Max Reinhardt: How Oily Cart theatre company created Kubla Khan, our first ever touring production for children who are deafblind

Posted on September 13, 2017

It all started, of course, with artistic director Tim Webb’s radical idea in the spring of 2016: to sculpt a piece of theatre for neurologically diverse young audiences from the stunning language and imagery of the poem/vision as poetry which is Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

At that time, Tim also began working towards a show for deaf–blind audiences with Russian company So-Edinenie and consequently proposed that Kubla Khan should be developed particularly with those audiences in mind.  From there, the journey that we embarked upon in search of how to create the sound and music of the show was as mazy and meandering as the course of Coleridge’s River Alph.

Production and rehearsal were scheduled for the spring of this year.

Photo by Neil Houghton.

There were 3 initial musical questions: What would Kubla Khan’s music sound like in terms of style/genre? Who would the live musician be? How would the sound of the music be especially developed for our audiences?

The emperor Kubla Khan was historically from Mongolia, so for a while the idea that the music would have a seriously Mongolian element was pursued. Perhaps it could even become a co-production with the Russian company and, although Mongolia is not part of the Russian Federation, the republic of Tuva is, and their music is a very close cousin to the music of neighbouring Mongolia.

By chance, I had just made a programme for BBC Radio 3 with Badi-Dorzu Ondar from the Tuvan Alash Ensemble, so it seemed entirely possible that we could feature him as a live musician on traditional stringed lute like instruments like the igil and doshpuluur and, of course, his stunning throat singing. Surely all the musical elements were coming together….but then reality intruded: logistics and timetabling meant that it was just not to be and that idea was filed away.

Meanwhile our thinking advanced along two paths that we had explored in previous productions: firstly, that the resonance and reverberations at the bass end of the sound spectrum were definitely the most effective in terms of vibrations reaching the bodies of our audiences, hearing or non-hearing, and secondly, the place to find the melodies and musical style was in the poetry, so start with the text, Coleridge’s word music.

As the months went by we were joined by Sheema Mukherjee, outstanding sitarist (Trans Global Underground, Imagined Village, solo artist and composer for productions  at the Globe Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse …and much else

She became musician and co-arranger for a new production of In A Pickle (2016/7), our reworking of Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale, that we had originally made in collaboration with the RSC in 2012. She was such a stunning musical force and such a joy to work with that I asked her to join us as performer and co-composer for Kubla Khan.

After all, the poem is not really set in a earthly specific location, but in Coleridge’s surreally exotic vision of the Orient, surely a place where you might well find a sitar along with his ‘damsel with a dulcimer’.  And if we put the sitar through our Octave Generator pedal, not only would we have an instrument that would have a lot of bass resonance which would be amplified by our sub bass amp/speakers, we would also have the original sound of the sitar.

So we had some answers and the process of creating the music was becoming clearer…just as well seeing as 2017 had also just begun….only 2 months to go to rehearsals. Around this time Tim sent out an early script. Not only was the production going to be the totally inspirational marriage of plumbing and poetry that Tim had devised, with the sacred River Alph running through a channel in touching distance of every member of the audience, but he’d also had another genius idea…the show was a boat trip through Coleridge’s poem.

It called for a good deal of real sound…ice breaking, cavernous rumblings, thunder, wind and even ‘ancestral voices prophesying war’. The script also indicated which lines of the poem would be turned into songs.

I knew that the real sound cues would have to be very precise audio pictures and would all have to be processed so that they were ’bottom end’ heavy, so that they could be felt as vibrations, as well as heard by those audience members with hearing.

So I decided to work with Mike Challis, as sound recordist and consultant sound designer, whose work had impressed me with its detail and potency when I had visited his Sound Hide installation at the Spill Festival in Ipswich in October 2016.

As well as supplying a wide range of recordings of natural sounds in his library, he created sound patches like ‘journey down the plughole’ in the ‘caverns measureless to man’ sequence and even went on a sound recordist field trip to the caverns of the Yorkshire Dales for us. And every file he sent was processed to highlight the bass frequencies.

A fortnight before rehearsals started in March 2017, Sheema and I started composing the music together. Sure enough, somehow Coleridge’s word music became strong melody lines and we referenced both Indian raga, English folk and Appalachian in the melody lines which we both sang frequently over drones supplied by a tamboura app while Sheema played sitar.

For the songs that related to movement (such as the sand and bubble sequences), we created melodies for Tim’s lyrics over Sheema’s tabla (drums) with a bass line that would be played by our actor/musician Stephanie Rutherford on bass trombone, which comes close up to audience members who can even touch the instrument and feel the breath come through the instrument’s bell, as she plays.

In the rehearsal room and in the workshop sessions with deaf-blind and other neurologically diverse students at Victoria School (Birmingham) we developed more techniques for bringing the vocals, the music and the action in general as close as possible to the students, including encouraging students to touch performers faces and throats while they were singing and using umbrellas to amplify the sound of rain drops.

The ‘ancient voices prophesying war’ sequence was guided by Tim’s idea to have Coleridge’s words emerging from a historic radio broadcast over a soundscape which merged earth tremors with the sound of warfare and of water going down the plughole. I sound designed the sounds of warfare using radically electronically treated edits from early soviet sound art with enhanced bass frequencies. We were delighted by the reaction of our audiences to this sequence as the actors were swept away down the plughole as the whole room palpably reverberated.

Kubla Khan is of course the first of our shows aimed particularly at Deaf-Blind audiences, so we’re very aware that this is just the start of our developing sound and music for them to experience. Reflections and suggestions on these notes will be very welcome. Happily, audience reaction to our previews and initial performances is very promising to date so it feels and sounds like a very positive start.

Kubla Khan is currently on tour and can be seen at the following venues and dates. Find our more on the Oily Cart website here.

The Albany (Deptford, London) 26th & 27th September 2017

Artsdepot, (North Finchley, London): 11th & 12th October 2017

Photo by Neil Houghton.

Max Reinhardt is the musical director of Oily Cart. Established in 1981, Oily Cart works entirely with children, many with complex disabilities, and often in special schools. More information about Max can be found on this BBC website page.










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