“The music came first” – An Interview with Stephen Hyde

Stephen Hyde is one of the best musicians in the Oxford theatre scene. A prolific director and composer, his credits include Yesterday, King Lear, The Marriage of Kim K, and most recently Queueue, all extremely stylish and well-reviewed productions. He was kind enough to talk to me about his creative process, electronic music, and his experience of Oxford theatre.

Let’s start with Queueue – how did that come about?

I originally went to Leo with this idea I’d had for a few years about writing a musical about Alice Through The Looking Glass. Leo had his own concept which he developed following that conversation, about framing it with the internet. As we went on through the process, this new musical came out, which Damon Albarn had done, Wonder.land, and we realised there was a bit of a clash there. So we decided to broaden it out; it became more about the internet, and the characters in contemporary life we’d experienced around Oxford. The idea to stage it in a coffee shop came very late in the day, but by that point we’d spent a lot of time in coffee shops around Oxford, so we had kind of done all our research before that concept was even introduced.

What was it like, trying to capture the internet through music?

The internet is so multi-layered. You’ve got all these different musics, from all these different cultures and time periods, all in one space, and part of the idea behind the music was this sort of magpie approach. But I was also playing with internet-y sounds, little motifs like the iPhone ringtone and stuff, so that was another defining feature. I’ve played a lot with electronic music in some of my compositions, and I wanted to develop that further, as well as bring indie electronic music into the realm of musical theatre, which is something that’s not really been done much at all.

How did you find playing with those sorts of styles?

It was a massive learning curve. I often write some music, then realise it’s gone somewhere quite different from where I wanted it to go, but in quite interesting ways. PC Music is a genre of music which people said they heard coming through in some of the songs, which I didn’t intend at all. I felt like I had a lot of creative freedom; the music got quite whacky in places, and I just found that really, really fun.

How did you match the music to the action? Which came first, the songs or the script?

I think, by and large, the music came first. Leo had sketched the story before most of the music arrived, but quite often I would send him a piece of music, based on what I was listening to at the time, and he would fit it into the story. In terms of the mechanics of writing, the music would almost invariably come first, then Leo would write the lyrics based on that.

The idea of unconscious influence seems to be coming through here; does that happen a lot when you write music?

It really does, yeah. Quite often I’ll write something, and then only realise afterwards where I got that inspiration from. Before writing Queueue I’d been listening to a lot of upbeat music, stuff like Paul Simon and Rusted Root and Vampire Weekend, so a lot of the music had that kind of optimistic vibe. I was occupied with a new composition technique, which was writing bass lines first, then building a song up from there: writing a melody over the bass line, layering up the texture. But again, after I’d used this technique for a while I realised it was because I’d heard a lot of great bass lines from Paul Simon, without ever consciously acknowledging that.

Jumping back a bit, last term you directed The Marriage of Kim K – what was that like? How did it compare to Queueue?

It was quite different. Leo came to me and asked me to direct it, so I didn’t have such a stake in it as a piece of new writing. But there are certainly Leo E. Mercer trends that you see coming up in both of them, especially in his lyrics. He’s very witty, occasionally quite sardonic, so there was some similarity between the two projects. I was attracted to Kim K because it was doing something new, saying something in a new way.

What are the different demands made of you as a director, rather than a composer? Which do you prefer?

That’s an interesting question – I have very seldom directed anything that I haven’t written the music for. I always want to incorporate music into the fabric of any kind of production, really getting a musical language into the drama. So to say which one I prefer would be extremely difficult. Right now, I’m really enjoying my composition, but I really want to marry the two together.

Last year you composed and directed Yesterday at the BT – could you tell us a bit about that? Do you write music differently for the BT than for the O’Reilly or Modern Art Oxford?

Absolutely – it’s all space-dependent. With Yesterday it was more of a throwback, in terms of some of the musical influences I had, drawing from Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown. The setup there was a chamber ensemble, with just a cello, piano, and drums, and a three-woman cast. So the space determined the ensemble, and the ensemble determined the style of music we were writing. Drums were really at the heart of that – we had a continuous drumming underlay for the whole show, and the BT as a space suited that really well.

You’ve also written a lot of music for Shakespeare productions – what’s it like working with material that well-known?

It’s a great chance to prove how diverse Shakespeare can be. For King Lear we were doing a very filmic, neo-noir multimedia production, so we had a lot of electronic, ethereal soundscapes. Then for some of the other Shakespeares I’ve been doing, for outdoor touring productions, it’s a chance to indulge in my love of folk music, and seeing what sorts of different things you can apply to Shakespeare. I’ve written some songs for a production of As You Like It I’m doing at the moment, and it’s really interesting how music can inform the characters and scenario, how adaptable and diverse Shakespeare is. Music was such a big part of performing Shakespeare when he was alive, and it can still be a big part of it today. As You Like It is full of songs, it’s practically a musical.

Could you tell us about this production?

Absolutely! Right now I’m working on Macbeth and As You Like It. I’m writing the music for both, but I’m also directing Macbeth, which has been really good fun. We’re a group of five acting musicians, and we’re doing a tour of the UK; it’s all about storytelling through musical instruments, and we assign instruments to different characters. Banquo is associated with a mandolin, Macbeth with a drum, Lady Macbeth with a recorder, and they’re used to create soundscapes, but also as physical extensions of that character, or ways that character can express themselves, so that’s been really interesting to work with. The tour starts in Glamis Castle in Scotland, and then we finish in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’re performing in an RSC venue, which is really exciting. That’ll be my last project for a little while – after that I’m going to need a break!

Stephen Hyde will be on tour with the Three Inch Fools Theatre Company until 1 August. Tickets are available here. You can also find Stephen’s music on his Soundcloud page.

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