Dangerous Visions: Interview: The Kraken Wakes: Alan Williams

Kraken AlanAlan Williams is a composer and writer on contemporary music and culture whose music has been performed by world leading ensembles such as the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC Singers, the Philharmonia, and contemporary music group Psappha, and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, MDR (Germany), NEC (Brazil) and Bartók Rádió (Hungary). As Professor of Collaborative Composition he is leading research partnerships with the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO), in Brazil, and with Psappha. For the Dangerous Visions adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, he worked with author Val McDermid and producer Justine Potter to create a very different aural experience…

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Trailer-ep-1-imageThe Kraken Wakes was a highly enjoyable production – and very unusual…

We pushed it a little bit because we weren’t sure if it would work to do this radio drama with the orchestra. We had to make certain compromises because of the acoustic in the hall and the way we recorded the orchestra.

You don’t get that intimacy, occupying somebody’s imagination which is typical of radio drama, but on the other hand, you do get something which is bigger scale. You feel like there’s something big happening.

In many ways this reminds me of a classical version of Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds

You’re not the only person who’s said that to me. Although I’ve heard it, I wasn’t modelling it on that. People have often compared the John Wyndham novel to The War of the Worlds; it’s his version of it – and it’s big scale. Everything that happens in the novel is a combination of the local and intimate – with the couple, Mike and Phyllis – and then the huge scale, with the mass population movement caused by flooding.

How did you get involved?

I’ve worked with the producer, Justine Potter, before, doing various bits of pretty small-scale music for her various radio dramas, and always enjoyed working with Savvy Productions, who are the indie company leading this project. I’d also worked with the BBC Philharmonic before.

Justine asked me if I would think about the music. I knew the novel: I remembered my parents in the 1970s talking about this strange novel where you didn’t really see the creatures that were causing all of this devastation. I remember thinking as a kid, “That can’t be any good, it’s a rubbish novel”, but now, it’s a fantastic image – the threat is unseen, and it’s very symbolic of all sorts of things. You can take it in any direction you want really. What was obvious from the beginning was the sense of unspoken threat, and darkness and depth – everything is very murky, certainly in the first half of the novel.

I said to Justine, “Why don’t we take it to the Philharmonic and see if they would be interested in getting involved?” I knew that they have a remit to try to do interesting projects, and get the orchestra away from simply doing Radio 3 concerts – which is great in its own way but they want to move out of that niche. We went to Simon Webb, the general manager of the BBC Philharmonic, and said we had this crazy idea – and he was all for it. From there on, it was all logistics.

BBC-Taster-PromoHow did it work in terms of your liaison with Val McDermid for the script? There’s far more give and take between the two than you’d normally have where a play is recorded and music is added to it.

That’s exactly it. Normally music is very much a last thing, and typically, radio producers either have a very clear vision of what they want to do with the music, or they run around saying, “What do we do?” It’s very much the last thing! It’s how I get involved with radio drama because producers turn round and ask what I would do.

This was different for reasons of timing. Because of when Val was free, and when I was going to be free, I needed to write a lot of the music before Val actually wrote the final versions of the script. Her final version didn’t come in till the end of October, but I had to basically be finished by then. I needed to submit it in early December, so the bulk of the work had to be done in August, September, early October.

So what we did, which was very unusual, was to think what would be good musically, and then suggest that those became major points in the story. One of those comes right at the end of the first episode, which is one of the bits that I’m probably proudest of in the way that the drama is integrated with the music. You’re not seeing the Kraken itself, but you’re seeing things which are definitely produced or controlled by the undersea intelligence – the Sea-Tanks – which crawl out onto the beach on an island called Escondido. It was obviously a massive set piece in the novel and if you were filming it, it would be one of the big events.

Interestingly the novel is full of sounds so the sound of the Sea-Tanks as they scrape up the beach is quite carefully described by Wyndham, suggesting that he had a kind of sonic imagination, often explaining how things would sound.

We went through and chose the good bits – and to be honest I don’t think there was ever a great deal of discussion because the novel is so clearly formed into various sections, and the big scenes are pretty obvious. The music almost came before the adaptation

But both inspired out of the Wyndham novel…

Yes, exactly.

Kraken 2You’ve mentioned elsewhere that 1950s film music was an influence on your composition – to me I keep hearing bits that are reminiscent of James Bernard’s score for The Quatermass Xperiment.

It’s funny you say that. I don’t actually know that score in particular although I think I’ve seen the film. But music’s funny like that, because you can pick up stuff, or things can be floating around: composers unwittingly influence each other without necessarily being conscious of it. Things emerge from a kind of Jungian subconscious, and you’re not quite sure where they have come from. Sometimes it’s the logic of the material – it’s a particular pattern of notes that extrapolated will tend to produce similar things to somebody else. I did do quite a lot of listening to B-movies from the 1950s and 1960s and the quality of the music is nearly always absolutely fantastic.

