Planet Hugill chats to Emmy award winning sound-designer and composer Mark Grey after the premiere of his opera Frankenstein in Brussels
Mark Grey has a fascinating twin career, he is a sound designer and a composer. As a sound designer he was won an Emmy and collaborated regularly with composer John Adams, whilst as a composer Mark’s first opera Frankenstein has just finished is world premiere run at La Monnaie in Brussels, and his symphony based on the opera will be heard in Rome in April (At the Auditorium Parco della Musica on 13 April 2019). I recently caught up with Mark, via Skype, to find out more.
Frankenstein premiered at La Monnaie on 8 March 2019 in a production by Àlex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) and conducted by Bassem Akiki, with a libretto by Julia Canosa, featuring Topi Lehtipuu as the creature and Scott Hendricks as Victor Frankenstein. Mark feels that the performances have gone incredibly well, sold out with good audience reaction and largely positive press coverage.
There was no libretto at this stage, simply an idea
Àlex Ollé had wanted to stage Frankenstein for decades, and the project was originally conceived of by him and Peter de Caluwe, the Monnaie’s Intendant, who then approached Mark to compose it. There was no libretto at this stage, simply an idea that Àlex Ollé wanted to stage it set in the future. Mark points out that when translating novels into opera the audience has certain expectations and it is easy to fall into traps. To avoid this, they chose to strip the original Georgian context from the story and set it in the future, but Julia Canosa’s libretto distills the essence from Mary Shelly’s original and keeps the references to The Rhyme of the Ancient Marriner, Ovid and Milton. The plot was reshaped to suit opera and adapted to the futuristic scenario.
The original novel ends with the creature moving away from Captain Walton’s ship at the North Pole, we presume he dies but do not know. The opera starts with scientists finding the creature frozen into a block of ice and they re-animate him, and the opera then tells the story through the creature’s tortured memories.
This was in fact Mark’s first full-length opera, though he had written shorter vocal pieces and opera was high on the list.
Writing an opera is, of course, a huge challenge and Mark admits that he enjoys challenges. Also, as sound designer he had worked closely with John Adams and director Peter Sellars on Adams’ operas, a fly on the wall on their creative process. So creating opera for Mark felt very natural.
Sound has always been of interest to composers
At first the Mark’s two different worlds, sound design and composing opera, seem not so well integrated but he points out that sound has always been of interest to composers and that Richard Wagner built his own theatre in order to present his music in the way he wanted. And in the 21st century our ears have changed, thanks to the prevalence of recorded music, digital streaming, surround sound and Mark feels that it is natural growth to integrate audio technology with music.
His opera Frankenstein integrates acoustic and electronic in a multi-layered fashion. The singers, chorus and orchestra all perform acoustically, and are joined in the pit by a sampling keyboard whose player can incorporate specifically timed musical events such as sound effects, flute-like sounds and such which are performed live with the orchestra. This integrating of sampling with the orchestra brings, Mark feels, an otherworldly sound to the piece particularly at moments using pedal tones which are lower than an orchestra double bass.
The final layer is a sound engineer out in the theatre, who triggers larger surround sound cues, such as pedal tones, white noise and electronic pulses. This helps to seam everything together, and Mark’s aim is that we should never be sure what is acoustic and what is electronic.
As a sound designer Mark worked with John Adams on this idea of seamlessness, so that in an opera like Dr Atomic when Adams starts adding electronic cues in Act Two, the result is blended in and seamless. This is something that Mark has thought a lot about, trying to ensure that the electronics does not pop out of the texture, and he also feels that the addition of electronics can help push the narrative along.
Frankenstein was originally planned for 2016, but La Monnaie was forced to close for renovation and the opera company moved to temporary accommodation. As the exact duration of the building works was unknown, the premiere was put on hold. So Mark extracted five scenes from the opera and created a symphonic suite (with no voices, no chorus and no electronics) which premiered in 2016 co-commissioned by The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and The Berkeley Symphony. Mark was able to view this suite as a study for the opera score, and he revised the scoring of the opera in the light of what he learned when writing the suite.
Mark has been writing quite a lot of acoustic music
In fact, despite his background in electronics Mark has been writing quite a lot of acoustic music. In college he studied electro-acoustic music (mixing live music with electronics) as well as composition and his early works were heavy with electronics. But he then decided he wanted to explore further the acoustic core of his music, to work out new techniques and started writing a lot more acoustic music. It is only relatively recently that he has been bringing electronics back into his compositions.
This ability to explore and try things out is, for Mark, the beauty of being able to work in the arts. And in these explorations some things stick and some don’t, you don’t know till you try it.
Mark grew up in Palo Alto in Southern California in what is now Silicon Valley and at the time was full of large institutional technology centres. So he was always surround by creators working in technology and science. At school a trombone was put in his hands when he was eight, this was done to all the students, each got a musical instrument to see if it stuck and with it did, he learned trombone and piano. But he realised that he wanted to explore music creation more. Which is how he came to be studying composition and electro-acoustic music at California State University.
He tries to keep as open an ear as possible
When I ask about his influences and heroes, he does not list off a series of distinguished musicians but says that he is influenced by his surrounding environment whether it be Mahler, hip-hop, the radio or planes flying by. He tries to keep as open an ear as possible.
His college years were pre-internet, and it was only when the internet started that Mark was able to hear music from all over the world. He feels that this has completely blown the door open for creators, there is so much out there. And Frankenstein is a reflection of that. When writing the opera he started with ideas in short snippets which he then seamed together, constructing the whole out of seemingly opposite ideas. And already, several other companies are interested in the opera.
A travelling chamber opera performed in a shipping container akin to a magic box of tricks
He has another new opera in the planning stages, Birds in the Moon, a chamber piece for male voice, female voice and string quartet. It is a traveling chamber opera which will be performed in a shipping container akin to a magic box of tricks. The idea is that they can take the opera to remote places and perform it, bringing theatre to people. Mark refers to it as a ‘quasi-opera’ and describes the style as vaudevillian. The antagonist in the opera actually is the driver of the truck which stops and then he opens up the side of the shipping container to reveal, lights, string quartet and action.
The new piece deals with the issues of immigration and human trafficking, and having it mobile is a way to bring the opera to borders, to integrate it into a society that might not have the ability to access live theatre.
Social issues are important to Mark, and a significant factor in his music. For Mark the Frankenstein story has profound social implications as Mary Shelley explores the dichotomies of science v God, creator v created, things which are still highly relevant in our contemporary world with its AI, bots, cloning and editing the genome. Mary Shelley foreshadows this, her story is a warning that balance in ethics is essential. And this was in Mark and his collaborators minds when they created the opera.
Mark points out that the classic view of Frankenstein is one created by Hollywood (starting with Boris Karloff as the creature in 1931), a view of the story which has crept into our social fabric yet strips out a lot of the morality, philosophy and heart in Mary Shelley’s original. Mark found it refreshing to go back to navigate through the mind games of the original and put it back into shape.
More recently however, there have been new ways of looking at the story and Mark cites the adaptation done by the National Theatre in London where the two actors alternated between portraying Victor Frankenstein and the creature.