Composing ‘Geisha’ for the Northern Ballet with Alexandra Harwood

By 13th March 2020 May 26th, 2020 Blog

Composing 'Geisha' for the Northern Ballet with Alexandra Harwood

The world premiere of ‘Geisha’, composed by Alexandra Harwood for the Northern Ballet, takes place tomorrow at the Leeds Grand Theatre. We chatted with Alexandra to learn more about the experience and her collaboration with director and choreographer Kenneth Tindall and the wider ballet team.

Hi Alexandra, Great to catch up with you! Can you tell us what drew you to the idea of scoring the ballet ‘Geisha’?

In December 2018, I got a wonderful surprise email from an old friend who’d heard via a friend of a friend that ‘the choreographer Kenneth Tindall of the Northern Ballet was looking for a female composer, who is classically trained as well as cinematic’ and asked if I’d like to be suggested! In a blink of an eye I’d replied ‘Yes please!’.  I’d previously written a short ballet for Rambert Dance Company, but the thought of writing a full-length narrative ballet with live orchestra, filled me with excitement and seemed the perfect genre that embraces all my passions.

When I met with Kenny for the first time I felt an instant connection, not only to the story of Geisha and his vision for it, but to Kenny himself and knew that this would be an incredible journey for me creatively and personally.

Writing for ballet embraces every single aspect of what I love most. I took ballet and contemporary dance lessons throughout my childhood until I was 20yrs old and went to many performances. My mother had been a ballerina before she had children. I worked with Juilliard dance department, whilst doing my Masters there and my daughter did her undergraduate degree in dance, so dance has always been a big part of my life.

Writing for ballet combines so many wonderful aspects for a composer; telling stories with music, enhancing the story and emotions of characters and combines both my classical and cinematic composition skills.

Northern Ballet is an extraordinary and unique company that regularly commission full-length ballets and have a resident live orchestra for every performance, which is a very rare thing these days. It’s a massive privilege for a composer to work with them and for me personally to collaborate with Kenny has been a privilege and a gift.

Kenneth Tindall choreographs to a completed score. How did you begin to compose without any visuals or movement to refer to, and how did you find the process of working in this way?

I was grateful to have had my classical training and have had a career as a classical composer, as well as being a film composer, so it’s very familiar to me to write without picture and to write large-form pieces. But I hadn’t realised that the whole score would be created before Kenny began choreographing and it took me a while to adjust to how I was going to be able to write a 2 hour score without seeing the choreography in progress. I was actually quite terrified!

Kenny had worked closely with writer/producer Gwyneth Hughes and our Geisha historic consultant, Lesley Downer on a scenario for the ballet, so that when I started to score, there was already a complete outline of the whole ballet.

I relied on Kenny hugely whilst composing. We worked chronologically, scene by scene and would talk on the phone before I began each scene. He would tell me the length of the scene, along with the main scenario details and then I’d ask him as much as possible about how he envisaged it, the emotional intention, points of view that were telling the story from and who and why we wanted to connect with each scene. The more I could understand the inner workings, the easier I found it to write. I had to rely on my imagination and empathy.

I found, as we went along, that sometimes there were still information gaps to be filled in, so I’d either call Kenny to talk about these, or I’d imagine them and fill them in musically myself and then explain to him my ideas. It was a true collaboration of bouncing ideas off each other and inspiring each other along the way.

One big learning curve for me was understanding how dancers count to music. They often count very differently to how music is actually written and what a composer and musician may feel is ‘simple’ to count or understand, may actually be incredibly hard for dancers. When I started composing the score for Geisha, sometimes Kenny would alert me to the fact something was very complicated to dance to and at first I couldn’t get my head around why, so I’d either ask him about it as much as possible or I’d call my daughter, who had just graduated as a Dance major at university, and would get them to count out loud to the music I’d written, so I could learn what to avoid. As the score progressed I began to write more intuitively with new understanding of this aspect.

Before I started the score, I had the privilege of meeting the Geisha historic consultant for our ballet, Lesley Downer . She gave me an invaluable insight into the history and culture of Geisha and most of all helped me understand their sense of duty and its implications that are imperative to our story. And as Kenny and I began working on the score, I then had the privilege of meeting the designer Christopher Oram and seeing the sets and costumes come to life, which was incredibly exciting, inspiring and helpful for me to see the world that the story and my music would sit along side with. And those visuals alone helped me enormously.

The ballet encompasses many themes including love, loss, life, death, redemption, loneliness, and sisterhood. What scoring techniques did you use to bring out the emotional content of the piece?

It became clear as the score and scenario progressed, that whilst the more authentic Japanese instrumentation and colour were useful for establishing our setting, as the story developed and we were drawn more into the emotional world of the characters, it was my own musical language that became more crucial, especially as this was being scored for the Northern Ballet’s Sinfonia, a rare and incredible gift for a composer!

It was such an incredible story to score, as in Act 2 we go into a ghost world and being able to change colour so dramatically from the real world of Act 1, was really inspiriting and exciting.

I really felt the music should work as a whole, as does a classical concert piece and as if no other medium was attached and in that respect the large form, pacing and score of the work was a big consideration in my mind at all times. I was grateful for my classical training and background so that I could use these skills in creating a long-form unified orchestral score, the equivalent length of four classical symphonies!

Not only does the ballet story have themes and motifs throughout, but I made sure those themes and motifs united the score as well.

The two main Geisha, Okichi and Aiko, share two themes; one for their friendship and sisterhood, that is really the main theme of the whole ballet and score, appearing in many forms and variations with its big climax and statement in the final scene, and their hand bond theme, which is represented by a two chord motif, which also appears in various incarnations throughout the score.

