diatonic melody (the usual 7-note major or minor scales we are all familiar with) because I wanted to harmonise it in a very traditional choral way. Then I recomposed the whole thing again to produce a melody and harmony in the aeolian mode and then I did the whole process again to produce a pentatonic version (i.e. making use of the scale that I heard used on the recording of Dinka women’s music).
All these versions were recorded by the Leeds University Liturgical Choir and different versions are used as opening and closing themes for the play depending on the dramatic context.
I also wanted to have a version of the theme that was much more intimate that the choral version, so I made an arrangement of the pentatonic version of the theme for voice and piano. In this version, the vocalist sings an octave lower and is recorded with a close mic technique to achieve a warm, intimate atmosphere. to me, This version is almost a lullaby, yet it has a sadness about it. The piano was played by Kingsley Ash and the vocals were performed by Aniko Toth.
I also made some solo piano arrangements of the choral music. These, as well as the intimate voice and piano version, were used throughout the drama as incidental music and “stings” (short musical extracts to punctuate the drama, or to indicate a change of scene).
I was very pleased with our work when I heard the final edit of play. The only thing I was not happy with was the inclusion of the song Amazing Grace at the very start of the first episode, which I felt slightly undermined and contradicted what I had done with the original music. That said, the radio play isn’t about my personal vision for the drama, but culmination of months (or possibly years for the writer and producer) of hard work for a large number of people that is (hopefully!) more than the sum of its parts.
The whole process of working on a radio drama is a very exciting one and one that throws up a number of challenges. The first challenge is that this is a collaborative process and the people involved bring a number of different visions of the final product to the table. In this context, music is only part of the finished product and the bottom line is the drama comes first. Sometimes this results in artistic decisions that would not be the ones I would make, but as a composer, I have to trust the judgement of the other members of the team.
The second challenge is the fast turnaround, which can be manic it it clash with a number of other deadlines as this one did. Although, I must say that even given a much longer time to work on the music for this play, I probably would have still produced something similar.