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Behind the mask: Music

Behind the mask: Music

In the fifth of our blog series on our creative teams, composer and musician, David Ward, sits down to talk about jazz, how he got into music, and what it’s like to compose for theatre.


David has been collaborating with Indian Ink since 2004. His productions include The Dentist’s Chair, Kiss the Fish, The Elephant Thief and Welcome to the Murder House. He has twice been awarded the Chapman Tripp Theatre award for Most Outstanding Composer for this work.


When did you get into music?
I’ve always had an inclination towards music, a bit of an ear for it. I remember my parents saying that I would listen to a jingle on a TV once and then I’d be singing it. And I did piano as a kid.

When I was a teenager, I was really obsessed with listening to music. I would go to record stores and hunt through bins. It seemed the music I was listening to was a bit more appropriate to guitar, so I started teaching myself guitar for a couple of years, and then I got lessons from a classical/flamenco teacher.

My musical listening soon started heading towards jazz music. I started to try and figure out how jazz musicians were doing what they were doing.

After high school, you got a degree in jazz. Why did you gravitate to the genre? 
The element of improvisation, I think, suited my temperament as opposed to just reciting it. I did classical guitar and piano, and the experience of learning a tune and performing it was satisfying but it also felt a little empty. I was more drawn to the creation of new music.

What instruments do you play?
My main instruments are guitar and banjo — though any kind of string instrument I can find my way around. I haven’t attempted to play any wind instruments.

On top of composing, David is also a tutor for the guitar and banjo. Photo: Supplied

When did you start composing?
When I was in high school, I used to play with my friends, and I enjoyed writing and improvising tunes. But then when I was doing my jazz degree, that was part of it too. I started to write some tunes within the jazz spectrum that I could play with groups.

And, how did you get into theatre?
In Wellington, I started regularly playing jazz gigs and got involved in a range of interesting bands and improvised ensembles. There was a great venue, created by Jeff Henderson called Happy, and there was a community of musicians around that. That was a wonderful collective of creative people that I was in contact with.

A little bit later, Jacob [Rajan] came to a gig where I was performing with a group called Onomatopeia at Happy. We were playing original tunes that I’d written, with a lot of improvisational content. That was part of checking me out, seeing what I could do. The first show that I wrote music for with Indian Ink was The Dentist’s Chair. 

What was that like?
Great. A little prior to it, I was becoming obsessed with banjos and, in a way, going back in time to the roots of jazz to Blues and Folk and field recordings of early American music. 

Serendipitously, in the show, there was a character, a ghost from the 1890s, which was a nice fit for the world of the banjo. It was music that I really getting into at the time, so it felt quite natural to write in that world.

Comedy with a bite, The Dentist’s Chair is about a man set on fixing teeth and straightening out his own life.

Welcome to the Murder House, the last show you composed for Indian Ink, stemmed from The Dentist’s Chair. How did the music transition?
The original music was strong, and people really responded to that, so it was about taking the words, chords and melodies that we had and reinventing them for the new show. 

The original was very much folk, with the banjo, clarinet and double bass. It was a little more earnest. I took those tunes and electrified them, because that was the theme of the show, with the electric guitar, drums, organs and bass. It was much more aggressive, a little more grit. 

It was satisfying seeing those tunes that I really liked becoming a bit more realised with a larger ensemble.

And, you were on-stage with two other musicians. What was that like?
We were all playing our main instruments. I was playing the guitar and Sean [Martin-Buss] was playing the organ and Eamon [Edmundson-Wells] was playing the double bass. At the same time, we were also singing and playing hand and foot percussion.

We split up the drum kit between the three of us – it was a full-body experience, which was great. Despite the fact that Sean, Eamon and I are experienced musicians, we had to work to get all four limbs working!

Playing with hands and feet, the three-man band for Welcome to the Murder House had a full-body experience.


Sometimes, you’re on-stage without a band. What does that involve?
Whatever that’s required —  you have to be adaptable, but it’s all music so you can find a way. Even if I don’t have a lot of facility on an instrument, if I know what sounds I need to make, I can find it.

In Kiss the Fish I played the zhongruan, the Chinese moon guitar. It was set on a South-East Asian island, so we found some wooden marimbas, and it needed some more percussion, so we added the tabla [Indian drums].

At one stage, I was singing, playing marimba and tabla. And then we needed more, so we got some gongs. In that show, I was essentially a precisionist as well as playing the guitar, keyboard, singing and sound effects.

Amongst several other instruments, David played the marimba and sang in Kiss the Fish.

Another show you composed for was the Elephant Thief
Musically, I was happy with the tunes. The real challenge there was that the music needed to be made by the actors. That was a great kind of creative restriction. The different parts had to be simple enough that, even if the actors hadn’t played the instrument before, it would still work.

And, it was set in the future, a broken, dystopian future, so we used synthesisers, and a weird, home-made electric guitar. Everything had to be mobile, so they had to carry their amps and everything around with them on stage.

Set in a future where India is the most powerful nation

The shows often have return seasons. How does the music change?
It evolves over time. That happens over all the shows, particularly in the early seasons.

It’s a matter of taking the thing we’ve imagined and how seamlessly we can weave all the music into the show and create the atmosphere and the world with the audience. 

That’s the moment when it feels like your job is done — when it’s fully woven into the fabric of the show. In a sense, the audience won’t notice a lot of the incidental music. Some of the songs pop up as moments of focus, but the rest of it is to serve the story.

How long does it take to get there?
Sometimes it takes a season or two. Actually, the shows that are done in multiple seasons, you’re always trying things slightly differently because you are always responding to who the audience is and how the performers are playing it.

That’s where the jazz improvisation background comes into play because you’re not trying to reinvent it, but you’re staying alive to what is in the moment.

How do you keep it alive in the moment?
It’s often about the subtlety of timing and phrasing so that when you’re doing the music underneath the action, there’s a little dance.

You’re trying to dance with what’s happening visually on the stage and what the actor is saying, not trying to push them in a certain direction but not being passive either; it’s this two-way seamless dance.


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