We recently had a chance to interview Vicky Abbott, the musical lead on Emma Frankland’s Galatea project, and we asked her what it was like writing music for a sixteenth-century play in a modern production. We feature here some of Vicky’s brilliant recordings (©Vicky Abbott) along with choreographed responses to songs that have been crucial to the Galatea research and development process.
How did you first become involved with the Galatea project?
Emma Frankland and I worked together with Wildworks at Eden [Project] at Christmas, and Emma really loved the singing we were doing. I had been involved with Mydd [Pharo] and Wildworks before, and they both really wanted me to get involved. I felt like I would be totally out of my comfort zone, as I was like a lot of people worried about the text and the age of it. But Emma sent me the book and we had a chat on the phone, and it went from there…
How have you found working with a relatively obscure sixteenth-century play—is this something new for you?
It’s new to me, now—I did theatre at A-level, and, at the time, I just wanted to do modern stuff and to invent my own thing. So when we did Shakespeare, the teacher was very dry and not very creative, and I felt I couldn’t really relate to it. So I brushed all those things aside and thought “ooh that’s not for me, it’s very highbrow…”. And actually what was amazing about the week in London [Jerwood Studios, funded by Jerwood, Before Shakespeare, and Shakespeare Bulletin] was having Andy and Before Shakespeare around, who were able to take the intellectual thing out of it. A lot of it’s very straightforward, isn’t it, but it’s beautiful writing, and … I felt it had common themes that work for now, once you took some of the mystique out of it. I’ve really enjoyed it. The support from Before Shakespeare was really vital to me in the first week, making me feel like I wasn’t some sort of moron in not knowing what some of the words meant! And because I hadn’t looked at anything like that for such a long time, I had a certain amount of worry about it, but Emma assured me that the academics were going to be super helpful (which you were…)…
How did you approach the text itself, including Lyly’s songs and words, when writing music for the production and R&Ds?
Initially, there’s the two songs that are in the text—so when we did the first week, I just stuck to the text, and was really glad to have different words explained to me, because it helped me write the tune and put the meaning in. When we did the R&Ds this time [in Cornwall, funded by Jerwood Foundation], because I wasn’t so afraid of the text, and I was re-looking at it, and we’d tried different scenes out on the beach including the Hebe sacrifice scene, I felt more comfortable with it. So when I looked at it, I was happy to make Diana’s theme and Hebe’s theme. I had to take some of the words out, so that they scan for a song. But I’m hoping that in the future, when this production comes off, I’d like to work with Before Shakespeare on it, and explore whether I can get away with that and still have the “content.” I felt like I took some liberties, like leaving certain words out. It was fine to do it for the R&D, but on the real thing I’d prefer to be sat down with [you guys] and make sure it still has the meaning…
Nymphs’ Song (Lyly’s words; from Galatea ed. Leah Scragg)
TELUSA. Oyez, oyez, if any maid
Whom leering Cupid has betrayed
To frowns of spite, to eyes of scorn,
And would in madness now see torn
The boy in pieces—
ALL 3. Let her come
Hither, and lay on him her doom.
EUROTA. Oyez, oyez, has any lost
A heart which many a sigh hath cost?
Is any cozened of a tear,
Which, as a pearl, Disdain does wear?
Here stands the thief—
ALL 3. Let her come
Hither, and lay on him her doom.
LARISSA. Is anyone undone by fire,
And turned to ashes through desire?
Did ever any lady weep,
Being cheated of her golden sleep,
Stolen by sick thoughts?
ALL 3. The pirate’s found
And in her tears he shall be drowned!
Read his indictment, let him hear
What he’s trust to. Boy, give ear!
Boys’ Song (Lyly’s words)
ALL. Rocks, shelves, and sands and seas, farewell.
Fie! Who would dwell
In such a hell
As is a ship, which drunk does reel,
Taking salt healths from deck to keel?
ROBIN. Up were we swallowed in wet graves,
DICK. All soused in waves
RAFE. By Neptune’s slaves.
ALL. What shall we do, being tossed to shore?
ROBIN. Milk some blind tavern, and there roar.
RAFE. ‘Tis brave, my boys, to sail on land,
For being well manned
We can cry, ‘Stand!’
DICK. The trade of pursing ne’er shall fail,
Until the hangman cries, ‘Strike sail!’
ALL. Rove, then, no matter whither
In fair and stormy weather,
And as we live, let’s die together.
One hempen caper cuts a feather.
You’ve also “rewritten” songs by using the text as inspiration, adapting, reworking, and rewriting it. Do you see yourself as “collaborating” with John Lyly, as well as with the other theatremakers involved?
