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by Kirsten Marsh

Claire Cowan: Collaboration By Ballet

by Kirsten Marsh

Claire Cowan: Collaboration By Ballet

Back in 2019 something special happened in the Aotearoa music and ballet worlds. The Royal NZ Ballet toured a fresh new take on Hansel and Gretel, complete with an original music score commissioned from award-winning composer Claire Cowan and world premiere choreography by fellow Kiwi ‘creative tour de force’ Loughlan Prior. Kirsten Marsh spoke with Claire.

Their Hansel and Gretel project took a year to write from the start of 2018, and the pair had worked closely on the narrative elements before Cowan began composing the score.

“We wanted to rewrite the fairytale to have a more realistic and emotional journey. I didn’t want to have so many female antagonists – the Brothers Grimm were a bit misogynistic! There’s always the evil stepmother and the evil witch, every woman apart from Gretel is evil, and even Gretel pushes somebody into an oven.

“So, for feminism reasons, we wanted to change the story and we also wanted to make it fun and dynamic, and make the story move along at a really good pace.”

The alternative in ballet would be to use existing music, which locks the choreographer into a specific storyline that may not always be as lively and engaging.

So Cowan and Prior wrote the story together, putting in time codes for each scene and breaking each scene down into actions.

“I imagined within those dances what’s actually happening, and created light and shade within that. It can’t just be like walking music for two and a half minutes,” she laughs. “So I imagine shadowy things passing over, and then they hear a weird bird… and I fill in all the details in my head.”

The result is a deeply evocative music score with no boring moments. Every scene tells a story – from the witch’s creepy, off-kilter melody and percussion, to the tinkling lullaby-esque piece for the Sandman. Cowan blends jazz and Latin influences with lush strings, and in moments it sounds like a movie soundtrack, unsurprising perhaps given her background in film. The creative vision Cowan and Prior shared was to set the ballet in the early 1920s – ’30s.

“Act 2 has a lot more early Broadway, early jazz influence. There are a few tangos in it, a bit of Latin in there as that’s what was happening at the time as well.”

When she finally got to watch the ballet and hear her music performed, Cowan knew she wanted to record the finished product. With encouragement from Hamish McKeich, conductor of the NZ Symphony Orchestra, she assembled a strong team, picking people with good ears.

“In the control room you can only really be listening to so much, and then after seven hours your ears start to fail you.”

McKeich went on to be an integral part of the recording team.

“Every good conductor has a rapport with the orchestra and he certainly has one with the NZSO… he has ways of asking for things that don’t embarrass anybody, and he listens to things differently than I do.”

The wind instruments have a playful role in Hansel and Gretel, painting the characters and mischievous mood of the ballet. As a woodwind player and avant-garde music specialist, McKeich was also attuned to getting the special effects right.

“I may not think to ask for things from wind players because I don’t know what they can do, but he knows that there’s more capability.” 

Her assistant producer was percussionist Brent Stewart, so Cowan also had someone rhythmically focused on side. Pots, pans and other more familiar percussion instruments feature heavily in driving the narrative, delicate one moment, unsettling the next.

“I just enjoy the variety of percussion because there are so many different sounds. It can change the mood so much to have a low rumbling bass drum underneath something that sounds quite sweet – you know that there’s something about to happen.”

Indeed, the soundtrack is full of such sweetly ominous moments. Once recording wrapped up in November, Cowan and her editor worked to a tight deadline for an early December release.

The story Cowan and Prior imagined was turned into the ‘Hansel and Gretel Bedtime Story’ by writer Amy Mansfield. Listeners at home can hear the playfully rhyming verse read by actor/comedian Jonny Brugh, beautifully interwoven with the music of the ballet on the album’s bonus final track.

“I hope kids learn the story by heart! It’s such a fun verse, with awesome rhyming… It is meant for kids, but as with Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes it kind of works on lots of levels.”

Cowan’s composition was touted as a NZ first — and even worldwide she has few peers. The unusual situation had its own perks and challenges.

“I couldn’t feel like an imposter because there are no other composers doing scores for ballet at the moment. It’s such an expensive thing to get an orchestra to play a new score and commission it from a composer. It’s not really done.

“I felt really really lucky, but I was also like, ‘Who do I ask for help?’ I wrote to some composers I admire overseas, who had written ballets, and they never wrote back, so I was like, ‘Oh cool, I’ll just listen to some Stravinsky’,” she laughs.

So there is no roadmap, really. Her advice is as follows:

“I think the best thing is to make friends with a choreographer. That’s how I got all my gigs really. I’d been friends with Loughlan for 5 or 6 years before we’d done Hansel and Gretel. Listen to lots and lots of music, find styles that you really like and examine them to see how the composer got the effects and the colours and the textures.

“Have really good technical and theoretical knowledge, because if you can hear things in your head you have to know how to write them down. Submit scores for any open score submissions. You can hear them played and hear what works and what doesn’t.”

NZSO has its NZ Composer Sessions and the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra has a Rising Star, a young composer-in-residence programme.

“I’m still learning, it’s a lifelong thing because of the complicated nature of classical music and working with an orchestra, you have to get to know the instruments really well.

“It’s so much work in the beginning but the end product always pays off. Orchestral composition is not an easy option… film music is easier because you don’t have to always use live musicians, you can just write in sounds, or you can just record yourself doing something and that’s the finished product.”

Claire Cowan’s next project, again undertaken with Loughlan Prior, is a chamber ballet inspired by the fascinating true story of Auckland ballerina Freda Stark’s life.

“Putting a lesbian storyline on the stage? Unheard of, especially in a story ballet. The ballet world, in particular, is very traditional, in terms of gender roles for the dancers, but Locky and I are trying to change that,” she says smiling mischievously.