Another unexpected harmonic progression appeared during writing. It first appears in the American March in Act I as a rising chord pattern. This progression and the rising scale itself became central to the score in both rising and later, descending patterns. When I wrote the March I had no intention or idea that I’d even use it again, but the simplicity of it became an incredibly useful motif and skeleton for many scenes.

Other instrumentation and motifs represent certain characters: The solo cello is our main Geisha, Okichi, with a very central role in the score as she appears in nearly every scene. The cellist could almost sit on stage with the dancers as it’s so central! The flute and sometimes solo violin represents at times the Geisha sister, Aiko. Geisha Mother is represented by three hits of a Japanese Piccolo woodblock. The trumpet represents Henry Heusken, the dutch assistant to the American General, Townsend Harris, who himself is represented by the Brass section. Takeda and his Samarai are represented by drums. There is no room in theatre pits for Taiko drums, so we have Bass drums being hit with Taiko sticks and various tom-toms and bongos to evoke that colour.

I was incredibly lucky to be able to work with my ‘right and left hand’, orchestrator Geoff Alexander again, who not only helped me get the two hours of music from my Logic projects into Sibelius, but was as ever helpful with his genius and additional orchestration.

Could you tell us more about your incorporation of traditional Japanese instruments into the score?

Northern Ballet Sinfonia is a western orchestra and we couldn’t hire traditional instruments or specialised musicians to play them. So along with using some of the orchestra in less traditional ways, such as an alto flute with a small microphone and amp, to evoke the Shakuhachi flute and the sliding portamento technique used on the solo cello, I was able to use a programmed keyboard to include other sounds and ethnic instruments, such as the official stringed instrument that Geisha would play and entertain with, the Shamisen, the Koto and the ethereal singing voice and ghostly wind sounds that appears in Act 2. 

Percussion features heavily in the score, but without traditional instruments it was really wonderful finding creative ways to use western instruments to evoke certain exotic colours. Bass Drums hit with taiko sticks, Tom Toms, Bongos, Tam tams and gongs, Marimba all get used. Once I’d written the score, I went to visit percussionist Joby Burgess at his studio and we had a great time experimenting with different colours and sticks. This was so helpful for me to see and hear all the instruments in this way and to simplify the percussion parts in the most effective way.

One last addition I’d like to mention, which are not traditional Japanese instruments, but were such a wonderful thing to research and find, are the very special wind-chimes used in the Obon Festival of the Dead, lantern scene in Act 2. I found this incredible wind-chime shop online and bought three particular chimes, Koshi Aqua, Arias and Zaphir Blue Moon, that matched the harmony of my score and produce the most magical and emotional sound for when the ancestor’s spirits are released back to the grave.

How did you find the rehearsal process and what did you enjoy most about seeing your ballet brought to life on stage?

After I finished writing the score in December 2019, (which started nine months earlier in April),  Kenny started choreography this January (2020) and would send me little clips he’d filmed on his phone. The first clip he sent, brought tears to my eyes, as this ballet and music had been in my head so intensely and for so long, with only me imaging what it might look like. To see, even just early studio rehearsals, without any costumes, to my orchestral  mock-ups made in Logic, was an overwhelming and emotional experience. Kenny’s gift as a choreographer is extraordinary and magical.

During the choreography period there were some inevitable changes to be made to the score, mostly with Kenny needing some extensions of scenes, so along with those rewrites, was a constant putting the rewrites back into score and keeping the musical team constantly up to date. I’m very grateful to Northern Ballet’s Musical Director Jonathan Lo, Associate conductor Daniel Parkinson,  Deputy Stage Manager, Chun Yen Chia, all of whom kept a vigilant eye on inconsistencies between written score and the audio mock-up the dancers were rehearsing to and checking with me at every stage to make sure Kenny and my musical intentions will be met as closely as possible.

As I write this, Kenny is in the last few days of rehearsals, before I go to Leeds to rehearse with the orchestra for the first time and have a whole week rehearsing with them before the premiere on March 14th in Leeds Grand Theatre, which I’m incredibly excited for.

So at this point I have not seen anything on stage with the sets and lighting, but last week I went to see an initial costume run of the whole ballet, just in the dance studio, when the dancers get to test their costumes for the first time. It was also the first time we’d all seen it run as a whole and it was another very emotional experience to see these extraordinarily talented dancers bring the characters and story to life, not only with their dancing skills but with their acting abilities.

What else have you been working on in the last few months?

I have a wonderful busy year and am working on a great variety of projects. Whilst finishing the last rewrites and adjustments to Geisha and getting ready for the premiere, I have been co-scoring with two former students of mine from the NFTS,  a nature documentary ‘Wild Tokyo’ for Oxford Scientific Films that will coincide with the Winter Olympics this year. It’s been a beautiful project to work on and continued my relationship with the Japanese culture, albeit a present day one, unlike the ballet which is set in 1859!

I feel very lucky and excited to be presently scoring the tv series remake of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ for Channel 5 and American broadcaster PBS. It’s a lovely series to score and revisit characters and a story that I grew up with, but now seeing it with an incredible new cast, with newcomer Nicholas Ralph as the iconic vet, James Herriot, Samuel West as Siegfried Farnon, along with Dame Diana Rigg, Nigel Havers and Matthew Lewis.

There are seven episodes to score and will be shown in the Autumn this year. It’s an incredibly joyous and comforting show to watch and I can’t wait for everyone to see it!

Later this year I’ll be scoring the BBC documentary 5 part series ‘New Labour’ which follows the critically acclaimed series ‘Thatcher: A Very British Revolution’ that I scored last year, made by the same team.

Thank you very much, Alex!