Haha—yeah! The themes, particularly Hebe and the nymphs falling in love—they’re so modern aren’t they? It doesn’t matter when it was written. Hebe’s dad says, “if only you’ve been fairer,” after she doesn’t get sacrificed (and her not being sacrificed is a big disappointment to him!). Love, loss, and death are just the universal themes of songwriting. And they’re all there aren’t they, in Lyly. I think, yeah, collaborating with Lyly! I just didn’t want to take so many liberties that it no longer had the essence of what it was. I really tried hard to keep it as it was. The boys’ song and the traditional oyez oyez oyez of the nymph’s song, they don’t need to be changed—the words definitely don’t need to be changed, they’re perfect as they are. But yeah I loved taking the words and making a pop song relative to now—that was really fun.
Vicky’s Rewritten Nymphs’ Lyrics
Have you been betrayed girls? listen up
Have you been abandoned by love
Do you feel
How did love take you
It took me by the eyes – I hung a picture of his face on the strings of my heart
How did love take you
It took me by the ears – his sweet words sunk deep into my head
I am sent to seek others but I’ve lost myself
It felt like an infection
Without a definition
I cannot describe it
I feel shameless
Love conquers the innocent
It feels impossible to fight it
The R&Ds have involved working with a lot of different theatremakers and performers, and your songs have been choreographed and “translated” into British Sign Language in several guises. What is the effect of the collaborative nature of the Galatea project and Emma Frankland’s approach to coordinating the different elements involved?
The most powerful thing to me is when I did the Diana song, and I was facing Nadia [Nadarajah], and she signed it to me purely as Diana. That was the most extraordinary experience—very overwhelming. I thought if I hadn’t been in this room with all these different people, I would never have met this amazing woman who’s an amazing actor. It’s a two-way flow isn’t it. At Gorran Haven, we did a shipwreck inside with Seamus [Carey] playing drum patterns—I played the piano, completely making it up on the spot—inside on the last morning; we did the entire shipwreck scene, and it was completely spontaneous and everyone allowed it to go where it wanted to go. To me that’s the perfect collaboration, where everyone’ willing to go there, and you’re bouncing ideas and listening to other people. Seamus and I were just trying to help with the atmosphere. Also, Mzz Kimberley having such a different style—having someone deliver something in a way that you would never deliver it, a completely different style to you that you would never entertain because it’s not in your zone. But actually—it worked! So that’s what I love. I love the freedom to experiment, and the different styles and the different things that other people bring that have an effect on you, and you just bounce back. It feeds into your ideas…
You’ve also been experimenting with different sounds, from classical guitar to electronic basslines [see Nymphs Song “Eurovision” at the top of this page]. Where did the idea to mix up the sounds come from?
I had an idea, because with one of my choirs we do a lot of movement work, and we took them down to a studio to do a club dance workshop… And I thought, wouldn’t it be really funny if the nymphs were at the village fete, and they were a dance troupe! Obviously they were the nymphs… but wouldn’t it be funny if it were the nymphs’ “dance troupe”—that’s where it started in my mind: I could do a modern version of the nymph song. And out of that came the one I did with Mzzz Kimberley, with the club beats. And I like mixing and the club sounds—and with Seamus there, who has all the know-how, it was a nice thing to experiment with. That’s the whole point of R&D, isn’t it? You have those ideas, but if they’re rubbish, you can go with them and try them there and then…
You’ve been working in London, in the Cornish countryside, and in rehearsal spaces like the Hall for Cornwall. How do these different environments influence the way you work with the text and music?
Playing music and making music outside is quite hard. And usually the outside space is the last space I’d take it. I usually start from my studio. I loved being in the Jerwood space, and I liked being in the Hall for Cornwall. For me, it’s really good to be able to think about the text and look at it without distraction, and I really found the outside quite…it was brilliant to watch things in, and in some ways that’s going to feed into it—the sound of the sea, big expanses, looking at people on the cliffs: it gives you visuals. But I think my foremost thing is tune and text. It’s really hard to make music heard outside unless you’ve got a big PA, or a mass of singers, or really loud brass instruments, so to me I find it easier to think in the studio. The visuals are brilliant, and I’ve loved the visuals, but I also like to know where we’re going to be… You can have a very stark site like a carpark, and you can go with it or you can also use a pastoral sound… or you can have a pastoral setting… It’s good to see it in all these different places. I think my favourite place was the carpark in Truro where we went on the Thursday evening of the last week—visually, it’s a really good place…