Composer John Burke Molds His Music Around the Actor

Photo Source: River West

Recording artist and incidental composer John Burke chats with Backstage about what an incidental score actually entails and how actors mold his work.

Incidental music is a production’s background score.
“Between scenes or during a monologue, if you hear music, that’s incidental music. It’s there to enhance the emotion that you’re seeing onstage or onscreen. Particularly, incidental music is important because onstage, seconds feels like 30 minutes, so to fill that space we add music because it keeps people aloft.”

Actors are a major consideration.
“When I’m making that big suite and I’m writing those melodies, it’s based not just on the character and the track, but also who the actor is. I am inspired by them. I use them to help me figure out, based on their tone of voice, the ferocity of their voice, the manipulations or how they move, and their body language, what I can do to enhance that.”

READ: How Composers Save Actors’ On-Camera Performances

Incidental musicians are equivalent to accompanists.
“This year, in ‘Robin Hood,’ we had this speech that I was underscoring, and I wanted to make sure that I timed out the music but I didn’t want to hinder [the actor’s] speech, so I said, ‘OK, you speak it whatever way you want to do it. Feel natural. Don’t shape yourself around my music; let me shape around you. I will time it out for you.’ It’s kind of like an accompanist playing piano for a singer.”

Thematic consistency is pivotal.
“Because musicals have singing numbers, making sure that your incidental music is in the same vein [is important]. For example, if I have a musical where all the songs are bluegrass, I’m not going to write an orchestral soundtrack. The music will confuse people. I like to see the music as a character in and of itself. It’s not a shapeshifter. It has variation and differences, but if you hear it in the beginning and you hear it at the end, I’m making sure there are similarities. A narrator is not going to change his voice from the beginning to the end.”

A musical suite is the composer’s sandbox.
“I arrange an entire suite that could be anywhere between five and 10 minutes, and what I do is take the script and the whole feel of what the show is going to be, based on what the set design looks like [and] based on what the actors are like, and then I mush it all together and throw it into this musical suite. In it I have a lot of themes and melodies and variation that I then use throughout the show. The suite is my sandbox; that’s when I get deep in there and I’m writing and think, This would be great for this character and this would go well for that important scene. Once we start to really zero in on the show, that’s when I start to pull from that suite and take a scene and manipulate it and broaden it.”

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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