I’m interested in the notion that you can write stuff quickly and that it’s meaningful to a broad audience but at the same time you wonder if you can do stuff that’s quite interesting, and that’s what I was trying to achieve in this.

There’s a lot of other stuff in there. I’m a jazz musician and I’ve also spent half a lifetime writing Eastern European modernist music, so there’s a lot of excuse for Lutoslawski, Penderecki type textures when something truly spectacularly weird is happening.

Were there any musical clichés you were trying to avoid?

I don’t know, really. I came at this from a slightly odd angle, because I’ve not spent my career as a film composer. I think of myself as a concert hall composer, so if anything, I was interested in things that would make sense to an audience in context.

There’s a very obvious John Barry reference in the jazz number and I just wanted to see if I could get that right. It’s not something I would normally have written in a concert hall piece except that in another musical existence I play that stuff all the time, and that tune – where they’re flying towards Escondido – is the same theme as elsewhere, just done in a very John Barry-esque way

That was the first tune I wrote for this whole piece and I wrote it on a plane flying back from Cuba, funnily enough [near where Escondido is supposed to be]. I played that on a couple of gigs just as a jazz tune, harmonising it. I’m a guitar player, and played it with a couple of horn players and it works as a tune. I knew I could justify it as a jazz musician but I wouldn’t normally allow those worlds to collide.

I don’t know if you think of that as a cliché; maybe it is, but at the same time I think it was the right thing to include. I was serious about it, but a younger me might have said, “You can’t have that, it’s too entertaining!”

How much music in there in the play?

There’s about 26-27 minutes – that doesn’t sound much in comparison with two hours…

That’s a hell of a lot for a radio play though – something like four times more than usual?

Kraken liveThat’s right. That was one of requests from the orchestra – “if we’re going to do this, then let’s make something of it, rather than just the odd twiddle here”. I think they were aware that the temptation would always be to get more story, more drama, more speech rather than music into the final product. But Justine had worked with the pianist Mikhail Rudy on a piece called The Pianist. There was a lot of Chopin in that, and in the original stage show it was basically a reading from the Wladyslaw Szpilman book and then Mikhail Rudy playing Chopin – he would play a whole piece. When it was transferred onto radio, there was a lot of pressure on Justine not to have a lot of music as it was on Radio 4, but actually it worked out very well.

She was willing to push the boundaries in terms of how much music there would be in the drama, and it was great to have that kind of support, because it means the music is really an equal partner with the story.

It definitely feels like a “musical” version of it, rather than being a play with music.

And I think that’s where it sits. There was traditional radio drama version of it that the BBC did in 1998 which sounds fairly recent, but was 18 years ago – and it’s really good. We didn’t need to remake that so the music definitely takes it into another direction.

What was the biggest challenge?

Just getting out that amount of music when I didn’t have time to do it! I was getting up at 4.30 every morning to do it before taking the kids to school and then having one or two days a week relatively free of other duties when I could crack on.

The challenge was also a technical one in how to deploy the orchestra in such a way that it would be spectacular but intelligible. That was the balance I was trying to strike. Although I’m interested in film music, and quite approachable film music per se, I didn’t feel completely comfortable making it a sort of John Williams-type score – much as I admire him – so it was also about trying to work out where to pitch the musical language for a project like this, when nobody knows what it is anyway.

I think there was a through line, and there is a theme that is pinning it all together.

Is there a planned future for it? I’d like to see it live!

Kraken live 2It was a really good live show, although it was never absolutely live. Justine told the actors, “We don’t expect you to be off script and if there’s a fluff, just go back and repeat the line, as long as you’re not over the orchestra at the time.” There was always going to be some fiddling around with it.

I’m not sure if there’s ever going to be another performance of it with the dialogue, but there is going to be a version of the orchestral bits. I’ve just finished a 14-15 minute suite which is a bit more than a suite, actually. Bernard Herrmann did a suite of his music for The Day The Earth Stood Still in the 1970s, and much as I admire him, it’s slightly disappointing in the sense that he didn’t try to join it together or interrelate the parts. He played one bit then another bit with a gap between each one. This piece is going to be more integrated, a single orchestral piece with no breaks. It’s formally more planned than that. That will be the thing that will emerge from it musically.

Whether there’s another version of the live show it’s not really down to me. It would be great – we had a ball, it was such fun.

Did you conduct it?

No, Clark Rundell conducted it. He was great. I can and do conduct, but for the orchestra and that level of musicianship it was great to have the best.

Clark’s also good at musicals and operas so he was able to keep the orchestra going over certain points – we had certain catch up points where you’d put in a repeat ad lib waiting for the voices to catch up if they need to, or cut it if they’d moved on. He had to be thinking all the time “how long is this particular speech going to be?” I couldn’t have done the job that he did, however well I knew the music. He did a fantastic job.

Has the suite version got a set date for performance?

There’s no performance date planned as yet, but the Philharmonic asked me for it again a couple of weeks ago so I thought I ought to get on with it!!

The Kraken Wakes is on Radio 4 on June 4th and on iPlayer

Read our review of episode 1 here

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